Archive for the ‘Restaurants’ Category

North Korea Google Earth

Wednesday, March 11th, 2009

North Korea Uncovered v.16
Download it here


The most recent version of North Korea Uncovered (North Korea Google Earth) has been published.  Since being launched, this project has been continuously expanded and to date has been downloaded over 32,000 times.

Pictured to the left is a statue of Laurent Kabila of the Democratic Republic of Congo.  This statue, as well as many others identified in this version of the project, was built by the North Koreans. According to a visitor:

From the neck down, the Kabila monument looks strangely like Kim Jong Il: baggy uniform, creased pants, the raised arm, a little book in his left hand. From the neck up, the statue is the thick, grim bald mug of Laurent Kabila (his son Joseph is the current president). “The body was made in North Korea,” explains my driver Felix. In other words, the body is Kim Jong Il’s, but with a fat, scowling Kabila head simply welded on.

This is particularly interesting because there are no known pictures of a Kim Jong il statue.  The only KJI statue that is reported to exist is in front of the National Security Agency in Pyongyang.  If a Kim Jong il statue does in fact exist, it might look something like this.

Thanks again to the anonymous contributors, readers, and fans of this project for your helpful advice and location information. This project would not be successful without your contributions.

Version 16 contains the following additions: Rakwon Machine Complex, Sinuiju Cosmetics Factory, Manpo Restaurant, Worker’s Party No. 3 Building (including Central Committee and Guidance Dept.), Pukchang Aluminum Factory, Pusan-ri Aluminum Factory, Pukchung Machine Complex, Mirim Block Factory, Pyongyang General Textile Factory, Chonnae Cement Factory, Pyongsu Rx Joint Venture, Tongbong Cooperative Farm, Chusang Cooperative Farm, Hoeryong Essential Foodstuff Factory, Kim Ki-song Hoeryong First Middle School , Mirim War University, electricity grid expansion, Tonghae Satellite Launching Ground (TSLG)” is also known as the “Musudan-ri Launching Station,” rebuilt electricity grid, Kumchang-ri suspected underground nuclear site, Wangjaesan Grand Monument, Phothae Revolutionary Site, Naedong Revolutionary Site, Kunja Revolutionary Site, Junggang Revolutionary Site, Phophyong Revolutionary Site, Samdung Revolutionary Site, Phyongsan Granite Mine, Songjin Iron and Steel Complex (Kimchaek), Swedish, German and British embassy building, Taehongdan Potato Processing Factory, Pyongyang Muyseum of Film and Theatrical Arts, Overseas Monuments built by DPRK: Rice Museum (Muzium Padi) in Malaysia, Statue de Patrice Lumumba (Kinshasa, DR Congo), National Heroes Acre (Windhoek, Namibia), Derg Monument (Addis Ababa, Ethiopia), National Heroes Acre (Harare, Zimbabwe), New State House (Windhoek, Namibia), Three Dikgosi (Chiefs) Monument (Gaborone, Botswana), 1st of May Square Statue of Agostinho Neto (Luanda, Angola), Momunment Heroinas Angolas (Luanda, Angola), Monument to the Martyrs of Kifangondo Battle (Luanda, Angola), Place de l’étoile rouge, (Porto Novo, Benin), Statue of King Béhanzin (Abomey, Benin), Monument to the African Renaissance (Dakar, Senegal), Monument to Laurent Kabila [pictured above] (Kinshasa, DR Congo).

DPRK feeling some effects of global econ downturn

Sunday, March 1st, 2009

The global financial crisis/recession is affecting some of the DPRK’s most visible assets. 

The first example comes from the Kaesong Industrial Zone, where South Korean firms are obliged to pay North Korean workers’ wages in $US directly to the North Korean government.  Since the South Korean Won/$US exchange rate has risen significantly in recent months, companies in the Zone have seen their labor costs (denominated in $US) soar.  Since wages are fixed and firms are unable to lay off workers, some have responded by simply not paying wages—which does not affect the workers so much as it does the North Korean government’s finances, since it keeps most of the funds.

Quoting from Radio Free Asia:

Authorities in North Korea have warned South Korean companies in its Kaesong industrial area they must pay workers’ wages or face fines, as many investors begin to feel the effects of the economic downturn.

Lee Lim-dong, secretary general of the Committee of the Association of Enterprises Invested in the Kaesong Industrial Complex, said the issue of unpaid salaries was brought up late last year but had now become a formal demand.

