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Behind that robotic facade, though, North Koreans want the same things as just about everyone else; at least, that’s what defector after defector has said.
They fight with their spouses and worry when their children get fevers. They wage office politics, dream of buying cars and, if they have enough clout, they hope to get away to the beach in the summer. When times are at their worst, as they were when famine savaged the country in the 1990s, they dream of enough food so their children won’t starve to death.
It’s not clear why the regime hides places like the dusty, potholed neighborhood, which is just a mile or so from the center of town, across the trolley tracks and just off Tongil Street.
It doesn’t look like a war zone, or even like a particularly rough New York City neighborhood. Many streets in New Delhi, the capital of one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, look far more battered and far poorer.
To most North Koreans, one-quarter of whom depend on international food aid, living in homes without electricity or running water, the neighborhood would look upper-middle-class. Special permits are required to live in the capital city, and life here is vastly better than it is for most people in the countryside.
There are predictable government jobs here, electricity at least a few hours a day, better-stocked stores, schools that have indoor bathrooms.
But the officials still hide the run-down neighborhoods. There’s a certain view of North Korea they want visitors to have.
Maybe, though, the regime is opening up. In past years, media minders would order reporters to put down their cameras if they saw something they felt didn’t reflect well on North Korea. At times, they would close the curtains on the buses.
But on Thursday, the minders said nothing as the cameras clicked away. The journalists stared. And outside the bus, the North Koreans who never expected to be seen stared back.
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