North Korea, the World's Most Isolated, Bizarre State

Many of the residents of Pyongyang may have to eat dinner in the dark, but at least they get to eat.

That's because they can find enough grass to feed the goats and rabbits they raise on their balconies. For high-rise herders, pigs and chickens pose more of a challenge — they like to eat grain and that starts to get expensive.

The capital of the hermit state of North Korea, venue for a historic summit between the two Koreas on June 12-14, seems to the rare visitor to be a city of shortages and silences. A city of divisions and differences.

The divisions are between high-ranking members of the ruling Workers' Party who are entitled to wear lapel pins showing the late Great Leader Kim Il-Sung and to buy fresh meat and canned juice in special shops — and pretty much everyone else.

At least when the lights go out in the capital of a land that sees itself as one of the world's last remaining socialist paradises, almost everyone is equal.

And go out they do. Several times during the day and much more often at night.

From nine o'clock in the evening, the city plunges into darkness with only a few dim lights flickering at the windows of some government and privileged apartment buildings.

During the day, the power outages strike indiscriminately, hitting government offices, hotels, trains, trolley buses and subways as a matter of routine. Using a computer is just too troublesome.

Dark City

North Korean officials say power blackouts occur more frequently during the day than at night because the authorities order citizens to use less electricity after sunset.

"Pyongyang is a very dark city," a foreign resident told a recent visitor. "The power outages hit many offices several times a day. It is an ordinary thing in Pyongyang."

North Korean officials say they are trying to tackle the chronic energy shortages by building small and medium-sized hydraulic-power plants in farming villages in mountainous areas.

One official recently cited unique countermeasures.

"There are few traffic lights in Pyongyang because of the energy problem. Instead, we built underground pedestrian paths."

The dangers were tragically highlighted in February when a train crashed after coming to a sudden halt and slipping back down a slope due to a power outage. Dozens were killed.

There is one bright spot. A spotlight shines unfailingly to illuminate the giant statue at the memorial to the late Great Leader, Kim Il-sung.

The Great Leader founded the ideology of "juche," or self-reliance, by which North Koreans are exhorted to live — and which must test the resolve of even communist officials when famine stalks the rural areas and hunger enters the cities.

Finding enough to eat is possibly the biggest challenge for residents of Pyongyang.

Aid agencies say the country is only just beginning to recover from famine in recent years caused by natural disasters and mismanagement of the state-run collective farm system. The nation is still dependent on handouts to feed its 22 million people, most of whom are thought to live in far worse conditions than Pyongyang residents.

Poverty Stalks the Land

North Korea is one of the world's most impoverished countries with a per capita income of about $1.50 a day. Its economy is the equivalent of less than 0.2 percent of U.S. gross domestic product (GDP).

Among the few passersby on the spotless streets of Pyongyang there are no visible signs of malnourishment, partly because many residents have taken to raising a menagerie of animals at home.

"People here keep rabbits and goats at their homes because they cost little. They can live and grow by eating grass," one government official said recently.

"And we can get fur from rabbits...Many families also keep chickens and pigs, but the problem is we don't have enough feed grain for them," he added.

Reclusive Dear Leader Kim Jong-il, son of the late Great Leader, and now head of the world's last Stalinist dictatorship, ordered citizens to raise goats and rabbits to make up for the food shortages that have racked the land for five years.

In another measure to combat the food shortages, officials have launched a "potato revolution," which one North Korean official said had been declared a priority because the vegetable can be grown year-round.

Shops in central Pyongyang are stocked with a wide, if basic, range of food, including rice, bread, noodles, cake, milk and canned fruit juice, but much is for show or for high officials.

North Korean officials say their society is egalitarian and thus everyone has equal access to food supplies. Korea experts say it is a highly hierarchical system based on devotion and loyalty to the two Kims.

The state supplies all, from food to clothes and housing. And almost everything is free, except choice.

That absence of choice seems to extend into every corner of life for a North Korean. Even love is not exempt.

"In recent years, people here tend to marry late because they all have to work," Son Chol-su, a senior official at the Association for External Cultural Relations, said recently.

He said North Korean men marry at around 30 and women at 27. "There is no marriage before labor," Son said.

North Koreans seem to have little idea of what goes on beyond their almost hermetically sealed borders. Foreign newspapers, magazines and satellite television are banned and Big Brother is always watching.