“This time around, official notification was issued to all South Korean enterprises invested in Kaesong, through the Kaesong Industrial District Management Committee (KIDMC),” Lee said.

South Korean businesses invested in Kaesong have already incurred serious losses due to the depreciation of the South Korean won against the U.S. dollar, according to Kim Kyu Chol, head of the Forum for Inter-Korean Relations, a Seoul-based group monitoring inter-Korean business relations.

“They already have to spend 30-45 percent more on labor [because of this],” he said, adding that the lives of South Korean entrepreneurs in the Kaesong economic zone would now be even more difficult.


According to Park Yong-man, director of Green Textile Co.—a South Korean company invested in Kaesong—“The official notification was sent to all South Korean companies in Kaesong on Feb. 10.”

Meanwhile, Kim said, one South Korean electroplating company had already failed to pay its North Korean workers for more than three months and had been suspended.

Seven South Korean companies in Kaesong are currently unable to pay their North Korean workers on time and will soon be in bigger trouble because of the new measures, Kim said.

South Korean companies operating in Kaesong are not allowed to recruit or dismiss North Korean staff directly, and North Korean authorities impose quotas of staffing numbers on them.

In early February, North Korean officials said that salaries of North Korean supervisors watching over the night shift at South Korean enterprises in Kaesong would have to increase by 200-300 percent, putting further pressure on labor costs.

And companies can be suspended from operations for failing to pay their employees for more than a month.

Kim said South Korean companies in Kaesong don’t need more supervisors or clerical workers, which the North Korean side has sought.

“They are already facing a managerial crisis, and a [demanded] 50 percent increase in the number of North Korean managerial staff is pushing it too hard,” he said, adding that South Korean enterprises would find this hard to accept.

Until recently, the Kaesong Industrial District Management Committee (KIDMC), a joint North-South panel overseeing the complex, was responsible for half of the U.S. $10 a month transportation allowance given to North Korean workers in Kaesong.

North Korea demanded as of Jan. 1 that South Korea Kaesong companies must now pay the entire cost.

Now hard bargaining can pay off sometimes, especially for North Korea, but with all that has happened in the Zone recently it seems as if the DPRK actually wants these businesses to leave.  The DPRK’s negotiators are smart enough to know that the pie is shrinking and they naturally want to protect their share, but unfortunately they don’t yet seem to appreciate that their actions will have serious ramifications on future investment in the Zone once the global economy turns the corner.

Example No. 2: Unfortunately, recent economic conditions have also reduced the number of South Korean tourists venturing abroad where they might enjoy diversions such as eating in a North Korean-owned restaurant.

Quoting from Japan Probe:

Ever since a North Korean government restaurant opened in Bangkok two years ago, the Japanese press have been regularly visiting the place with hidden cameras to catch a glimpse of its dinnertime performances. However, it has now been discovered that the restaurant recently went out of business.

Most of its business had come from South Korean tourists, but the weakening of the won and the decline in tourism to Thailand due to the airport protests seem to have dealt a death blow to the restaurant. Attempts to contact North Korea-run restaurants in Cambodia and Vietnam failed, suggesting that those restaurants may have also gone under. It has also been said that a similar North Korean restaurant in China has suffered a big drop in business.

Read the RFA article here:
North Korea Warning Over Labor
Radio Free Asia
J.W. Noh


North Korea on Google Earth

Thursday, October 2nd, 2008

North Korea Uncovered: Version 12
Download it here

mayday.JPGAbout this Project: This map covers North Korea’s agriculture, aviation, cultural locations, markets, manufacturing facilities, energy infrastructure, political facilities, sports venues, military establishments, religious facilities, leisure destinations, national parks, shipping, mining, and railway infrastructure. It is continually expanding and undergoing revisions. This is the 12th version.

