Kim Jong Un opens North Korea a crack

In an evident small-scale relaxing of North Korea’s rigid isolation, young leader Kim Jong Un is allowing new kinds of Western and American pop culture symbols to appear in his country, including Mickey Mouse. The regime is also curbing its harsh intolerance of high-tech gadgets and consumer goods, the possession of which could sometimes mean prison or worse.

Some 2.4 million North Koreans now subscribe to mobile phones according to Orascom Telecom Media & Technology Holding of Egypt, which provides cell service here. Since mid-2014, phones loaded with high tech games and romance novels have arrived in Pyongyang, the capital. North Koreans can now own Google Android smart phones with 30 foreign games included, even as access to the Internet and 3G is still unavailable.

Despite crippling conditions in many places, Kim has expanded the availability of previously forbidden products to a broader swath of the nation’s elite and their offspring in urban areas – partly to placate new generations of Koreans and party to offer perks to regime loyalists the Kim needs support from.

Digital cameras, credit cards, and cosmetics – the basics of Western and Chinese consumer culture — are now showing up in one of the world’s most ideologically rigid states. Previously unavailable foreign products, including German beer, shampoo, toothpaste and Japanese mayonnaise are on the increase. Coffee has become a common drink, and some restaurants even serve espresso from Italian espresso machines.

The message if not the reality is that daily life is improving for those in urban areas.

Yet, food and power shortages remain in much of the country, and a gap has widened between the privileged in the city and those living second-class lives in the countryside. Most ordinary North Koreans can’t afford a camera. Wood-burning steam-powered trucks are still seen running outside Pyongyang. And many people rely on their feet or on hitchhiking for transportation.

[Read full article in The Christian Science Monitor]

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