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22:54 13 February 2012

FEATURE: Business as usual in N. Korea under new leader, power cuts persist

By Ko Hirano
PYONGYANG, Feb. 13, Kyodo

It is business as usual in the North Korean capital in what appears to be a quiet and smooth leadership transition to new leader Kim Jong Un following the death of his father and leader Kim Jong Il in December.

Despite an absence of portraits of Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang, billboards and other signs carry slogans linked to the 29-year-old leader and the year 2012, a year of significance for North Korea as it falls on the 100th anniversary of the birth of his grandfather and state founder Kim Il Sung.

With cold weather pushing down the temperature to as low as around minus 10 C, workers appear to be speeding up construction of buildings, as well as renovation of the capital city in the run-up to the April 15 anniversary. Decorations are also being put up to mark the 70th anniversary Thursday of the birth of Kim Jong Il.

Kim Jong Il had vowed to ''open the gate to a thriving nation'' this year. His third son inherits the immense task of improving the people's standard of living even as the country continues to suffer food and electricity shortages.

A group of Kyodo News journalists has entered Pyongyang, making it the first Japanese news organization to visit North Korea since Kim Jong Il's death of a heart attack on Dec. 17.

At a stamp shop near the Pyongyang Station, staffers said a stamp bearing a picture of smiling Kim Jong Un standing side by side with his father, also smiling, has been ''the best selling item'' since the State Stamp Bureau issued it in late December.

''The stamp draws high attention,'' a female staffer said Monday, referring to the country's only known stamp bearing an image of the new leader. ''It sells well among both (North) Koreans and foreigners.''

When Kyodo journalists visited the shop -- which, along with a wide variety of commemorative stamps, also sells anti-U.S. and anti-Japan posters and other items -- Monday morning, power was cut and heating was off.

The severity of the electricity problem in North Korea is apparent. The journalists experienced power cuts four times, albeit briefly, when they were having dinner at a local restaurant on Saturday.

During a brief stop at a high-end daily necessities store on Sunday, they saw many lights off and most of the flat-display TVs on sale turned off. On a street, people were seen pushing an electricity-driven trolley bus from behind due to a power cut or a malfunction.

Despite such inconveniences in their daily life, people appear to have high loyalty to Kim Jong Un, whom they call ''the dear respected leader.''

''We absolutely trust and follow the dear respected Comrade Kim Jong Un,'' a Pyongyang citizen said, dismissing concern about his young age and inexperience. ''Looking at his activity, gestures and deep care for the people makes me feel that he really resembles the great Gen. Kim Jong Il.''

In reflection of the woman's account, one billboard standing in central Pyongyang carries a slogan, ''Let us defend with our very lives the Party (Workers' Party of Korea) Central Committee headed by the dear respected Comrade Kim Jong Un!''

When a regular visitor to Pyongyang asked locals what the North's goal of ''opening the gate to a thriving nation'' would mean to them, they said it would probably involve a process through which they would ''feel'' that their lives are getting better through improvement, for example, in the electricity and food problems.

''I don't think it is something the leadership would declare,'' the visitor quoted a Pyongyang citizen as saying. ''It's more like we get to have fewer power cuts and stable -- and hopefully increased -- supply of food distribution even in the event of the occurrence of floods and other kinds of natural disaster.''

The North's leadership has acknowledged the urgency of the food problem, calling it a ''burning issue.'' It also identified addressing power shortages and promoting light industry and agriculture as the country's priority areas in building a thriving nation.

After a trip to North Korea in October last year, including visits to hospitals, an orphanage and a communal farm on a field trip to South Hamgyong and Kwangon provinces, U.N. Undersecretary General for Humanitarian Affairs Valerie Amos stressed the seriousness of food shortages and malnutrition among children in the country, calling for increased aid by donor countries.

==Kyodo

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