Most North Koreans have never met a foreigner, seen the Internet or earned more than a couple hundred dollars a month — but those in a growing economic elite now fly to Beijing and Singapore to shop.
It is a country where human rights groups say well over 100,000 political prisoners are held in a series of isolated prison camps, but where an exclusive European firm, Kempinski, hopes to be running a hotel soon.
The market economy first took hold during the rule of former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, the son of the nation’s founder, who ran the country from the 1990s until his death late last year, when his son then took control.
In the mid-1990s, poor harvests and the end of Soviet assistance lead to widespread famine. Official controls relaxed as hunger tore at the country.
Reluctantly, the government allowed the establishment of informal markets, with ordinary people setting up stalls to sell food, clothes or cheap consumer goods.
Since then, the government has alternately allowed the markets to flourish and cracked down on them, leaving many people working in legally gray areas.