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April, 30, 2016

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From North Korea's Oz to its forgotten cities

KAESONG, North Korea--From here, Pyongyang can seem like a dream.

At what passes for rush hour on a Wednesday morning, there are few sounds in Kaesong's main traffic circle but the gentle squeak of bicycles and a tinny loudspeaker blaring anthems to Kim Jong Un, the baby-faced ruler who took power after his father's December death ("The footsteps of our respected General Kim! ... Spreading the sound of a brilliant future!").

Occasionally, a solitary car goes by.

There are no nightspots here, no modern apartment complexes, no electricity except for a few hours every evening. The shelves in most stores are noticeably half-empty, and dirt sidestreets lead to clusters of small houses, many little more than shacks, with bulging walls and broken roofs.

It is the reality of North Korean urban life — with the notable exception of the capital city, 80 miles north of here, in a carefully crafted totalitarian Oz. That contrast, between Pyongyang and every other city in the country, reflects an ever-growing chasm between North Korea's elite and the daily struggles of everyone else.

Pyongyang has the Dolphinarium, a cavernous aquarium where smiling, fresh-faced trainers in skintight suits make dolphins dance for ecstatic crowds. There's the new 3,000-unit Changjon Street apartments, lit up like a movie set long into the night, a proclamation that North Korea has electricity to spare. It has the Sunrise Restaurant, the latest destination for the city's nouveau riche, where tough-looking men drink grape Fanta from brandy snifters while their drivers wait outside with their Land Cruisers. It has good government jobs and the country's top university.

"When I finally saw Pyongyang, it was so wonderful, so incredible," said Kim Jong Hui, a cheerful 51-year-old from the northeastern city of Chongjin. She had traveled for two days on North Korea's decrepit rail network to make her first visit to the capital city for a series of national day celebrations.

Kim spent a recent afternoon watching friends play on the country's only putt-putt golf course, a small maze of plastic greens set between a new amusement park and a new swimming complex. "It's more exciting here, and more beautiful."

If North Korea can appear outwardly stagnant, a country frozen by poverty and Soviet economic policies, a small but resonant market economy has taken root over the past 15 years or so. While the country still has a per capita GDP of just US$1,800 per year, according to U.S. figures, this new economy — a mix of underground trading, investment funds, particularly from China, and the growth of government-authorized commercial enterprises — has helped reshape Pyongyang.

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In this Sept. 13 photo, a man looks across the river at central Pyongyang, North Korea. The contrast between Pyongyang and every other city in the country reflects an ever-growing chasm between North Korea's elite and the daily struggles of everyone else.

(AP)

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