"Potemkin villages," I scribble onto a scrap of paper for the interpreter, Mr. Kim. "What does that mean?" he asks. "It means that you are just showing us facades here to feign growth and progress, just as the Russian Prince Potemkin once did," I reply. "You should google it."
That, though, is not an option available to Mr. Kim. The Democratic People's Republic of Korea is the only country on earth in which the people have no connection to the World Wide Web.
The 21-year-old interpreter has never left North Korea. He believes in the imminent victory of the socialist revolution and is now trying to show us the achievements of his native country: The capital, cleaned up for the 100th birthday of the country's founder, Kim Il Sung, and a new high-rise development that looks like something the Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser might have designed, albeit in concrete. Western diplomats in Pyongyang sardonically refer to the development as the city's new "Manhattan skyline."
Mr. Kim doesn't understand why foreign guests always ask these questions: Why are so many men here dressed in uniforms? Does North Korea really need long-range missiles? Why does the government spend 60 percent of its budget on defense if annual GDP per capita is only $960 (€742) and the average adult only has access to 2,150 kilocalories a day? Why does the regime need reeducation camps? Why are we only driven on boulevards but are not shown any ordinary residential neighborhoods? And, finally: Why can we never move around without minders?
This is too much for Mr. Kim. At the end of the day, he asks to be replaced.
That evening, a man with darting eyes and thinning hair is standing at the entrance to the Yanggakdo Hotel, a 47-story structure built in 1995. His dark suit is positively elegant, as if it had been tailored for Mao Zedong at Emporio Armani.
Familiar with the World
Mr. Hong introduces himself as our team's new guide. We are in North Korea to find out whether things are changing under its new dictator, Kim Jong Un. There will be many questions on our 10-day journey, by train and by car, through a country that is sealed off from the rest of the world. Mr. Hong, 57, used to work at the North Korean embassy in Berlin, both before and after German reunification. Mr. Hong is familiar with the world.
He smiles and shakes hands affably. According to Western experts, a person of his rank and age who assumes the task of attending to curious guests in Pyongyang is undoubtedly a member of the Ministry of State Security.
The next day is to be a special one, both for us and for our minder. It's the 64th anniversary of the proclamation of the Democratic People's Republic of North Korea. There are huge parades, massive dance performances and, in the city's stadium, a gymnastics demonstration so large that the mere idea of choreographing such an event -- with 100,000 participants -- seems unimaginable.
Before long, Mr. Hong begins rolling his eyes. "Enough with these photos! They're giving me a headache," he says. Hong's anger is directed at photographer Andreas Taubert, who is apparently taking far too many pictures. The argument over right and wrong images of North Korea will accompany us until the last day of the trip.
Photographing mass gymnastics is basically okay, even though the dancers outnumber the audience in the stadium three to one. But military parades are taboo, especially when the army drives by in its smoke-belching trucks, some of which are powered with wood because of a gasoline shortage.
It's verboten to take pictures of battery vendors squatting by the side of road to sell their meager goods, because it could suggest that the planned economy is a failure. We can photograph cars in Pyongyang traffic, because if we don't show these images they'll be saying, once again, that the streets of the capital are empty, says Mr. Hong, although he tells us not to photograph the shiny VW Touaregs driven by senior party officials. Apple orchards and small livestock farms are on the approved list, because they depict the production of healthy food products, but photos of women carrying heaving loads on their heads or sweating in the fields are not.
North Korea remains the world's most enigmatic nation. It's as if history had placed a glass dome over the country and stopped time -- in the middle of the Cold War.
At the "Three Villages Spring" collective farm near the port city of Wonsan, women are already in the fields shortly after sunrise, cutting sheaves of rice with a scythe. They wear visor caps decorated with a red star. A photo of the most productive farm worker, framed by a wreath of plastic flowers, is displayed in front of the brigade clubhouse. Five-year-old Jun Hak Ljong is standing in his parents' kitchen. They are already out in the fields. What are you going to do today, we ask? "I'll wait," he says. What's your greatest wish? "To be a soldier."
A military checkpoint has been set up on the road leading out of Wonsan. Soldiers wearing brown uniforms and armbands check vehicles and all pedestrians. Everyone is required to have a pass. No one in this country can leave a district, a province or even a housing development without being noticed.
The government is everywhere, monitoring and regulating the lives of its citizens, like a domineering father figure.
Three-year-olds learn marching in kindergarten, and Young Pioneers -- 10 or 11-year-old children -- are assigned to work details. Men are required to serve in the military for at least three years, and soldiers seem to be everywhere, sweating in their turquoise uniform shirts on construction sites, in roadside ditches and on public squares -- almost as if they were digging up the entire country with their shovels and pickaxes. The ambitious campaign to spruce up the capital was only finished in April, in time for the festivities surrounding Kim Il Sung's centennial, because a large number of students were pulled out of universities for a year and assigned to work details.
