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North Korean Life: Shortages, Conformity And Plenty of Pride

May 16, 1995

EDITOR’S NOTE _ North Korea rarely permits foreigners to view daily life in one of the world’s most reclusive states. When it does, it goes to great lengths to appear a workers’ paradise. An Associated Press reporter who recently visited the country to cover a national festival found that in North Korea, seeing isn’t always believing.

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By JOHN LEICESTER

Associated Press Writer

PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) _ Eight North Korean rail workers seated in a dining car on the train to Pyongyang are served a copious lunch of rice, soup, vegetables and meat.

But they did not eat.

As the dining car emptied, waitresses cleared away the cold, untouched dishes. Then the North Koreans noticed that two foreigners had not left, and the dishes reappeared.

The suggestion that such meals are commonplace was unconvincing, but the reason for the apparent charade was clear: North Korea was anxious to display itself as a horn of plenty to foreigners paying a rare visit to reclusive communist state.

``Seeing is believing″ is a favorite phrase of North Koreans hoping to persuade visitors that they live in a workers’ paradise.

But foreign reporters soon discovered, they couldn’t believe all they saw.

Whether ordinary citizens were forbidden from partaking in the displays of plenty or just knew better stands as just another of North Korea’s mysteries.

In Pyongyang, the capital, grocery stores bulged with fruit, fresh vegetables, pickles and eggs.

But shoppers overlooked the fresh produce and eggs, and bought only cooking oil and gray, dry-looking fish. North Koreans and foreign residents said the stores are normally bare and had only been stocked up a week earlier.

No resident, North Korean or foreigner, criticizes the government on the record. Even in private, complaints are rare and guarded.

One North Korean voiced concerns that too many resources being diverted to the military. A foreign resident said his North Korean friends’ rations of one egg and one kilogram, or 2.2 pounds, of meat per person a month were cut last year to just grain and cabbage.

North Koreans boast that their government does not collect taxes. But they do make ``patriotic contributions,″ often on important anniversaries.

Guides assigned to foreign visitors insist their rations are so plentiful they can’t finish them.

Indeed, North Koreans do not appear malnourished. With guides in attendance, even ordinary citizens appear unable to name one thing they desire. ``I have everything I need,″ said Pak Il Guk, a 43-year-old cement factory worker. Workers in capitalist countries, he added, must be ``very much miserable, because they know nothing except money.″

Wedged between China, Russia and Japan, Korea has been invaded, colonized, and finally divided into warring halves after World War II. Some North Koreans say they can do without the good life if it means compromising their country’s independence.

National pride appears to run high, and is reinforced by state-run TV’s footage of violence and natural disasters in the West.

``We have nothing to envy the outside world,″ Kim Yun Byol, a 14-year-old, said through a translator.

But what citizens know about the outside world is controlled. North Koreans need a permit to own a shortwave radio.

Border guards searched foreign visitors and confiscated publications they disliked, including Western articles about North Korea and a book published in South Korea.

``U.S.A., U.S.A,″ muttered Kye Jong Il, a good-natured, English-speaking guard, as he rooted through foreigners’ luggage on the train.

Seeming almost to parody his government’s shrill anti-Americanism, he mimed tossing copies of Time and Newsweek out the window, and recoiled in mock disgust at a pack of Marlboros, although he himself smoked Camels. Where he got them is anybody’s guess.

He jokingly threatened to hit a visitor whom he discovered was American, but looked genuinely displeased when it was pointed out that his metal detector was made in New Jersey.

``Down with U.S. imperialism!″ he said, recovering his smile.

As China, North Korea’s last major ally, embraces world trade and free markets, North Korea still tries to adhere to its home-grown policy of Juche, or self-reliance.

North Koreans speak of Juche as the spirit that lifted their country from the ashes of the 1950-53 Korean War.

Juche means shops offer only North Korean goods _ ginseng soap, shoddy pressed-metal pans, rusty scissors and plastic shoes. It also has created some strange hybrids _ such as near-perfect copies of Mercedes sedans displayed in a Pyongyang museum.

Except for the five-pronged star on its hood, the Kaengsaeng-88 looks exactly like the Mercedes 190. But the cars are not produced in large numbers. ``We have little petrol, so we don’t make many cars which use petrol,″ explained museum guide So Sung Ae.

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