Additions include: Tongch’ang-dong launch facility overlay (thanks to Mr. Bermudez), Yongbyon overlay with destroyed cooling tower (thanks to Jung Min Noh), “The Barn” (where the Pueblo crew were kept), Kim Chaek Taehung Fishing Enterprise, Hamhung University of education, Haeju Zoo, Pyongyang: Kim il Sung Institute of Politics, Polish Embassy, Munsu Diplomatic Store, Munsu Gas Station, Munsu Friendship Restaurant, Mongolian Embassy, Nigerian Embassy, UN World Food Program Building, CONCERN House, Czech Republic Embassy, Rungnang Cinema, Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, Pyongyang Number 3 Hospital, Electric Machines Facotry, Bonghuajinlyoso, Second National Academy of Sciences, Central Committee Building, Party Administration Building, Central Statistics Bureau, Willow Capital Food House, Thongounjong Pleasure Ground, Onpho spa, Phipa Resort Hotel, Sunoni Chemical Complex (east coast refinery), Ponghwa Chemical complex (west coast refinery), Songbon Port Revolutionary Monument, Hoeryong People’s Library, Pyongyang Monument to the anti Japanese martyrs, tideland reclamation project on Taegye Island. Additionally the electricity grid was expanded and the thermal power plants have been better organized. Additional thanks to Ryan for his pointers.

I hope this map will increase interest in North Korea. There is still plenty more to learn, and I look forward to receiving your contributions to this project.

Version 12 available: Download it here


Download glitch fixed: North Korea Google Earth (version 11)

Thursday, August 14th, 2008

The most authoritative map of North Korea on Google Earth
Download it here

This map covers North Korea’s agriculture, aviation, cultural locations, markets, manufacturing facilities, railroad, energy infrastructure, politics, sports venues, military establishments, religious facilities, leisure destinations, and national parks. It is continually expanding and undergoing revisions. This is the eleventh version.

Additions include: Mt. Paegun’s Ryonghung Temple and resort homes, Pyongyang’s Chongryu Restaurant, Swiss Development Agency (former UNDP office), Iranian Embassy, White Tiger Art Studio, KITC Store, Kumgangsan Store, Pyongyang Fried Chicken Restaurant, Kilju’s Pulp Factory (Paper), Kim Chaek Steel Mill, Chongjin Munitions Factory, Poogin Coal Mine, Ryongwun-ri cooperative farm, Thonggun Pavilion (Uiju), Chinju Temple (Yongbyon), Kim il Sung Revolutionary Museum (Pyongsong), Hamhung Zoo, Rajin electrified perimeter fence, Pyongsong market (North Korea’s largest), Sakju Recreation Center, Hoeryong Maternity Hospital, Sariwon Suwon reservoir (alleged site of US massacre), Sinpyong Resting Place, 700 Ridges Pavilion, Academy of Science, Hamhung Museum of the Revolutionary Activities of Comrade Kim Il Sung, South Hamgyong House of Culture, Hamhung Royal Villa, Pork Chop Hill, and Pyongyang’s Olympic torch route. Additional thanks go to Martyn Williams for expanding the electricity grid, particularly in Samjiyon, and various others who have contributed time improving this project since its launch.

Disclaimer: I cannot vouch for the authenticity of many locations since I have not seen or been to them, but great efforts have been made to check for authenticity. These efforts include pouring over books, maps, conducting interviews, and keeping up with other peoples’ discoveries. In many cases, I have posted sources, though not for all. This is a thorough compilation of lots of material, but I will leave it up to the reader to make up their own minds as to what they see. I cannot catch everything and I welcome contributions.  Additionally, this file is getting large and may take some time to load.


Pyongyang wants McDonald’s franchise?!?

Wednesday, July 9th, 2008


Burger Chain ‘Rebuffed N.Korean Overtures’
Choson Ilbo
Influential North Koreans tried to bring McDonalds into the country, but the fast-food chain declined citing lack of profitability, Radio Free Asia reported Wednesday. RFA quoted Nancy Mazeska at MacDonald’s International Franchise Division as saying the person who contacted the chain probably had “political connections” and a “history of success in North Korea.” But due to the poor infrastructure and distribution network and probable lack of demand, McDonalds decided to take a rain check.

McDonalds at one point thought about letting its franchise in South Korea handle North Korean operations, she said. She did not comment further on who the businessman was and when he contacted the company. According to North Korean press, mass-produced hamburgers were distributed in universities in Pyongyang in September 2000 at the orders of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.

Many thoughts are running through my head:

1.  Can you imagine?  The “golden arches” right next to the Arch of Triumph in Pyongyang.  Of course the North Koreans would make sure that their “golden arches” were the largest in the world—3 meters taller than the ones in America.

2. Rumor has it that no two countries with a McDonald’s in them have ever attacked each other…with one recent exception: the bombing of Serbia in the 1990s.  Despite the fact that McDonald’s is frequently targeted by anti-American activists, the opening of a franchise in Pyongyang would in fact be a great symbol of hope.

