PYONGYANG (Reuters) - Gone are the signs extolling nuclear weapons and readiness for war. These days, the slogans in North Korea’s capital have turned to cuddlier exhortations such as “Let’s love our leader more!.”
There is also, suddenly, money.
Cranes are at work on construction sites, roads are newly paved and buildings freshly painted. Street lights illuminate a city that used to fall into darkness after sunset.
Even locals in the secretive state, which human rights groups say has put tens of thousands of political prisoners in jail, look more relaxed and are, for one of the world’s poorest societies, relatively fashionably dressed.
Where does the money come from in a country that by one count has a per capita income of no more than $400 a year and is constantly on the verge of plunging back into famine?
“I believe you know how very well,” Han, an official assigned to guide a recent group of South Korean visitors, said with an enigmatic smile that made clear he was not inclined to go into detail.
But Han, who gave only his family name, did acknowledge that North Korea would benefit from last month’s move by the United States to remove it from the list of states that sponsor terrorism, a position that had made it all but untouchable in the world of international commerce.
“The removal from the list will help ... because many countries had complained about troubles in doing business with us because of the sanctions,” he added.
North Korea, often described abroad as a Stalinist state and feudal dynasty, still remains under United Nations sanctions linked to its attempts to build a nuclear arsenal.
Some analysts have said that the North would have profited from a global surge in prices of metals that it mines and sells, mostly to neighboring China. Some also speculate the government may not be handing over so much as it once did to the powerful military, which with one million troops is one of the world’s largest standing armies, even though the population is just 23 million.
The mining industry generates more than 10 percent of the annual output of North Korea’s economy, which contracted throughout the 1990s because of repeated floods and sanctions.
The country has also been receiving aid shipments of oil under a deal with regional powers to disable its nuclear facilities.
But one major mystery — the whereabouts and health of Dear Leader Kim Jong-il — was not up for discussion.
The officials with the tour group, whose job was also to keep their visitors from talking to ordinary locals, made no comment on the prolonged absence from public view of Kim, leader of the world’s first communist dynasty and whose dead father Kim Il-sung is officially president for eternity.
One of the South Korean visiting group said he had managed to raise the subject but was told that rumors of Kim’s ill-health, possibly from a stroke in August, were groundless.
“They say it’s all because of false reports by the Japanese media,” said Lee Byung-ha, an official with the South’s Democratic Labour Party.
At the weekend, North Korean media published a photograph of Kim looking cheerful and healthy, but it has yet to release any video of the leader.
For some of the visitors from the wealthy South, traveling to their neighbor to help set up an agricultural project, the fact that the Kim family was still ruling at all was the biggest puzzle.
Once poorer than the North, South Korea’s economy has become Asia’s fourth largest since it embraced democracy two decades ago. It is still technically at war with its northern neighbor and bans its citizens from contacting North Koreans without prior approval.
“It’s the real mystery that this government has kept its grip even as so many people have been suffering from poverty,” said Park Hae-pan, who was contributing machinery from his business in the South to help the project.
For others, the differences between the long-divided Koreas was all too much.
“This is crazy,” said one visitor, as the bus drove at night through a long, unlit tunnel on a tour to a famous mountain east of Pyongyang.
“I know nothing about the politics, nothing about the Kims ... I have no other wish than to stay alive until I get out of this place,” he said.
Editing by Jonathan Thatcher and Megan Goldin