A couple of articles on North Korea, both with the same message: if anything, things are worse now under Kim Jong-un.
Barbara Demick at the LA Times:
The death of leader Kim Jong Il in December and the ascent of his son Kim Jong Un, not to mention a decades-overdue modernization of Pyongyang, have leavened the unremitting gloom that has hung over North Korea since famine killed off nearly 10% of the population in the 1990s.
But North Koreans interviewed recently across the border in China say the changes so far are superficial and have done little to ease the daily task of just staying alive.
"There is more construction, more people building things, more to buy in Pyongyang. But day to day, our life is actually harder," said Kim, who like many North Koreans working outside the country uses a pseudonym.
The price of rice (so important that the word for rice is synonymous with food) has nearly doubled since the beginning of the year, the result of declining foreign aid, a weak harvest and hoarding by speculators.
"Maybe 1 out of 10,000 North Koreans can afford to eat white rice every day like the people in China," said a 58-year-old man from Suncheon, 30 miles north of Pyongyang, who has been working in a brick factory in China.
At North Korea's state-owned factories, wages are so low (often less than $1 per month) that people will pay for the privilege of not showing up to work. They use their time instead to collect firewood or edible greens or to trade something on the market.
As for the vaunted North Korean military, rank-and-file soldiers have so little to eat that their parents have to send money and food for them to survive. Cornfields have to be guarded 24 hours a day to prevent thievery, with many of the culprits being hungry soldiers.
And Andrew Jacobs at the NYT:
In the 10 months since Kim Jong-un took the reins of his desperately poor nation following the death of his autocratic father, North Korea — or at least its capital — has acquired more of the trappings of a functioning society, say diplomats, aid groups and academics who have visited in recent months.
But in rare interviews this month with four North Koreans in this border city on government-sanctioned stays, they said that at least so far, they have not felt any improvements in their lives since the installment last December of their youthful leader — a sentiment activists and analysts say they have also heard. In fact, the North Koreans said, their lives have gotten harder, despite Mr. Kim’s tantalizing pronouncements about boosting people’s livelihoods that have fueled outside hopes that the nuclear-armed nation might ease its economically ruinous obsession with military hardware and dabble in Chinese-style market reforms.
Food prices have spiked, the result of drought and North Korea’s defiant launching of a rocket in April that shut down new offers of food aid from the United States. Development organizations also blame speculators who have hoarded staples in anticipation of reforms that have yet to materialize. The price of rice has doubled since early summer, and chronic shortages of fuel, electricity and raw materials continue to idle most factories, leaving millions unemployed.
“People were hopeful that Kim Jong-un would make our lives better, but so far they are disappointed,” said a 50-year-old named Mrs. Park, who like Mrs. Kim spoke on the condition that only her last name be used, fearing retribution when she returned home.
A member of the ruling Workers’ Party from a major city, Mrs. Park said that to feed her family, she sells cornmeal cakes from a market stall, but she complained of sluggish sales and famished children who snatch her wares from beneath a protective swatch of fabric. More than once this year, she said she walked by the lifeless bodies of those who were too weak to steal.
“I would have given them food if I had any,” she said, looking away with shame.