I remember visiting the first McDonald’s in the Soviet Union just after it opened in Moscow.  I stood in line for hours to eat food that tasted exactly like it did in America (of course I was living in England at the time and their food didn’t taste much better than the Soviets’).  The reason I stood in line for so long is because so many Russians wanted to try it as well, and it was finally considered politically acceptable.  The same would probably be true of Pyongyang residents, and the line out the door would be telling.

3.  The hamburger is not entirely unknown to North Koreans.  All outbound flights on Air Koryo serve a hamburger (or at least it is some kind of meat patty in a much larger bun with a piece of lettuce).  In business class, you get it on a plate.  I don’t think it is that great, but it is made in the DPRK.  Here is a bad photo I took of the alleged burger.

UPDATE: 4. ROK Drop wonders if they would have used US beef! 


DPRK economy shrinks for second year: Bank of Korea

Tuesday, June 17th, 2008

North Korea does not publish economic data.  The size of North Korea’s economy is estimated by South Korea’s Central Bank (Bank of Korea), the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and other think tanks such as the Sejong Institute (Lee Jong Seok)

According to a recent report by the Bank of Korea, North Korea sufferd its second full year of economic contraction (as defined by GDP), 1.1% in 2006 and 2.3% in 2007.  The bank estimates North Korea’s 2007 gross national income (GNI/GNP) at $26.7 billion, per capita GNP at $1,152 (assuming population of 23 million).  If you are interested in knowing the difference between GNP and GDP, click here.

Here are some highlights from the report:

Agriculture, forestry & fisheries marked a 9.4% decrease following a 2.6% decrease in 2006

Mining increased 0.4% in 2007, down from 1.9% increase in 2006

Manufacturing increased 0.8%, higher than 0.4% 2006 increase. -1.7% growth in light industry, due to the decrease in food products and beverages. +2.3% growth in heavy industries led by expansion of metal and machinery products.

Electricity, gas & water production increased 4.8%, (+2.7% in 2006), from hydroelectric and steam power generation.

Construction production -1.5%, (-11.5% in 2006), from reduced non-housing construction and civil engineering.

Services +1.7%, (+1.1% in 2006). Hotel, restaurant, transport, post & telecom industry expanded.

Trade volume (goods) fell 1.8% to $2.941 billion, 1/248 South Korea’s. Exports fell 3.0%, imports fell 1.3%.

These estimates are based on trade figures obtained from the Korea International Trade Association, Korea Trade and Investment Promotion Agency, fuel and food aid figures from aid groups such as the International Red Cross and the World Food Program, as well as information provided by frequent visitors.

More information here:
Full report by Bank of Korea  and data (recomended)

North Korea’s Economy Shrank in 2007, Second Annual Contraction
Heejin Koo


North Korea Now: Will the Clock Be Turned Back?

Friday, February 15th, 2008

This morning I received an email from a reader at the Brookings Institution who shared an article by one of their visiting fellows.  Much of it was about US/DPRK foreign policy, but I thought the following excerpt was interesting from a social change perspective:

On a recent visit to Pyongyang, this author was impressed by the sheer scale of new economic phenomena in DPRK. In terms of variety of goods, activity, and scale, markets in North Korea’s central areas (less in the provinces) remind of Chinese provincial markets. Numerous restaurants serve good—and very cheap, by Western standards—food to customers flocking to them. New “service centers” (eundokwon), combining shops, saunas, and restaurants under one roof, have sprung up and are run by highly placed entities such as Party departments and “offices.” Every branch of the Party, military, and local authorities now operates trading companies. Real business managers have appeared, some engaged not only in the “shuttle” trade with China but in bigger projects (in construction, for example), and some corporations have amassed a considerable volume of business. Judging by the author’s experiences in the 1980s and 1990s, these “new Koreans” are much more realistic and open to contact with outsiders than was the case before. There are changes in the official line as well: North Korean economists explained that now, out of several hundred thousand products manufactured in the country, only several hundred are now centrally planned. For the vast majority of manufactured products, managers of the state-owned enterprises are given a free hand to determine their production targets and to get what they need through the “socialist wholesale market.”

Having witnessed the processes eventually leading to the denunciation of the command economy in the USSR, and the transition to a market-based economy, this author can testify that there are striking resemblances in certain aspects of contemporary daily life in the DPRK to the USSR in the 1970s and 1980s (the Chinese experience in the1980s, with private enterprise officially sanctioned, is less similar). At that time in the Soviet Union, a vast black market of goods and services began to form in major cities. Many of its dealers became (often after a prison term) the leading businessmen of the post-Soviet era.