In North Korea, there is no such thing as individuals. There is only the collective.
The people are thin and the children are too small for their age. Although rice and the fermented cabbage dish known as kimchi are filling, the diet is deficient in protein and many vitamins. Government guides like to take visitors to newly established ostrich and turtle farms, which they tout as progress.
Is Dior the New Socialism?
But the pull of globalization has reached even the world's last Stalinist holdout. And now that a little money has reached the country, it is clearly beginning to corrupt socialist ideals.
On the night train from Beijing to Pyongyang, the aisle is almost impassable, stacked as it is with boxes containing stereo speakers, air-conditioners and kitchen appliances. The men on the train, smoking and playing cards in their ribbed undershirts, are officials and soldiers with the North Korean regime. At the border, the customs agent is willing to look the other way in return for a few hundred Chinese yuan and a carton of cigarettes.
A mobile phone costs at least $150 (€116) in Pyongyang, many times the monthly salary of a teacher. Nevertheless, more than a million North Koreans already have one, having found unofficial ways to come up with the money. They can't make calls abroad, which means that North Koreans with mobile phones can only talk to fellow North Koreans. But the republic has become more porous. It takes only a few minutes for news to spread from the port city of Haeju in the south to Kyongwon in the far north.
China, after having paved the way, is now opening the door to capitalism for North Koreans. Ships loaded with containers of flat-screen TVs, fashionable clothes and food products leave the Chinese port of Dalian for the North Korean port of Nampo every day. In Pyongyang, the Rakwon ("Paradise") Department Store recently began selling whiskey from Kentucky, Adidas athletic shoes and the most popular French perfumes -- for hard dollars or euros.
Is Dior the new socialism? Mr. Hong narrows his eyes. He knows that many things are beginning to feel incongruous here: The capital's new skyline versus the barracks in the countryside; the three Maybach luxury sedans Western observers say they've seen in the capital recently versus the oxcarts in the fields.
For Mr. Hong, it's about more than just a few contradictions. Western diplomats are constantly wondering when the regime will collapse. Preventing that from happening is the job of men like Hong.
They've been successful so far, blundering along as well as they can. Take, for example, Dr. Un Ja Su. A man in his fifties, he has a full head of hair, a broad smile and gold teeth. Dr. Un works in a small practice, and his patients are farmers who have had tractor accidents or construction workers who have fallen from roofs. The supplies in Dr. Un's glass medicine cabinet are currently limited to alcohol and disinfectant solution, as well as containers of disposable syringes soaking in a cleaning solution.
Opening to Tourism
What do you need most urgently? "Modernization," says the doctor. Dr. Un isn't supposed to say more than that, and Mr. Hong quickly ushers us out the door.
Some 10,000 North Korean guest workers now work in restaurants and on construction sites in China, sending money home to their families. The Chinese embassy has just issued 10,000 additional work visas, and about the same number of North Koreans work at logging operations in Russian forests or in Gulf states like Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
According to the Foreign Ministry in Pyongyang, it costs €1,900 a month to have a North Korean doctor work temporarily in a country like Germany. Un Kjung Kim hopes to become one of those doctors soon. She is 25 and is currently attending a language course at the Peoples Palace of Studies, a sort of adult education center for the masses. Speaking with almost no accent, Un Kjung Kim says, in German: "How are you? I would very much like to come to your country."
The North Koreans could likewise count on plenty of business from the US -- if, that is, they were to abandon their nuclear program or at least permit inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). But the government in Pyongyang would rather try its luck with a risky balancing act, one that it hopes will bring an upturn through trade with China and new ties to Russia, whose government has just forgiven the poor country a large chunk of its debt. Tourism is also another new potential source of hard currency. As crazy as it sounds, Pyongyang will soon allow 100,000 visitors a year into the country to help restructure its struggling economy.
Mr. Hong is only a few years younger than the republic itself. As the first of seven children of a railroad engineer from Wonsan, he experienced the euphoric early phase of socialism, finishing high school and attending a university. There is no illiteracy in North Korea, the soil is fertile, and the people are clever and hardworking. Until the end of the 1960s, the industrialized People's Republic was more successful economically than South Korea.
Then, like all Eastern bloc countries, North Korea slid into a crisis, from which it has never recovered. The Iron Curtain fell, and most communists eventually became capitalists. Only North Korea staunchly held its ground. Perhaps one reason the regime has survived is that many North Koreans, unlike people in Russia or Poland, feel connected to their leader, as if they were part of a religious cult or an extended family. The photos aren't always contrived when the young leader, Comrade Kim Jong Un, visits the troops and young, hysterical female officer cadets, with tears in their eyes, line up to pose with him.
