North Koreans See Few Gains Below Top Tier
On her weekly shopping trips to downtown Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, a 52-year-old pig farmer who gave her name as Mrs. Kim tries to ignore the dusting of prosperity that has begun to transform the city in recent years: the newly built apartment blocks, the increasing number of Mercedes-Benzes that zip along once-empty boulevards, the smartly dressed young women who conspicuously gab on their newly acquired cellphones. She has never been to the Rungna People's Pleasure Ground, a new amusement park where children of the elite howled with delight this summer as they shot down a waterslide.
"Why would I care about the new clothing of government officials and their children when I can't feed my family?" she asked tartly, wringing her hands as she recounted the chronic malnutrition that has sickened her two sons and taken the lives of less-well-off neighbors.
In the 10 months since Kim Jong-un took the reins of his desperately poor nation following the death of his autocratic father, North Korea — or at least its capital — has acquired more of the trappings of a functioning society, say diplomats, aid groups and academics who have visited in recent months.
But in rare interviews this month with four North Koreans in this border city on government-sanctioned stays, they said that at least so far, they have not felt any improvements in their lives since the installment last December of their youthful leader — a sentiment activists and analysts say they have also heard. In fact, the North Koreans said, their lives have gotten harder, despite Mr. Kim's tantalizing pronouncements about boosting people's livelihoods that have fueled outside hopes that the nuclear-armed nation might ease its economically ruinous obsession with military hardware and dabble in Chinese-style market reforms.
Food prices have spiked, the result of drought and North Korea's defiant launching of a rocket in April that shut down new offers of food aid from the United States. Development organizations also blame speculators who have hoarded staples in anticipation of reforms that have yet to materialize. The price of rice has doubled since early summer, and chronic shortages of fuel, electricity and raw materials continue to idle most factories, leaving millions unemployed.
"People were hopeful that Kim Jong-un would make our lives better, but so far they are disappointed," said a 50-year-old named Mrs. Park, who like Mrs. Kim spoke on the condition that only her last name be used, fearing retribution when she returned home.
A member of the ruling Workers' Party from a major city, Mrs. Park said that to feed her family, she sells cornmeal cakes from a market stall, but she complained of sluggish sales and famished children who snatch her wares from beneath a protective swatch of fabric. More than once this year, she said she walked by the lifeless bodies of those who were too weak to steal.
"I would have given them food if I had any," she said, looking away with shame.
What has become clear in recent months is that Mr. Kim is intent on a new leadership style — allowing more women to dress in Western wear that had long been branded a capitalist affectation, and breaking with tradition by publicly admitting a failure when the much ballyhooed rocket launch went awry. What is less clear is whether he will allow more than the baby steps toward economic reform that he is reported to have taken.
Those changes include a pilot project that North Korean defector groups say was introduced last spring that aims to let farmers keep 30 percent of their yield. The government has reportedly begun a guest-worker program, with the goal of giving thousands a chance to earn foreign currency in and around Dandong, a booming city that taunts hungry North Koreans across the Yalu River with its neon-lit barbecue restaurants.
In interviews with the four North Koreans, though, optimism was in short supply. Emaciated beggars haunt train stations, they said, while well-connected businessmen continue to grow rich from trading with China and government officials flourish by collecting fines and bribes.
They were all anxious about speaking out; the gulag awaits those who speak to journalists or Christian missionaries, they were warned during two-day orientations that preceded their departure. "If the government finds out I am reading the Bible, I'm dead," one woman said.
Heightened security on both sides of the border since Mr. Kim took power has made sneaking into China much harder than in recent years; activists who help ferry refugees to freedom in South Korea say sweeps by Chinese police and a crackdown on North Korean smugglers who guide the way to the border has reduced to a trickle those who try to leave.
Even if their lives are stalked by deprivation and a fear of North Korea's omnipresent security apparatus, the people who made it to Dandong are a privileged lot: all of them arrived on two-month visas that let them visit relatives here — allowing their government to charge steep fees that bring it much-needed foreign currency. All of them said they overstayed their visas in the hope they might earn enough money in Chinese factories or breweries to feed their families and repay black market loans that financed the official paperwork.
With little information seeping out of the tightly controlled police state, their accounts, told from a safe house rented by a Christian group, provided a glimpse into how North Koreans are living under the reign of Mr. Kim, whose family has ruled the country for decades.
