- Associated Press - Thursday, October 11, 2012

From here, Pyongyang can seem like a dream.

At what passes for rush hour on a Wednesday morning, there are few sounds in Kaesong’s main traffic circle, just bicycles squeaking as riders pedal by and a tinny loudspeaker blaring anthems to Kim Jong-un, the baby-faced ruler who took power after his father’s death in December.

“The footsteps of our respected General Kim! Spreading the sound of a brilliant future!” the voice from the loudspeaker sings.

Occasionally, a solitary car goes by.

There are no nightspots here, no modern apartment complexes, no electricity except for a few hours every evening. The shelves in most stores are noticeably half-empty, and dirt side streets lead to clusters of small houses, many little more than shacks, with bulging walls and broken roofs.

It is the reality of North Korean urban life — with the notable exception of the capital city, 80 miles north of here, in a carefully crafted totalitarian Oz.

Dancing dolphins

The contrast between Pyongyang and every other city in the country reflects an ever-growing chasm between North Korea’s elite and the daily struggles of everyone else.

Pyongyang has the Dolphinarium, a cavernous aquarium where smiling, fresh-faced trainers in skintight-suits make dolphins dance for ecstatic crowds.

There are the new 3,000-unit Changjon Street apartments, lit up like a movie set long into the night — a proclamation that North Korea has electricity to spare.

It has the Sunrise restaurant, the latest destination for the city’s nouveau riche, where tough-looking men drink grape Fanta from brandy snifters while their drivers wait outside with their Land Cruisers.

It offers good government jobs and the country’s top university.

“When I finally saw Pyongyang, it was so wonderful, so incredible,” said Kim Jong Hui, a cheerful 51-year-old from the northeastern city of Chongjin.

She had traveled for two days on North Korea’s decrepit rail network to make her first visit to the capital city for a series of national day celebrations.

Ms. Kim spent a recent afternoon watching friends play on the country’s only miniature-golf course, a small maze of plastic greens set between a new amusement park and a new swimming complex.

“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

Like so much else in North Korea, the urban divide is really about the politics of single-family rule.

Pyongyang grew after the Korean War into a showcase of Stalinist propaganda. It is a city of hulking government buildings, enormous stadiums, broad avenues and omnipresent monuments celebrating the lives of founding ruler Kim Il-sung and his son and successor, Kim Jong-il.

It was proof to the world, the regime believed, of the victory of totalitarian socialism. More important, it was also a way to reward the regime’s key supporters and to keep them close.

Pyongyang is a closed city, sealed off by security forces that monitor movement at dozens of checkpoints. North Koreans cannot move there, or even visit, without official permission.