Road to Negotiating Table Is Blocked
Like almost all of his countrymen, Mr. Hong is proud of the North Korean nuclear program. The effect is phenomenal, he says. "Who else would protect us?" he asks, pointing out that American missiles threaten Pyongyang from across the border in South Korea, and that the North Koreans are merely defending themselves.
North Korea built its five-megawatt magnox-type nuclear reactor with almost no outside help. In the 1990s, nuclear engineers were able to greatly modernize the program with the help of Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadir Khan.
In April, during Kim Il Sung's birthday parade, the Korean People's Army unveiled a long-range missile that, if it works, could reach the west coast of the United States, armed with a nuclear warhead. Intelligence experts don't know how sophisticated the model is, but it's clear that the regime in Pyongyang remains determined to challenge the much more powerful United States. The road back to the negotiating table seems blocked at the moment.
Captain Kim Shang Shin is standing on the platform of an observation tower at the Military Demarcation Line, looking at the other Korea through a telescope. His father was a soldier in the Korean War, and Kim himself has been stationed at the border post for eight years. At the moment, Captain Kim is watching South Korean soldiers doing their early morning exercises behind a tall fence.
There have been no incidents in his sector since 1980. Nevertheless, the belligerent rhetoric has intensified recently. "One shot from them, and we mobilize our entire army immediately," says Kim, turning down the corners of his mouth and adjusting his officer's cap.
Decisions over war and peace depend on a young man whose age isn't even quite clear: he could be 29, or perhaps he's only 28. Kim Jong Un, the youngest grandson of the founder of the nation, assumed power in December 2011, after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il. He has done a good job so far, in Mr. Hong's opinion. "People like him and his wife."
There isn't much else to be said in a dictatorship with single-party rule, where political prisoners are sent to penal and labor camps. But there could be some truth to it.
Kim Jong Un's image consultants have carefully styled his hair to make sure that the young regent resembles his grandfather even more than he already does. He even wears his grandfather's old-fashioned straw hat, a style that's currently in vogue in the streets of Pyongyang. His mother was a Korean dancer born in Japan, and Kim Jong Un seems determined to put his own, idiosyncratic stamp on his father's legacy. Kim Jong Il hardly ever spoke even a single sentence in public, and he was rarely seen. His son makes almost daily television appearances, and he talks and jokes a lot.
When he first came into office, Kim Jong Un only visited the military. But now he is also paying closer attention to the general public, turning up at soup kitchens to dispense seasoning advice or sitting on the floor in the living rooms of Pyongyang residents. During such visits, the men drink schnapps and the Kim's young wife Ri Sol Ju, who he met at university, washes the dishes. All of this can be seen in the evening, in an endless loop, on North Korean television's only channel.
The political sphere in North Korea today is as opaque as the Soviet power struggles in the Kremlin once were. Currently, the most important question is whether power truly rests in Kim Jong Un's hands, or with the older men who surround him.
The replacement of the former military chief Ri Yong Ho in mid-July could offer an answer. There was reportedly a disagreement within the innermost circle of power over budget cuts for the bloated and completely outdated military. With 1.2 million soldiers, North Korea has the world's fourth-largest army. The powerful General Ri refused to give his blessing to the end of the existing "military first" doctrine, and he apparently believed that his views would prevail. The military had dominated the party until then, but now the tables seem to have been turned, with the party controlling the military once again.
With a Smile
It is unclear whether General Ri is now sitting at home enjoying his retirement, or whether he ended up in a labor camp or may even be dead. Intelligent agents are reporting, however, that the new young ruler has ordered an increased number of executions.
Is the cautious movement toward greater economic freedom coming at the price of even greater repression? Where are the clearest signs of progress to be found?
Once again, Mr. Hong rolls his eyes, dragging deeply on his cigarette. "No, no, no, that isn't on your schedule!" he says. He has already said it seven times, always with a plucky smile. First we complain, then we cajole and, finally, we drink three glasses of wheat schnapps together. He sticks to his guns. The Tong Il market is off-limits.
Ironically, Mr. Hong himself lives across the street from the Tong Il market, in a Pyongyang high-rise apartment building. Tong Il means unification in Korean, which is allegedly the North's political objective. But unification now seems to be an even more remote possibility than ever before.
Conversely, the Tong Il market is currently the most coveted destination in the capital. The market, housed in a large building reached through an archway, is the best place to go shopping in Pyongyang. Vendors there sell fresh chard, peppers and tomatoes, either grown in private gardens or surplus from farm production. Women in turquoise shirts and bright-red aprons stand crowded together, selling good meat at good prices. Other vendors sell motorcycle helmets, computer keyboards, shoes and fabric -- all the things that are normally unavailable in Pyongyang -- and everyone is buying, from soldiers to police officers to government officials.
There is one thing Mr. Hong is willing to say about the Tong Il market. It's where he bought his suit, he notes with a smile.