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 (and time spent at a Swiss school) 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.