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On North Korea's streets, pink and tangerine buses

Amid reports of another food crisis in the pariah nation, a rare visit to the capital reveals slight improvements brought on by trade.

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Editor's note: This report was filed by an Asian journalist who visited North Korea recently on a nonjournalist visa. The government rarely grants journalists official visas. To protect those who assisted with this trip, the reporter requested anonymity.

In Pyongyang, the streets still go dark when the sun goes down. But after two years of modest economic reforms and heftier trade with China and South Korea, the sun rises on more color in North Korea's capital. More vendors hawk their wares, more stylish clothes are imported from China, and a new fleet of Chinese double-decker buses cruise the streets in a palette of pink, green, tangerine, and deep blue.

After a two-year hiatus I came back to Pyongyang this spring for a visit that was as quick as it was hard to arrange. Two years ago, when I joined a delegation of Taiwanese businessmen, it seemed that our plane was landing on a farm - and the airport felt like a farmhouse. Now the airport looks newer and better organized.

How life is going in the rest of North Korea - how tolerable it is - can't be clearly known, since we aren't allowed to move freely. The society is one of the most closed in the world, and the regime is a serious human rights abuser.

Reuters reported Tuesday that millions of Pyongyang's residents are heading to the countryside as part of an annual mass mobilization to help farmers, citing aid workers and others. A businessman who travels frequently to North Korea told Reuters that this appeared to be the biggest mobilization of its kind in years. The World Food Program said there was a food crisis in the country and that its stocks were drying up because it had not received major aid since late last year.

But during my visit to Pyongyang, which is mostly made up of party and military officials, and state bureaucrats, the little things of daily life actually seem better. The capital bustled with more consumerism than it did two years ago. Today, one sees more shops - though still not many. Around the city, older women sell chewing gum, chocolate, and balloons made in China. Ice cream vendors sell dollops of frozen product in bright foam packaging. Grilled sweet potato and tea are found in small booths. Nevertheless, the shop clerks, in behavior reminiscent of China 20 years ago, seem uninterested in actually serving customers.


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