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Participants dance during Mass Games in May Day Stadium marking the 70th anniversary of North Korea's foundation on Sept. 9, 2018, in Pyongyang, North Korea.

Nathan VanderKlippe

Somewhere between the images flashing across a 20,000-person human billboard, the sight of dozens of kindergarteners on unicycles and the roar of a crowd in the largest stadium on Earth, Badinan Kakei fell into a kind of delirium.

“I did find myself one or two times clapping along and trying to cheer for the Supreme Leader,” he said, moments after exiting the inaugural performance of the 2018 iteration of the Mass Games, a North Korean spectacle of co-ordinated performance and rigorous training that is the isolated country’s cultural icon.

“You get swept up in the moment,” said Mr. Kakei, a man from Grimsby, Ont., who was in Pyongyang this week as a tourist.

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He is in good company. North Korea, the “Axis of Evil” member that has threatened the fiery destruction of neighbours and enemies alike, has won itself a global following of hopeful supporters after its riveting show this year of amicable relations. Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un has hugged, held hands and strolled on the beach with his counterparts in South Korea, the U.S. and China, promising denuclearization as his regime pledges a “new era.”

In the past week, during a days-long celebration of the country’s 70th anniversary, North Korea added to the pageant of civility. It held a military parade notably devoid of the intercontinental ballistic missiles whose development it has used to incite global fright. And it used its Mass Games as a showcase for good intentions rather than militarism, flashing on its human billboard an enormous message in English and Chinese: “Solidarity, Cooperation, Good Neighbourliness, Friendship.”

Beneath the sign, however, was a small army of children, conscripted to practice and perform as human pixels under severe conditions that have, for years, made the Mass Games an emblem of mistreatment. That much had not changed.

And beyond the grand show, further questions remain about what else has actually changed in a country whose talk of nuclear détente has been accompanied by no apparent effort to halt the production of fissile material or dismantle weapons.

Indeed, critics say the prospect of a new North Korea − the one seemingly on display in a place that has scrubbed its capital of anti-U.S. propaganda as it seeks ways to emerge from poverty and nuclear isolation − is nothing but a chimera.

“Have you seen North Korea take even one step forward to embrace the goal of denuclearization? No,” said Zhang Liangui, a North Korea expert at The Party School, the top institution for training China’s Communist elite.

“Displaying missiles or not, looking friendly or not, presenting nuclear weapons or not − all these are what the North wants the world to see. They don’t represent any tangible difference. They shouldn’t prompt any excitement.”

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Mr. Kim himself has signalled a much larger shift, including making economic advancement a priority over nuclear development. But ”nothing fundamental has changed,” said Michael Breen, the author of Kim Jong-il: North Korea’s Leader. “Deng Xiaoping hasn’t stood up and announced anything. Khrushchev hasn’t denounced Stalin. There hasn’t been a power shift or a significant change.”

Yet, inside the isolated regime, where The Globe and Mail spent five days on a recent trip, there are signs of a country that nonetheless harbours aspirations for a different future, with officials and workers alike building something new in the shadows of antiquated economic policy.

Mr. Kim, who has made “improving peoples’ lives” a credo of his leadership, presided over a 70th anniversary national day parade on Sept. 9 that included no long-range missiles, but did feature a float proclaiming the “robust foundation of an economically strong state” and a “flexible production system,” employing some of the language of modern economic innovation.

Across the country, meanwhile, market prices dominate sales of domestic goods, while companies race to embrace modernity. Central authorities are awarding innovators, cultivating a culture of competition that reminds some of South Korea in the 1970s. It’s not just Pyongyang getting richer, either: Elsewhere, electric bicycles are growing more numerous, as are supplies of imported wines and candies, as workers in pseudo-private jobs pad their wallets.

It all amounts to “a huge change,” as North Korea attempts “to adapt their industrial system to the demands of the 'knowledge economy,’ ” said Peter Ward, a Seoul-based researcher.

Among the few North Koreans The Globe was able to interview − always under the watch of government-appointed minders − there is evidence, too, of a population seizing the language of change, some literally.

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Although local schools teach compulsory English, a growing number of young North Koreans are self-studying Chinese, poring through books on buses and subways in hopes of turning linguistic skill to profit.

Pyongyang’s streets are no longer empty testaments to economic failure. The city’s taxi fleet now numbers in the thousands − not enough to turn Pyongyang into Paris or even Phnom Penh, but enough to show how private travel is within grasp of growing numbers of urbanites.

Lee Cheol-hyok, a police officer, was recently posted to Wonsan, an eastern seaside city that North Korea has attempted to remake into a tourist area, with beachfront resorts and a new US$200-million airport. “When you go there, you can see the change with your own eyes,” he said as he prepared to pay respects to the country’s first two leaders with his wife and daughter on a recent day, flowers in hand.

Wonsan is equally a symbol of waste: The airport has barely been used since opening in 2015. Elsewhere, too, the link between ambition and results isn’t always clear.

North Korea held a military parade to mark its 70th birthday, but refrained from showing off the intercontinental ballistic missiles that have seen it hit with multiple international sanctions.

Nathan VanderKlippe/

But Mr. Kim “wants to improve people’s over all living conditions,” Mr. Lee said, pointing to the 7th Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea held in the spring of 2016. There, Mr. Kim called for “strongly accelerated building of an economic power.”

That proclamation marked “a potentially momentous deviation from the strategy of his two predecessors,” Ruediger Frank, a professor of East Asian Economy and Society at the University of Vienna, wrote in an online essay. “Despite his repeated emphasis on ideology, Kim Jong Un very clearly promises his people a better material life.”

It’s all curried a hopefulness that has risen to the surface in unexpected ways. There has been a noticeable increase of pregnant North Korean women in their late 30s and 40s, “which to me signals a renewed confidence and optimism,” said Susan Ritchie, the founding director of charity First Steps.

All of that is set against the grim reality of a country where 70 per cent of people rely on government rations; more than 40 per cent are considered undernourished. The country’s infant mortality rate is five times higher than South Korea. More than a quarter of children under five show signs of stunted growth.

At the same time, those statistics underpin Mr. Kim’s move to now shift priority, after declaring his nuclear program complete earlier this year. Indeed, it points to a leader for life currently in his mid-30s taking stock of a country he can reasonably expect to head for decades to come − a reconsideration with importance, too, for Mr. Kim’s nuclear threat.

“A nuclear arsenal will be helpful for him to survive five or 10 years,” said Chun Yungwoo, who was Seoul’s top representative at international denuclearization talks in the mid-2000s. But for the years beyond that, Mr. Kim “needs economic development as well. And he knows that without compromise on the nuclear front, this is not going to be achieved.”

Pyongyang says it won’t dismantle its nuclear capabilities without assurances that Washington has, in turn, pulled back its nuclear protection of the Korean peninsula, an unlikely prospect that raises the possibility that tensions will return.

But North Korea’s economic imperative has grown strong enough that Mr. Chun believes Mr. Kim has incentive to lay down his most potent weapons − a prospect most analysts have long dismissed as impossible.

“If he honestly denuclearizes fully, what it means is that he will maintain a one-year latency from a nuclear arsenal,” Mr. Chun said. ”That kind of latency in return for sanctions relief, a peace treaty, normal new relations with the U.S., security guarantees and economic benefits − that’s something he can think about. It could be beneficial for him to be there, thriving for 40 or 50 years as his kingdom becomes bigger and more prosperous.”

With reports from Alexandra Li

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