PYONGYANG, North Korea -- It started innocently enough. Two journalists, an American and a Japanese, walked into an attractive noodle shop, filled with Korean customers, a few blocks from an area of grand sports stadiums and new hotels filled with visitors to the 13th World Festival of Youth and Students.

The restaurant's windows bore posters of the festival, and the ceiling was strung with small flags of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. It was spotlessly clean and freshly painted. Customers were well dressed. Several wore the uniforms of festival guides. Although it seemed to be something of a model restaurant, at least it was a place where ordinary residents of Pyongyang could eat lunch.

So the Japanese journalist took a picture.

Angry Reaction

Suddenly, a Korean man in his mid-30s, dressed in the high-button gray suit favored by officials, stood up, his face contorted with rage. The man--who was not in the picture and knew he was not in it--called out for the photo taking to stop. He strode over angrily to the journalists' table.

As he shouted at the foreigners, one of the festival guides came over and translated.

"You must give him the film," the translator said.


"There are so many beautiful buildings in Pyongyang, and very good restaurants," said the translator. "Why do you take pictures here?"

"This is a very nice restaurant."

"No, it's not," came the reply. "It is a middle-level restaurant. You must give him the film."

The journalists refused. After a tense standoff, the angry man disappeared and the noodles were served. They proved to be excellent. The foreigners indicated this to the staff, who responded with smiles. Even if the official could not endure foreigners taking pictures of a noodle shop, the waitresses knew it was a nice restaurant with good food.

Under orders of President Kim Il Sung, who has ruled with an iron hand since the end of World War II, the people of North Korea have built central Pyongyang into a beautiful city of broad, tree-lined streets, with attractively landscaped parks, statues and fountains. There are many grand buildings, some in Western style and others with traditional Korean roof lines.

Asia's Tallest Hotel

Dominating the skyline like a Gothic cathedral in an old European city is the 105-story, pyramid-shaped steel and concrete shell of the Ryugyong Hotel, on which structural work has been completed but interior work remains. The hotel is said to be the tallest in Asia--beating by one story a South Korean-built hotel in Singapore.

For North Korea, with half the population of South Korea and less than half the south's annual per capita income, competing with the capitalist south is of great importance. But it is not easy. An attempt to present the best possible face to the world is part of the reason for a burst of construction in Pyongyang during the past few years. It also is a factor motivating heavy-handed attempts to keep visitors from seeing or recording scenes of ordinary life.

North Korea is a reasonably well-off developing nation that is desperately pretending to be richer and more equal than it is.

It sometimes seems as if the entire society is nursing a deep inferiority complex. As much as possible, foreigners are encouraged to see only the concrete grandeur and decorative neon glitz of Pyongyang--the most modern factories, the richest cooperative farms or the better housing developments.

It is possible, however, to leave one's guide behind and wander into ordinary neighborhoods.