For example, at that time there was no private property for apartments in Moscow or elsewhere, and no real estate market officially existed. But at the same time almost any Soviet in the course of his life would “change” one apartment for a better one, paying considerable sums of money to the former “owner.” Some shadowy dealers would buy apartments outright, bribing officials to get a “registration” (propiska), and many made a profession of acting as a “go-between.” Similar activities are sprouting like mushrooms around North Korea. A one-room apartment in Pyongyang is said to cost about US$5000, less in local areas. However, real estate in some small cities close to Pyongyang boast the same high prices, as various kinds of dealers and traders, who are not permitted to settle in Pyongyang, buy apartments there. Foreign currency flows freely and, like in the USSR, most things can be obtained for money. A Russian joke said: “if it is illegal, but very much desirable, it is not prohibited.”

The ground for developing market relations is well prepared. The “royal economy” serving the ruling class (Kim Jong-il’s immediate retinue and the top nomenklatura or kanbu), and a large part of the internationalized sector (joint ventures and free economic zones) operate on market principles. The next step, should the country’s leaders admit the need for developing the country and sustaining their power, should be “setting the rules of the game” by providing a legal framework for what already exists. For that, however, external security should be guaranteed to the regime—irreversibly and comprehensively. Only then will the hard-liners, who fear—with good reason—that reforms would invite subversion of the regime, be confident enough for real progress to take place. Nevertheless the words “reform” and “openness” (especially because of their “Chinese connotations”) are unacceptable to Pyongyang, and Kim Jong-il himself stated as much during his talks with Roh Moo-hyun in October 2007. Under the present leadership Pyongyang, any economic reforms would most likely never be called such and would take place in an unpublicized manner without discussion, which is not helpful in terms of public relations with the West and negative international sentiment about the regime.

The full article can be found here:
North Korea Now: Will the Clock Be Turned Back?

Georgy Toloraya, Visiting Fellow, Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies


North Korean run restaurants diversify product lines

Thursday, February 7th, 2008

Writing today for the Asia Times, Sunny Lee gives an update on the North Korean-run restaurants in China and South East Asia.  Much has already been published on these restaurants: how they channel money back to North Korea and how the waitresses tend to defect.  (As mentioned in the Kaesong post yesterday, they probably also pay hefty bribes for their overseas posts and have well-connected relatives.)

Sunny Lee points out that these restaurants (see YouTube video here) are now diversifying their product lines to boost profits, and like other successful capitalists across Asia, they are doing it by leveraging their most unique asset–attractive North Korean women.  How?  By transforming into karaoke bars after dinner hours.

North Korea has some 100 restaurants overseas, mostly in China and Southeast Asia, including Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. These restaurants serve as an important revenue pipeline for earning foreign currencies for Pyongyang. Each overseas North Korean restaurant is said to be allotted a revenue quota to fill, ranging from US$100,000 to $300,000 a year to send to Pyongyang, which makes the total revenue estimation some tens of millions of dollars.

The business formula – restaurant by day and karaoke bar by night – is also seen as an effort for these restaurants to meet the assigned financial quota. Currently, there are scores of North Korean restaurants in China, including in cities such as Beijing, Tianjin, Tsingdao, Dandong and Yanji. Beijing has 11 North Korean restaurants. All of these employ North Koreans whose total employment number in China is estimated to be several hundred. (Asia Times)

Despite the higher cost, business is brisk…

The reason that North Korean restaurants are expensive yet remain popular among customers is their immaculate service from beautiful employees. In China, where service quality at restaurants is often unsatisfactory, North Korean restaurants are becoming a favorite alternative among members of the businesses community. (Asia Times)

However, if you want to enjoy an authentic North Korean dining experience but have moral qualms about supporting the regime, then you can patronize similar resturants managed by North Korean defectors in South Korea–though the experience is quite different.  Whereas the Chinese pay extra for premium restaurant service in Beijing, the South Koreans pay for the genuine socialist restaurant experience.  In other words, they pay to be treated like an annoyance to the staff.

[At the Pyongyang Moran Bar (located in South Korea), the] North Korean waitresses wore traditional dresses in the bright colors that were fashionable in the South some years back. The singer’s interpretation of “Whistle,” a North Korean standard of the 1980’s, was shaky and off-key. Service was bad and included at least one mild threat. Drinks were spilled, beer bottles left unopened and unpoured.

