Glimpse of North Korea: Travels in the Empire of Kim Jong Un

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But then the celebrations for Kim Il Sung's birthday celebration began, and suddenly colorful lights went on all over Pyongyang. Spotlights illuminated the train station and many monuments to the nation's heroes. Lettering of various hues was projected onto building facades, colorful neon lights adorned the tops of high-rise buildings and individual LCD screens were quickly set up in the downtown area.

While the bright lights gave visitors the impression of Pyongyang as a modern metropolis, entire sections of the city were completely dark at night, not even the streetlights were lit. To keep the people in relatively good spirits for the festivities, the regime granted them three days off and a special ration of food. Shop displays were somewhat fuller than usual, there were apples and lettuce to be had. At stalls along the main streets, people stood in line to buy candy, soft drinks and peanuts. Peanuts for the festival -- the cynical game is already a tradition in Pyongyang.

The supply situation remains tense. Although foreign experts are not warning of acute famine, as in the 1990s, large sections of the country suffer from "chronic malnutrition," says Gerhard Uhrmacher, coordinator for North Korea for German Agro Action. This year's harvest was 9 percent better than in the previous year, but "problem groups," like babies, children, the elderly and single mothers, are notoriously underserved, says Uhrmacher.

German Agro Action is trying to remedy the situation by planting "Juwel" and "Magda" seed potatoes -- new to North Korea -- which require only a few weeks until they are ready for harvesting. Nevertheless, says Uhrmacher, there are still shortages of protein, fruit and vegetables, fish, meat and milk. To make matters worse, some 20 to 30 percent of the harvest spoils because of poor storage practices.

Residential and work groups are summoned for special assignments through radios in apartments that cannot be switched off. The workers are then required to perform extra shifts in the fields or vegetable beds. The fields are marked with red flags, a signal that a "special effort" is underway. But even that effort does little good.

Falling in Line

According to international calculations, there will be a shortage of about 414,000 tons of basic food products this year, making the US government's promise of aid all the more important. At the end of February, Pyongyang agreed to impose a moratorium on its nuclear tests and to allow international inspectors access to its facilities. In return, Washington promised to provide 240,000 tons of food, mostly protein crackers and vitamins. But after the failed test launch of a North Korean long-range missile more than two weeks ago, the US government suspended the aid. The United Nations Security Council condemned the test, and this time even Beijing, North Korea's most important ally, fell in line with the criticism.

Relations with China are vital to Pyongyang's survival. China supplies the country with a large share of its food and, in recent months, has also brought in millions of apple trees, with which North Korea intends to boost its fruit production. The countless deciduous and evergreen saplings that have been sprouting from the ground everywhere in recent weeks are also from Pyongyang's oversized neighbor.

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