Jean H. Lee / The Associated Press
PYONGYANG, North Korea — The heart of this city, once famous for its Dickensian darkness, now pulsates with neon.
Glossy construction downtown has altered the Pyongyang skyline. Inside supermarkets where shopgirls wear French designer labels, people with money can buy Italian wine, Swiss chocolates, kiwifruit imported from New Zealand and fresh-baked croissants. They can get facials, lie in tanning booths, play a round of mini golf or sip cappuccinos and cocktails while listening to classical music.
More than a million people are using cell phones. Computer shops can’t keep up with demand for North Korea’s locally distributed tablet computer, popularly known here as “iPads.” A shiny new cancer institute features a $900,000 X-ray machine imported from Europe.
Pyongyang has long been a city apart from the rest of North Korea, a showcase capital dubbed a “socialist fairyland” by state media.
A year after leader Kim Jong Un promised in a speech to bring an end to the “era of belt-tightening” and economic hardship in North Korea, the gap between the haves and have-nots has only grown with Pyongyang’s transformation.
Beyond the main streets of the capital and in the towns and villages beyond, life is grindingly tough. Food is rationed, electricity is a precious commodity and people get around by walking, cycling or hopping into the backs of trucks. Most homes lack running water or plumbing. Health care is free, but aid workers say medicine is in short supply.
And while the differences between the showcase capital and the hardscrabble countryside grow starker, North Koreans feel the effects of authoritarian rule no matter where they live.
It’s illegal for them to interact with foreigners without permission. Very few have access to the Internet. They calibrate their words. Most parrot phrases they’ve heard in state media, still the safest way to answer questions in a country where security remains terrifying.
In 2010 and throughout 2011, as then-leader Kim Jong Il was grooming son Kim Jong Un to succeed him, Pyongyang was a city under construction. Scaffolding covered the fronts of buildings across the city. Red banners painted with slogan “At a breath” — implying breakneck work at a breathless pace — fluttered from the skeletons of skyscrapers built by soldiers.