But the South Korean customers could not get enough of the Pyongyang Moran Bar. (New York Times)

So you have your choice of North Korean themed restaurants:  The propaganda ideal or the  socialist reality.

The full articles can be found here:
Chillin’ at a North Korean karaoke bar
Asia Times
Sunny Lee

In Deep South, North Koreans Find a Hot Market
New York Times
Norimitsu Onishi


North Korea Google Earth (Version 7)

Friday, December 14th, 2007

The most authoritative map of North Korea on Google Earth
North Korea Uncovered v.7
Download it here

koreaisland.JPGThis map covers North Korea’s agriculture, aviation, cultural locations, manufacturing facilities, railroad, energy infrastructure, politics, sports venues, military establishments, religious facilities, leisure destinations, and national parks. It is continually expanding and undergoing revisions. This is the sixth version.

Additions to the latest version of “North Korea Uncovered” include: A Korean War folder featuring overlays of US attacks on the Sui Ho Dam, Yalu Bridge, and Nakwon Munitians Plant (before/after), plus other locations such as the Hoeryong Revolutionary Site, Ponghwa Revolutionary Site, Taechon reactor (overlay), Pyongyang Railway Museum, Kwangmyong Salt Works, Woljong Temple, Sansong Revolutionary Site, Jongbansan Fort and park, Jangsan Cape, Yongbyon House of Culture, Chongsokjong, Lake Yonpung, Nortern Limit Line (NLL), Sinuiju Old Fort Walls, Pyongyang open air market, and confirmed Pyongyang Intranet nodes.

Disclaimer: I cannot vouch for the authenticity of many locations since I have not seen or been to them, but great efforts have been made to check for authenticity. These efforts include pouring over books, maps, conducting interviews, and keeping up with other peoples’ discoveries. In many cases, I have posted sources, though not for all. This is a thorough compilation of lots of material, but I will leave it up to the reader to make up their own minds as to what they see. I cannot catch everything and I welcome contributions.


Selling to survive

Wednesday, November 21st, 2007

Financial Times
Anna Fifield

Pak Hyun-yong was, by North Korean standards, an entrepreneur. Too much of an entrepreneur. During the famine that ravaged the country in the late 1990s, Mr Pak watched his family die of starvation – first his younger brother, then his older sister’s children. Then, eventually, his sister too.

Somehow he pulled through this period, dubbed by the regime as “the arduous march”, and was spurred into taking some very non-communist, almost subversive action. He began selling noodles.

Every day he would take 10kg of “corn rice” – a poor North Korean imitation in which dried kernels are fashioned into grains – and turn it into noodles. Then he would get on his bicycle and pedal around his home town of Hamhung on the east coast, bartering the noodles for 12kg of corn rice: 10kg for tomorrow’s noodles and 2kg for his remaining family.

“The police would come by and try to persuade me not to sell the noodles, saying that I should not succumb to capitalism and that the Dear Leader would resolve our food shortages,” says Mr Pak, who escaped from North Korea a year ago and is upbeat and energetic considering the hardships he has endured.

Now 32, he is in hiding in a bleak, remote village in northern China not far from the North Korean border, together with his wife, with whom he escaped, and their new baby. They live in a one-room house with no bathroom – protected by locals who are helping them settle.

“The [North Korean] police even threatened to imprison me if I didn’t stop selling. Suddenly I realised that North Korea was a country where they would stop people’s efforts to survive,” he says, sitting on the warm floor of his house, still dressed in the apron he wears to work in a nearby butchery.

“I heard that China was a rich and modern country – that they had tractors and that people could eat rice every day, even in rural areas,” he says, shaking his head. “Chinese dogs wouldn’t eat our rice – they would ask for better.”

In almost 20 interviews along the border with China, ethnic Koreans born in China and North Korean escapees, some of whom had been in the isolated state as recently as two months ago, describe a country where change is taking place from the ground up rather than under the direction of its leader, Kim Jong-il.

North Korea remains the most tightly controlled state in the world. But recent escapees tell of the changes that are being driven by necessity in areas near China, especially in the cities of Rajin and Hoeryong in the north and Sinuiju at the southern end of the border.

While it would be an overstatement to say that this represents the type of nascent transition to free-market reforms that has occurred in countries such as Russia and China, the worsening state of the North Korean economy is leading to widespread trading and the emergence of a fledgling merchant class crossing into China, the escapees say.

