SEOUL, South Korea >> While North Korea’s state-run media continued to rage over the military exercises being held off the North’s coastline, saying the four days of drills that ended Wednesday afternoon had brought the Korean Peninsula to “the brink of war,” much of daily life in the secretive North appeared remarkably normal, or at least what passes for normal.
Accounts from the North reaching Seoul suggested that residents of Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, had been calmly discussing last week’s artillery duel with South Korea, foreigners living in the city were worrying about an escalation in tensions with the South and the nation’s leader was celebrated for his legendary contributions to “the brilliant tradition of Korean dancing art.”
Information about the reclusive North Korean state is notoriously difficult to come by, but a proliferation of cell phones and computer links in recent years have pried the lid off to some extent. In the past several days, a foreigner was able to get out a detailed message describing conditions in Pyongyang based on personal observations and the reports of foreign aid workers in the city.
Aid workers said their conversations with North Korean colleagues and clients suggested that the artillery battle was being seen as “business as usual, another incident of many that have been happening over many years,” said the foreigner, who requested anonymity for fear of angering the North Korean government.
“Of course, people don’t know about the international response to the shelling, but it sounds like it feels like it’s ‘more of the same’ for these Koreans.”
The foreigner said some expatriates working with charities and development agencies in the North had this response: “We have seen crises like this before, but we’re taking it very seriously. And this is this the first time there have been civilian casualties, which ups the ante.”
Meanwhile, apparently, life goes on, at least for Kim Jong Il, the “Dear Leader” of North Korea. Kim was the focus of a university symposium to mark the 20th anniversary of the publication of his celebrated book “The Theory of Dancing Art.”
Kim’s work “clarifies the principled requirements and ways for carrying forward and developing the brilliant tradition of Korean dancing art established in the period of the anti-Japanese revolutionary struggle,” according to a report Tuesday from the North’s official news agency.
Kim also toured a machine-tool factory and offered “field guidance” on how to improve production, the Korean Central News Agency said. Kim is heralded in the North, as was his father, for dispensing guidance on myriad trips to factories, farms, hospitals, military bases, film sets and sound stages.
At the Ryongsong Machine Complex, the agency reported, Kim visited the factory dining hall where he expressed concern for the workers’ daily lives “as their real father would do.”
He was accompanied by his sister, Kim Kyong Hee, and her husband, Jang Song Taek, both of whom are members of Kim’s ruling inner circle. No mention was made of his youngest son and apparent heir, Kim Jong Un.
Pyongyang, of course, has by far the best living standards in the otherwise impoverished North, which is facing renewed famine, according to numerous reports, and a recent visitor there said he had seen many people with cell phones, including three teenagers huddled over one phone as they were, yes, texting.
Unlike on a previous visit, he said, he managed to slip away from his government escorts and went for a jog in the capital. He and his colleagues on an academic tour saw splashy displays of imported goods, especially cognac, and they were treated to lengthy and bountiful banquets.
In a four-day visit, said the man, a Western scholar, there was only one brief power failure, and the huge statue of North Korea’s founding president, Kim Il Sung, remained lighted overnight in central Pyongyang. The North is chronically short of fuel and diesel oil, and many factories have been idled because of a lack of power and raw materials.
A beer factory was operating, however, and the visitor pronounced the Taedong River beer, a local brand, “very drinkable.” Private stalls and markets in and around the capital “appeared to be thriving,” he added.
After hearing complaints from factory managers and state economic planners, the scholar said any potential reform of the hyper-socialist economy in North Korea was being hamstrung by a range of sanctions by the United Nations, the United States and other nations. Most of the sanctions have been imposed over the North’s refusal to abandon its nuclear programs.
The foreigner living in Pyongyang also saw the bark and the bite of sanctions among North Koreans.
“Sanctions have not changed behaviors of the elite, nor have they stopped the flow of luxury goods or cars to Pyongyang,” the foreigner said. “But for ordinary people, they have so very little to work with — tools, running water, medicines in clinics. Imports of any kind are just absent.”
The foreigner said political isolation had been effective in shutting off North Koreans to most international commerce, from material goods to cultural influences to political ideas.
“In some ways,” the foreigner said, “people here are so used to being without — without stuff, without validation, without contact to the outside world, without a set of standards about how things happen — that sanctions and isolation are normal. They feed a sense of victimhood, or at least underdog-ness, that justifies both the regime and attacks like the one we’ve just seen.
“That said, every day I wake up and I can’t believe that my ‘normal’ is living in a dictatorship. I feel a mixture of sadness and frustration at what I observe.”