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The international community is bracing itself for the next step in North Korea's campaign of bluster and escalation. South Koreans officials say the North could test a ballistic missile this week, and today the North Korean regime said it's withdrawing its workers from a joint North/South industrial zone. But recent visitors to the reclusive country saw few signs in the capital of a country on a war footing.
NPR's Louisa Lim spoke with two people who just returned from Pyongyang.
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LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: Nowadays, when we think of Pyongyang, we think of tanks trundling through the main square, in a demonstration of national power. These are the images Pyongyang's propaganda machine has been beaming round the world.
That's what Patrick Thornquist, a Chicago teacher visiting Pyongyang at the end of last week, was expecting.
PATRICK THORNQUIST: It was definitely interesting to see, you know, tanks on BBC in the hotel, you know, they're showing tanks as if that was, you know, that day, when we had been in that square, you know, a couple of hours earlier and nothing like that was happening.
LIM: What he videoed in the square was actually lots and lots of kids rollerblading. Yes, rollerblading. That's one of leader Kim Jong Un's contributions to the nation - building roller-skating parks and entertainment facilities. Thornquist's trip was full of such surprises: for example, visiting a brand new bar whose minimalist-but-cool decor wouldn't have looked out of place in Brooklyn.
As a first-time visitor, he hadn't known what to expect. But even the tour leader was taken aback by how normal the mood is.
AMANDA CARR: I did expect to see maybe civilian drills and maybe hear some air-raid sirens or the camouflage vehicles. But to be honest, yeah, I was quite surprised at just how calm everything seemed.
LIM: Amanda Carr works for Koryo Tours. She's been to the North around 40 times. This visit, she says, was just like any other.
CARR: In terms of seeing military on the streets and the propaganda, that was the same as I've seen the last few months. A lot of military were doing the construction work, which has been going on for a good few months, and also tree-planting, which happens every year. So I didn't really see military doing anything different from usual.
LIM: The rising tide of anti-American rhetoric had made Thornquist nervous. But, he says, he didn't encounter any anti-American sentiment.
One of his personal high points was visiting a gigantic bowling alley.
THORNQUIST: It's got 40 lanes. This is the biggest bowling alley I've ever seen. Incredible.
LIM: This is footage he recorded there, showing well-heeled Pyongyang dwellers enjoying themselves. Frequent visitors comment on the relative prosperity on show: mobile phones are much more common and the shops are full of goods.
A new consumer class is visible, which appears to have grown in the last year. And this class is 100 percent behind its leader, Kim Jong Un, as Amanda Carr noted while watching a news report at the bowling alley.
CARR: There was footage of Lady Kim Jong Un visiting one of the front line islands, and there were a lot of people standing around watching it and a couple of people sort of wiping their eyes.
LIM: That Pyongyang's propaganda should trigger such a show of loyalty in the showcase capital - home to the elite - is not surprising. The message to the domestic audience is that North Korea is being bullied by the outside world, and its very existence is threatened. This has the effect of uniting its citizens behind their new young leader, no matter how much hardship they're facing.
After his trip, Thornquist was left completely baffled by the dueling realities presented.
THORNQUIST: You try to grasp what is real, what is not. You're trying to kind of find that balance between what your media tells you and what they're telling you, because they're very far off. It's crazy.
LIM: The big question now is whether Pyongyang really is bluffing or if this relative normality in the capital is just the calm before the storm.
Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing.
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