Some agricultural markets – rather than just state markets – were permitted during the “economic improvements” of 2002, but ad-hoc markets have since sprung up around the country with the tacit approval, if not the encouragement, of the regime. These markets are now the backbone of North Korea’s creaking economy as the regime provides almost nothing by way of rations any more.

The parlous state of the economy is probably the driving factor behind Mr Kim’s decision to roll back his nuclear programme. The six-party denuclearisation talks are making surprisingly good progress, analysts say, as his regime seeks heavy fuel oil for its rusting industries and an end to economic sanctions.

Certainly, recent escapees from North Korea describe a desperate situation inside the country. Somewhere between 10,000 and 30,000 North Koreans are thought to be living in hiding in the north-eastern provinces of China, especially in Jilin and Heilongjiang, areas considered backward by Chinese standards.

The Financial Times travelled throughout this region to meet North Koreans while seeking to avoid endangering their lives. (North Koreans who are repatriated from China face detention in labour camps or worse, and even those who are not caught put the lives of family members at risk by talking to journalists. For that reason, names have been changed.)

“In Rajin, all the factories have stopped,” says Oh Man-bok, a 22-year-old who escaped in September from the city near the borders with Russia and China, considered relatively prosperous because it is one of the North’s main trading channels. “The men still have to go to work and have their name checked off but there is nothing to do. Sometimes they sit around and sometimes they go home. They don’t get paid but sometimes, in a good month, they get 15 days’ worth of corn in rations,” he says.

That means women are increasingly becoming the breadwinners, going to the mountains to collect edible plants or to the market to sell home-made snacks. “People survive by selling. They do whatever they can to earn money – selling fried dough sticks or repairing shoes and clothes,” Mr Oh says. “But it’s very difficult to earn enough to survive and even in Rajin, many people have to eat porridge made from the whey left over from making tofu.”

Rajin and Sinuiju, as the main thoroughfares for trade with China, have been more open than the rest of North Korea for some time, but the experiment with capitalism that has been taking place in these two cities now appears to be expanding to Hoeryong.

The city of Hoeryong can be clearly seen from the Chinese side of the border, which is marked by a shallow river only 20 metres wide in places. On the bridge between the two countries, the Financial Times watched North Korean trucks trundle into China and dozens of Chinese – and a few North Koreans wearing badges stamped with the image of Kim Il-sung, Mr Kim’s late father and founder of the state – lug bags across.

A Chinese border official says that about 100 a day cross the bridge from the Chinese side, mainly going to visit family members, although in summer as many as 300 go on tour packages to the beach on North Korea’s east coast. About 10 North Koreans a day cross into China for trading or to see their relatives. “With Rmb1,000 [$135, £65, €92] they can come to China even if they don’t have family here. So they often borrow money to come here and buy things for trading in the market in Hoeryong,” the official says.

Bribery appears to be becoming more widespread as trade and travel increases – from a few cigarettes needed to pass through internal checkpoints to the few hundred renminbi expected at border crossings. “Everyone wants to be a border guard these days,” says one Chinese-Korean trader. “They don’t explicitly say, ‘Give me money’ – they just keep going through your paperwork and asking you questions until you offer them money.”

Again, Pyongyang seems to be aware that this is happening and allows it as a way to keep people happy – rotating border guards every six months to give officials from around the country a chance to earn extra money, according to escapees.

In Hoeryong, the market used to be beside the bridge on the outskirts but this year it was moved to a school building right in the centre of town. Its 180,000 residents enjoy a relatively privileged existence because Kim Jong-il’s late mother was born there.

The market has become central to the city and to people’s lives, driven by grassroots demand, says Song Mi-ok, an ethnic Korean living in China who has made several trips to the city recently. She has gained access by visiting fake relatives, a family to whom she pays Rmb1,000 every time she pretends to visit them.

“You can find everything there,” she says of the market, which opens at 7.30am and closes at dusk. “People usually start by selling food that they have grown or made, using the profits to move into goods trading.”

North Koreans say one can buy everything in the markets “except cat horns”, as their expression has it. Rice given as aid from South Korea is on sale and people even display the bag – even though they risk having it confiscated by the authorities – because people know that South Korean rice is of high quality, Ms Song says.

