North Korea's capital shows flashes of prosperity amid country's isolation

Two North Korean women sit in the arrivals hall at Pyongyang's International airport on Oct 8, 2015.
Two North Korean women sit in the arrivals hall at Pyongyang's International airport on Oct 8, 2015.PHOTO: AFP
People look out from the window of a tram in Pyongyang on Oct 8, 2015.
People look out from the window of a tram in Pyongyang on Oct 8, 2015.PHOTO: AFP
Pedestrians make their way along a street in Pyongyang on Oct 8, 2015.
Pedestrians make their way along a street in Pyongyang on Oct 8, 2015.PHOTO: AFP

PYONGYANG (REUTERS) - Smartphones, traffic jams and modern, energy-saving lights casting a dim glow on the streets - North Korea's capital shows signs of change even as it prepares for a pageant of military muscle and propaganda of the kind the country is known for.

One of the world's most inaccessible places, North Korea has invited foreign journalists to Pyongyang this week for celebrations marking the 70th anniversary of its ruling Workers'Party, and rising wealth is evident despite a creaking state economy.

Only recently a niche item, cellphones are now common in the capital, with nationwide subscriber numbers topping three million, an employee with Koryolink, the cellular carrier controlled by Egypt's Orascom Telecom, told Reuters on Thursday. The number has tripled since 2012.

Still, the country of 24 million remains subject to heavy UN sanctions for its missile and nuclear programmes and is as isolated as ever.

On Wednesday, a high-level US military official said Washington believes North Korea has the capability to launch a nuclear weapon against the US mainland and stands ready to defend against any such attacks.

However, a planned satellite launch, which had been expected by officials in Seoul to be a centrepiece of the celebrations in Pyongyang and is suspected by the United States and South Korea to be a test of a long-range missile, seems less likely to take place soon. Analysts and South Korean officials say there have been no visible signs of preparations.

Yang Moo-jin of the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul said North Korea may have held back on its launch plans under pressure from ally China, which is sending high-level Communist Party official Liu Yunshan to Pyongyang for the events.

North Korea remains technically at war with the South and views the United States as a key enemy. China is its major ally.

Evening traffic was clogged this week in Pyongyang, until recently a city of wide empty streets. The jams were due both to rising numbers of cars and also because roads were closed to prepare for anniversary events expected to be capped by a military parade on Saturday.

North Korea's state-directed economy is stagnant, but thriving grey-market entrepreneurship is driving increased spending on consumer goods and services like restaurants and taxis, which have proliferated in Pyongyang.

A growing number of Pyongyang residents could be seen tapping screens of smartphones, which are not connected to the Internet and can only be used to access a domestic intranet.

Much of North Korea remains impoverished, experts and aid officials say, despite rising market activity.

Residents and regular visitors said tanks belching black smoke were seen barrelling down thoroughfares on recent evenings in apparent preparation for anniversary events. Even the landmark Kwangbok department store was shut for what a government guide called "mass mobilisation for political events." Pyongyang has tried to turn on the charm ahead of the anniversary.

Earlier this week it released a South Korean student who holds a US green card and had been held since illegally entering the country in April. It has also agreed with its bitter rival South Korea to hold reunions later this month of families separated by the 1950-1953 Korean war.

On Thursday, visitors were taken to a football match, with North Korea playing the Philippines to a tense, scoreless draw before an enthusiastic crowd.

The movements of journalists were tightly controlled, minimising interaction with ordinary citizens, and the welcome was not always universal.

As foreign journalists photographed three soldiers rowing through the early morning mist on the Taedong river, one of them shouted: "son of a dog!"