Sun, Oct 03, 2010 - Page 12 News List

Not all North Koreans are starving in the mud

By Ian Timberlake  /  AFP, PYONGYANG

Downtown Pyongyang along the Taedong River is seen on Sept. 22.

Photo: AFP

A man with a bundle of sticks on his back. Backyard vegetable gardens.

These and other fleeting images offer a glimpse of life in troubled North Korea where severe food shortages and malnutrition are endemic — but where some people drive around in Mercedes-Benz cars.

The country is moving toward a transfer of dynastic power after Kim Jong-un, youngest son of ailing leader Kim Jong-il, was given senior posts in the ruling communist party at a rare meeting on Tuesday and made a four-star general.

The conference — the biggest political gathering in 30 years — came as the regime struggles to revive the crumbling command economy. Even the showpiece capital Pyongyang appears to be stuck in time, decades past.

Foreign visitors are escorted everywhere and forbidden to move about unaccompanied in one of the world’s most tightly controlled nations.

But on bus rides around Pyongyang the vegetable gardens were a common sight — beside city roads, in front of a restaurant that catered to foreigners and tucked between trees on the way to the airport.

Another source of food comes from rivers and streams where people sometimes fish.

The man bearing the sticks was walking in a semi-rural part of the city, where a few goats and cows grazed beside yellow rice fields that looked ready for harvest.

Others had heavier burdens. They walked with large bags on their backs toward the edge of the city, or beside the Youth Hero Highway heading out of town.

There was more traffic beside the 10-lane road than on it, as bicycles outnumbered the occasional local minibus traveling towards Nampo City on the bumpy and cracked deserted highway, one of four in the country.

“Our country has lack of petrol,” a tourist guide says. “We try our best to economize the petrol, so you cannot find many cars.”

North Korea remains under various US and UN sanctions.

The country was richer than the South in the 1960s, but suffered economic decline in the 1990s after the loss of key aid and trade with the collapse of the Soviet bloc.

In the mid-to late 1990s, Kim Jong-il presided over a famine which by some estimates killed 1 million people — but he has still found the resources to test nuclear weapons twice.

Even as severe food shortages continue, the country is estimated to spend up to one quarter of its gross national product on the military, according to the US State Department.

One-third of young children are stunted by malnutrition, the UN children’s fund estimates.

Tuesday’s meeting of the Workers’ Party of Korea, the first since 1980, was unlikely to herald economic reform since a smooth power transfer is top priority now, said Paik Hak-soon of South Korea’s Sejong Institute think tank.

A government minder, assigned to watch over tourists as well as their local guides, said the average salary in North Korea is US$250 to US$300 a month.

At the official average exchange rate for August, supplied by South Korea’s central bank, that would be at least 25,875 North Korean won.

The market rate for that amount of won, however, is the equivalent of US$17.25.

A ride on Pyongyang’s busy Metro underground or one of its crowded electric trams and battered trolley buses, costs five won, or US$0.30 at the market rate.

In contrast, an Asian visitor said he paid US$20 for a taxi ride lasting about 20 minutes to the airport.

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