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In North Korea's industrial center, factories and wood-fueled trucks

Hamhung, North Korea's largest industrial center, was opened to foreigners just two years ago. There's no hiding the poverty in the region.

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Our omnipresent guide advises, "This city is not used to foreigners, so please: no pictures."

That peremptory order introduces us to North Korea's biggest industrial center, a dreary city of 800,000 near the eastern coast about 100 miles northeast of Pyongyang. It's not certain, however, if the sensitivity reflects chagrin over the decrepit apartment blocks and the graying industrial zone or concerns about how the locals, who have rarely seen foreigners, will respond.

"This city was opened just two years ago," the guide says, and it's believed to harbor many tales of poverty and starvation from the darkest days of the 1990s famine when 2 million people died throughout the country.

The hardships endured by many here, according to foreign aid workers who visit occasionally, contrasted with the privileges of officials and their cronies and relatives, with close enough ties to authorities in Pyongyang to get enough food and medicine.

The coastal road leading to the city gives a sense of the difficulties. It's a bumpy ride down a two-lane highway in serious need of repair; few vehicles are in sight. The scene is deceptively bucolic – a picture of how the countryside might have appeared a century ago.

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