Continued from page 1

“It’s more exciting here, and more beautiful,” she said.

North Korea can appear outwardly stagnant as a country frozen by poverty and Soviet economic policies, but a small but resonant market economy has taken root in the past 15 years.

High heels, fancy watches

The country, according to U.S. figures, still has a per capita gross domestic product of just $1,800, but Pyongyang’s new economy is being shaped by a mix of underground trading, investment funds particularly from China and the growth of government-authorized commercial enterprises.

Today, the Pyongyang rich — spending their dollars, euros and Chinese yuan — can buy everything from high heels to imported watches. They have bought enough cars in the past couple of years to cause the occasional traffic jam.

Few of these changes have gone beyond the capital.

“Pyongyang is not just another city,” said a doctor who spent most of his life in Kaesong but was educated in the capital. “It’s like another country.”

The doctor, who eventually fled to South Korea, spoke on condition of his name not be used, fearing retribution against relatives still living in the North.

The urban divide can be seen in the industrial city of Hamhung, where the skies above the handful of working factories are filled with gray soot, and workers are ferried to the beach on their day off in crowded, cobbled-together trucks powered by wood-burning stoves.

The “Youth Hero Highway” outside the port city of Nampho has so few cars on the eight-lane road that it looks like an empty parking lot stretching toward the horizon.

In the province around Chongjin, U.N. data shows the rate of abnormally short children — a key indicator of chronic malnutrition — is 50 percent higher than around Pyongyang.

In Kaesong, residents with a little extra money from working in South Korean-owned factories in the nearby industrial zone still see themselves as poor country cousins to people from the capital.

Few from this city, though, ever move to Pyongyang. Kaesong was part of South Korea before the Korean War, and many of its residents are seen as potential security risks because of family ties to the South.

Inequality is evident in the hospitals of those second-tier cities, according to people who have fled North Korea. They say desperate doctors struggle to treat patients with almost no medicine, using equipment that can be decades old.

A political city

Story Continues →