One by one, North Korean buildings are getting upgraded, but most are still drafty with poorly insulated walls. Elevators and heat are rare. North Koreans are accustomed to wearing winter jackets and thermal underwear indoors from October to April.
Power cuts have been less frequent in Pyongyang as electricity generating capacity has grown, but it is still common for the lights to go out in the middle of dinner. Most people just carry on drinking and eating.
Outside Pyongyang, the power grid offers little relief from the darkness. West of the capital in the town of Ryonggang, lights were out as soon as the sun set. At one inn, two women stood chatting quietly in a lobby lit by a candle as a shrill voice from a radio broadcast chortled from loudspeakers nearby.
Even North Korea’s second-largest city, Hamhung, has little of the capital’s urban feel.
Few private cars ply the streets in the city, which is the industrial heart of the country. Hamhung’s bus line is largely limited to one main route through town. Soldiers cram into the backs of trucks powered by wood-burning stoves that send smoke billowing behind them.
Some people live in relative comfort. Kim Jong-jin’s farmhouse in Hamhung is simple, but spotless, the papered floors clean enough to eat from. Water is piped into a well in the kitchen. Heat comes from the traditional Korean ondol system of feeding an underground furnace with wood and waste is turned into methane gas for cooking.
Electric service is spotty, but the family has a generator, so they are able to watch movies at night on the television they cover carefully with a frilly lace veil.
That is luxurious living compared with the poverty that is evident in the countryside — a mother huddles over a child as she sits shivering by the side of the road; barefoot boys in a village destroyed by summer flooding are dressed in little more than underwear; the splotchy faces and gaunt frames of young soldiers who do not get enough to eat.
Bicycles are piled high with bundles of firewood, sometimes even a dead pig. Old men sit crouched by the side of the road with bike pumps, offering to fix flats as oxen plod past pulling carts.
Paved highways pocked with potholes radiate from Pyongyang, but beyond these roads in dire need of repair, there are no roads between the denuded mountains, just dirt paths that become dangerously muddy with rainfall and treacherously slippery in winter. Villagers struggle to clear snow with makeshift shovels crafted out of planks of wood.
Life in the North Korean countryside would be familiar to South Koreans old enough to recall the poverty in their nation just after the Korean War. Into the 1970s, North Korea was the richer of the two Koreas.
Now, more than one-quarter of North Korean children are stunted from chronic malnutrition, the World Food Program reported last month.
North Korea blames its growing international economic isolation on the US, which has led efforts to punish it for developing its nuclear weapons program. However, in the capital, the effects of that isolation are less apparent, thanks largely to goods from China, the North’s most important ally, and other countries such as Singapore and Indonesia. Shelves are stocked with goods, computer labs filled with PCs, streets crowded with Volkswagens.