Although it is possible the North Koreans interviewed are more disenchanted than others — given their affiliation with Christians, who are generally very critical of the Communist state — their accounts, told separately, largely dovetailed with one another's and with the assessments offered by foreign aid workers and academics who recently spent time in the country.
Daniel Pinkston, a North Korea expert with the International Crisis Group, said much of the talk about change was fueled by Mr. Kim's pronouncements about improving the standard of living and a public persona that appears far more amiable than his mirthless father, Kim Jong-il, whose disastrous economic policies helped produce a famine in the 1990s that claimed as many as two million lives.
"People leapt to very sweeping conclusions about reform, but it's not a switch that happens in a day," said Mr. Pinkston, who visited North Korea this summer. "On the other hand, the privileged few who have a monopoly on certain sectors are making out like bandits."
In two days of interviews with the North Koreans, a thinly concealed disgust over inequality that has risen in recent years — and a realization that the national credo of juche, or self-reliance, was a carefully constructed lie — was striking. While such feelings appear to be fed by the creeping availability of at least some information from the outside world, disillusionment mounted last spring after the government's promised era of prosperity, slated to begin in April, went unfulfilled. The discontent seemed to solidify with the government's rare admission of the failed rocket launching.
"We were led to believe that even dogs would eat rice cakes in 2012," said Mrs. Kim, the pig farmer. Asked if she thought there were those who still believed in North Korea's Stalinist, brutally enforced single-party system, she shook her head and said "zero."
She and the others suggested that the information vacuum had been eased by the spread of cellphones (though sanctioned phones cannot call outside the country) and by South Korean soap operas that are smuggled across the border and secretly viewed despite the threat of prison. A 58-year-old retired truck driver from Sunchon, a city north of the capital, said he and his family locked their doors and covered their windows when watching the DVDs that offered glimpses of well-stocked supermarkets and glittering shopping malls.
"I wish we could have such a clean, shiny life," he said, adding that few people he knows still believe the government propaganda that paints South Korea as far more impoverished than the North.
While he and the other North Koreans are not foolish enough to openly question their leaders at home, their personal reactions to the death of their former leader last December were telling. Upon hearing the news, Mrs. Kim instinctively bought a bouquet of white flowers and headed to a local government building, where throngs wailed before a large portrait of their Dear Leader. Mrs. Kim followed their lead, but admitted that her tears were not genuine.
At home, she has precious little time to think about politics. She wakes up each day at dawn to scavenge for edible greens, then returns home to tend the family's pigs. Her other vocation, carried out in secret, is making homemade spirits, brewed from acorns and corn cobs, that she sells to wholesalers.
But the two enterprises barely provide sustenance for her husband and sons. The family subsists on the greens, cornmeal porridge and the occasional potato or radish. Food shortages are so widespread that one son had to return home from the military because he was ill. (His doctors at home say he was starving.)
Escaping hunger by illegally crossing into China appears to be less viable since Mr. Kim came to power. According to South Korean officials, the number of defectors who arrived there after traveling through China had dropped to 751 during the first six months of 2012, a 42 percent decline from the same period last year.
Such figures do not tell the whole story, since it can take months or even years for refugees to earn enough to travel to South Korea, but rights advocates say the border has become increasingly impenetrable.
The North Korean government has recently erected miles of electrified fencing at the border and sent as many as 20,000 additional guards, according to Open Radio for North Korea, which is based in South Korea, but has contacts in the North. In recent months, the Chinese government has also begun a crackdown on defectors who live in the three provinces closest to North Korea. Rights advocates say those caught are deported to North Korea, where they often face imprisonment.
Kim Tae-jin, the president of Free NK Gulag, an activist group in Seoul, said defectors living in the South have been finding it nearly impossible to reach the "escape brokers" who can bring a relative to freedom, for a steep fee. "Before, the brokers used to be lined up near the border, but I think most of them have been caught," said Mr. Kim, who himself defected.
The lucky few who make it to Dandong are stunned by what they find: the car-choked streets, hot showers and the ability to speak out without fear. But mostly, they are overwhelmed by the array and abundance of inexpensive food. While her compatriots said they stuffed themselves with meat-filled dumplings and rice, Mrs. Kim ate only apples for the first five days. She said she had not eaten them since childhood.
"I thought our country lived well," she said, "but I was mistaken."
Su-Hyun Lee contributed reporting from Seoul, South Korea.