February 25, 2001

Pyongyang Memo: North Koreans, Belts Tight, Cobble Up a Future

By ELISABETH ROSENTHAL

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company

PyongyangMemo

PYONGYANG, North Korea ó For most of a decade marked by shortages of food, fuel and other commodities North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Il, has exhorted his people to do more with less. And today, belt-tightening has even seeped into this capital city's fanciest hotel, the Koryo. Lights are kept dim, making it difficult to read. Well-furnished rooms hover just above freezing, warmed by space heaters.

In a place where Americans may not leave the hotel unescorted and television sets have only one channel, guests spend a lot of time looking down at Pyongyang from 15 floors up. Insight comes in snippets of conversation and glimpses caught through windows.

Along the broad, empty streets in and around Pyongyang, there are two notable forms of transportation: feet and a smattering of high-end cars, many of them Mercedes- Benzes. Buses exist, but they are far rarer.

Even on a bitterly cold day, what is most impressive in and around Pyongyang is the slow-moving stream of humans along every highway and street: mostly women with brightly colored head scarves and dark padded jackets of gray, blue or brown, lugging large cloth packs, sometimes fixed to frames of sticks.

Where are they going?

In these hard times, they are trading goods with friends or taking food to relatives, foreigners who have lived in North Korea say. They report to work, even if fuel shortages have forced their factory to operate at half speed, because government food allotments are tied to working.

And, on Fridays, they build monuments.

On a recent Friday afternoon, on a road heading out of the capital, white apartment blocks suddenly gave way to huge piles of dirt, and hundreds of busy men and women clustered around red banners. Each flag carries the name of a state work unit and these people ó mobilized from jobs as clerks, engineers and factory workers and the like ó are building a large new monument celebrating the hoped-for eventual reunification of the two Koreas.

They haul tiles, dig and transport dirt ó plugging along in freezing temperatures. In a country desperately short of spare parts and fuel, it is a decidedly low-tech operation. Shovels and picks rather than mechanized backhoes clear the ground.

In this way ó with lots of manpower and few machines ó the North Koreans have completed their public works projects in recent years, including a superhighway from Pyongyang to Nampo.

After a snow, Pyongyang is pristine under a bright blue sky, and it stays that way until the temperature rises, because there are apparently no snowplows. A landscape of whites, grays and tans is broken only by immense colorful portraits of Kim Il Sung, the country's founder (known as the Great Leader), or that of his son, "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il.

A number of street corners boast these paintings, dominated by bright reds and blues, or statues the size of small houses. Hospital lobbies sport portraits of father, son or both communing with nurses. Schoolmasters treasure their picture of the Kims teaching enthusiastic students. Every person wears an enamel red pin bearing the senior Kim's likeness. No conference room is portrait-free.

Though neither Kim is seen in person by ordinary Koreans (the father is dead; the son famously reclusive), their personal touch is everywhere. At the University Hospital in Pyongyang, for instance, the only CAT scan ó a Hitachi ó was a 1991 birthday gift from Kim Jong Il, a proud doctor said. At the Folk Museum, a beautiful inlaid cabinet he once owned is set apart from the other furniture, displayed in a special glass case.

Kim Jong Il himself ordered the creation of a live-in preschool in Pyongyang to ease the burden on mothers who work ó like journalists, artists and teachers ó the school's headmistress gratefully explained. A middle-aged woman in a flowing traditional Korean dress, she added that it was Mr. Kim himself who wisely advised the teachers of the September 15th Kindergarten to "adjust the routine according to the age of the child."

Mr. Kim composed a piano piece that a young virtuoso performed at a school recital, she said. And in the cafeteria, the weekly menu (framed and hung) was devised for its nutritional content by you-know-who. Apparently no detail is too small for the attention of Mr. Kim, a kind of Leona Helmsley-cum-world-leader.

And on the surface at least, he seems to have won the reverence of North Koreans ó at least those allowed to talk to foreign journalists. When a reporter put her backpack down to tie her shoe in front of a portrait, several people spontaneously rushed over to chastise her for being disrespectful.

But of course, from birth North Koreans are taught whom to believe in. At orphanages and preschools, children sing songs about "trusting the Great Leader."

They are also taught whom to hate.

At one school, a group of 5- and 6- year-old boys performing for some American visitors sang a brisk, hate- filled ditty directed at the Japanese for their often repressive occupation of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945. With each chorus, the small boys pantomimed shooting Japanese policemen.

(Japan is now a major provider of food aid to the North. An unbidden thought: Had the audience this day been Japanese aid donors, would the target have been Americans?)

At Pyongyang's chilly but interesting Folk Museum, a friendly tour- guide committed the political equivalent of a Freudian slip as she lectured six visiting Americans about traditional fishing techniques: After searching for the English name for a fish (it was perch), and chatting about the difficulties of translating for English speakers, she referred to Americans as "U.S. imperia. . . " ó before catching herself. Old habits.

And it is, similarly, sometimes hard for a "U.S. imperialist" to see past North Korea's reputation as the world's strangest "rogue state" and perhaps the world's most heavily militarized country for its size.

Foreign experts estimate that about 5 percent of North Koreans ó one million people ó are in the armed forces. And soldiers, like scraggly mountains, are ubiquitous features of the North Korean landscape.

In Pyongyang, soldiers in gray- green padded winter uniforms dot the streets. They shovel snow or repair roads. Unsmiling, they man the checkpoints that ring the capital, deciding who may enter and who will be turned away.

On one drive out of Pyongyang, several soldiers ó guns in hand and cornstalks waving out of their backpacks for camouflage ó were marching over a low hill, apparently engaged in military exercises. Even at tourist sites, soldiers out to see the sights are numerous enough that the government's prohibition on photographing military personnel can make it difficult to take a snapshot.

Against this backdrop, it is easy for foreigners to jump to conclusions: On a recent snowy Friday, a small group of visitors representing Western aid groups were bused to the Tong Myun Tombs on the outskirts of Pyongyang. (Work and meetings were out of the question because ó it being Friday ó so many North Koreans were busy with monuments.) Suddenly, a distant thuk- thuk-thuk sounded over the hills. The foreigners agreed that it sounded like gunfire. One finally asked: "What's that?"

Their young North Korean minder smiled and said: "Just a tractor. But you Americans! You thought it was a tank! Right?"

Still, here and there, one sees small signs of change. At the Koryo Hotel, staff members who two years ago were by all accounts surly and distant are now warm and hospitable, bringing hot water and extra blankets to compensate for the lack of heat.

With the state providing less food, the government has even tolerated a whiff of private enterprise. City dwellers raise pigs and chickens in apartments. The private farmers markets ó which used to occur two or three times a month ó are now daily occurrences. Along the roadside, a woman was selling cigarettes, most likely smuggled from China, from under her coat.

And money ó even foreign currency ó is creeping into what was previously a nearly cashless economy, where people lived on government provisions. In the past, holding American dollars was dangerous; ordinary people had few places to spend them and faced certain trouble if the security forces found out. But today, dollar bills have become a much-valued currency.

And some people seem to have a lot of them. While the Koryo Hotel is short on light and heat, its first-floor restaurant still serves an impressive bulgogi, a traditional Korean beef barbecue. And though the food is expensive ó and priced in dollars ó the restaurant is generally packed, with foreign guests as well as a number of North Koreans.

At the cashier's desk on a recent night, three young men wearing remarkably well-tailored black Mao- type suits and Kim Il Sung pins chatted casually as the waitress tallied their tab, a long mix of food and alcohol. When she announced the total, no one blinked. One nonchalantly pulled a crisp $100 bill out of his wallet.