Pyongyang, North Korea – It’s the beginning of a new day in North Korea’s capital. Just before dawn, the only lights switched on on a downtown street are ones illuminating two huge portraits of the country’s founder Kim Il Sung and his son, Kim Jong Il.
A silent commuting crowd slowly emerges. Men and women dressed in dark suites descend upon the central district that houses government ministries and offices.
Buses are the mass transport of choice in this part of Pyongyang; old rusted ones from the 1960s share the road with brand new vehicles. Inside, silent passengers look out through mist-covered windows.
At major intersections, female traffic police keep an eye on the few cars that drive through Pyongyang’s streets. They salute in military style to cars bearing government license plates. Traffic jams are a rarity.
In the city centre, Kim Il Sung square is one of the most recognisable landmarks of this communist state. The square serves as the stage of military parades, and here is where North Korean leaders are cheered by hundreds of thousands of its devoted citizens during state celebrations.
North Korea is often described as the Hermit Kingdom – a land of human rights abuses, labour camps, famine, and excesses of the Kim family dynasty.
But in the North Korean capital, there’s another side shown by government handlers to journalists, tourists and investors, one resembling growing modernity. Old apartment buildings built in the 1980s are being replaced by high-rise condominiums.
Mobile phones are widely used by North Koreans. At a local school chosen for a visit, students recite Hamlet instead of Stalin. Government minders at all times are eager to point out these changes are not reforms to the system, just new measures to improve it.