- The Washington Times - Friday, August 30, 2002

PYONGYANG, North Korea The usually desolate, gray streets of the North Korean capital suddenly swarmed with thousands of people in dazzlingly bright traditional dress some swaying in dance and banging gongs.

The crowd, arriving on trains and buses and filtering in on foot, gathered earlier this week in a square in the heart of Pyongyang to celebrate the return of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il from a five-day visit to Russia. Each person held a stick adorned with red plastic flowers.

"Everybody is thinking the same thing," said O Min-u, 48, a government administrator for academic meetings and one of North Korea's elite living in the capital. "We welcome him when he comes back because we miss him while he's away."

Such public demonstrations for Mr. Kim presenting an image of unquestioning veneration have long dominated this reclusive communist state.

Shortly after Mr. Kim's return, the top U.S. arms-control official arrived in South Korea, where he characterized Mr. Kim and his government as "an evil regime armed to the teeth."

"President Bush's use of the term 'axis of evil' to describe Iran, Iraq and North Korea was more than a rhetorical flourish it was factually correct," U.S. Undersecretary of State John Bolton told the Korean-American Association in a speech at a Seoul hotel yesterday.

Pyongyang has given no formal response.

Elsewhere in Seoul, negotiators from the two Koreas met for talks on reconnecting railways and roads through their fortified border.

Signs have emerged that North Korea is ready to open up to the rest of the world.

With harvests ravaged by years of drought and rainstorms, North Korea is seeking foreign aid to fight severe food shortages in parts of the country.

Recent talks between the Koreas have produced agreements for cultural and sports exchanges, reunions for separated families, plans to reconnect a cross-border railway and a proposal for an industrial park in the North for South Korean factories.

Perhaps most critically, North Korea began an unusual policy this summer to raise wages and allow prices to adjust, pushing up rice prices and allowing profits for farmers.

North Koreans said the policy was meant to motivate people to work harder and lift the economy out of the doldrums.

"Prices have gone up, but people's pay has also gone up. The honorable general took action so people can have happier lives," said Jin Ok-sun, a 47-year-old tour guide at the Tower of Juche Idea, a city landmark. Mr. Kim is popularly called "the honorable general."

Mrs. Jin, a stately woman in a pearl necklace and red lipstick, said her monthly pay went up from 150 won, about $1, to 3,000 won, about $20.

Energy shortages visibly affect even the capital, forcing hotels and restaurants to be kept dimly lit and enveloping the streets in a pitch darkness something rarely seen in industrialized nations.

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