One kilogram of rice in Hoer­yong market costs 900 North Korean won – a huge amount in a country where the average wage for a government employee is about between 3,000 and 4,000 won a month, or slightly more than one US dollar.

“There are a lot of people buying and it’s all money trade; there’s no bartering now,” Ms Song says. “North Koreans are poor, so it’s quite surprising to see people with a lot of money. They don’t receive money from the state – it’s all money they have made themselves.”

One Korean-Chinese man who visited relatives in Hoeryong last year also describes an increasingly active drug trade. It is not uncommon, he says, to be approached by people in their twenties or thirties selling a white narcotic called “ice” – probably a form of crystal methamphetamine. The drug fetches 20 times the North Korean price in China, making smuggling a lucrative business, but the punishment for drug trafficking in China is so severe that Hoeryong dealers try to sell it to visiting Chinese.

The markets are thriving thanks to new border regulations. While the number crossing illegally has dropped because of tighter restrictions in both countries, the number of North Koreans who are allowed to cross into China legally has steadily increased, according to several Korean-Chinese who help those who make it across the border.

North Koreans with relatives in China but not in South Korea are allowed to apply for passports to cross the border. This is creating a new group of migrant workers – those who are legal but working for themselves and their families rather than for the state. “Young people come here to work for one or two months and earn some money – they’re coming from Pyongyang as well as the regions,” says Ri In-chol, an ethnic Korean missionary from China who supports border crossers, legal or otherwise.

“They pay Rmb300-Rmb400 to get a passport and then they can cross. There is now a much freer flow because Kim Jong-il realises that this is the only way to keep the people alive. They take back money, used sewing machines and used clothes from their relatives that they can sell in the markets,” Mr Ri says.

Although Chinese clothes are most prevalent, North Koreans prefer South Korean products for their higher quality. “The labels have to be cut out of South Korean clothes, so if they don’t have a label then people assume that they’re South Korean and they like them more,” says another Chinese-Korean who has recently visited Rajin.

Indeed, Mr Ri says that North Korean officials are picky about what they will let through. “When North Koreans come to China they are allowed to take used clothes back. But when Korean-Chinese people want to give clothes to their relatives in North Korea, they have to be new because otherwise the officials think they are being looked down on,” he says. (Jeans and short skirts, seen as representative of American immorality, are still not allowed.)

The economic changes – particularly the lessening dependence on the state – are potentially destabilising for Mr Kim’s regime because they weaken the tools of control. That means that there is a fine line between what is permissible and what is not. “Kim Jong-il is tolerating this much openness because people need to survive, but if he wakes up one morning and sees capitalism is spreading too far, he will order it all to be stopped,” says Gao Jing­zhu, professor of Korean studies at China’s Yanbian University, near the border.

“North Korea is small, so if there is too much change it will threaten the sustainability of the regime and it will collapse,” Prof Gao says. “North Korea is in a dilemma.”

Good Friends, a Seoul-based civic group that monitors life inside North Korea, this month said Pyongyang was cracking down on women working in street markets. “The authorities have judged that female merchants have reached a point that threatens the country’s government,” Good Friends quoted a North Korean official in China as saying.

“The men are tied to their workplaces but they don’t receive proper rations,” the official reportedly said. “This has shifted the men’s burden of supporting their families on to the women. With trade directly linked to the people’s survival, the crackdown isn’t going well.”

Indeed, it may already be too late. The increased economic interaction with China means that the flow of information to North Koreans is steadily increasing. “People’s awareness and illusions have changed,” says one Chinese-Korean who drives trucks into North Korea.

This is just the kind of contact that threatens Mr Kim’s regime, which has kept the 23m-strong population under control by cutting off access to the outside world and telling them they live in a socialist paradise. Mr Ri, the missionary, says: “People living in open areas like Rajin and Hoeryong are more exposed to the outside world but that is not the case when you go further into North Korea. So even if it is becoming more open, you never know when that is going to change. They will still come after you if you are involved in political activities.”

But recent escapees from North Korea say that people are increasingly discussing – in private – one topic that they say would have been unimaginable until very recently: the eventual death of the Dear Leader. “State control is still as strong as before but now, when people gather together as families, they say that the system is really wrong. That never used to happen before,” says Mr Pak, the man who left Hamhung last year.

“Kim Jong-il always says he will feed the people and make them happy, but that has not happened. There are many people who hope that Kim Jong-il will die soon,” he says, shrugging his shoulders. “I have to admit it: the state is already kind of breaking down.”