JEAN H. LEE
PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) -- The heart of this city, once famous for its Dickensian darkness, now pulsates with neon.
Glossy new construction downtown has altered the Pyongyang skyline. Inside supermarkets where shopgirls wear faux French designer labels, people with money can buy Italian wine, Swiss chocolates, kiwifruit imported from New Zealand and fresh-baked croissants. They can get facials, lie in tanning booths, play a round of mini golf or sip cappuccinos.
Nearly 2 million people are using cell phones. Computer shops can't keep up with demand for North Korea's locally distributed tablet computer, popularly known here as "iPads." A shiny new cancer institute features a $900,000 X-ray machine imported from Europe.
Pyongyang has long been a city apart from the rest of North Korea, the showcase capital dubbed a "socialist fairyland" by state media.
But a year after new leader Kim Jong Un promised publicly to bring an end to the "era of belt-tightening" and economic hardship in North Korea, the gap between the haves and have-nots so far has only grown with Pyongyang's transformation.
Beyond the paved main streets of the capital, life remains grindingly tough. Food is rationed, electricity is a precious commodity and people get around by walking, cycling or hopping into the backs of trucks. Most homes lack running water or plumbing. Health care is free, but aid workers say medicine is in short supply.
For decades, North Korea seemed a country trapped in time. Rickety streetcars shuddered past concrete-block apartment buildings with broken window panes, chipping pastel paint and crumbling front steps.
But since 2010, as part of the campaign to build a new city for their new leader, Pyongyang has been under construction. Scaffolding covers the fronts of scores of buildings across the city. Red banners painted with slogan "At a breath" -- implying breakneck work at a breathless pace -- flutter from the skeletons of skyscrapers built by soldiers.
Often, the soldiers are scrawny conscripts in thin canvas sneakers piling bricks onto stretchers or hauling them by hand. In 2011, they set up temporary work camps along the Taedong River, makeshift shantytowns decorated by red flags.
Their work focused on downtown Changjon Street, where ramshackle cottages were torn down to make way for department stores, restaurants and high-rise apartments.
Today, the street would not look out of place in Seoul or Shanghai. Indeed, many of the goods -- Hershey's Kisses, Coca-Cola and Doritos -- on sale at the new supermarket were imported from China and Singapore.
"What is a 'delicatessen'?" a North Korean asked as a butcher in a white chef's hat sliced tuna for takeaway sashimi beneath a deli sign written in English. Upstairs, baristas were serving Italian espressos, bakers were churning out baguettes and white wedding cakes.
One new Changjon Street resident, Mun Kang Sun, gave The Associated Press a tour of the apartment she and her husband were granted in recognition for her work at the Kim Jong Suk Textile Factory.
A framed wedding portrait hangs on the wall above their Western-style bed. There's a washing machine in the bathroom, an IBM computer in the study and a 42-inch widescreen TV. AP was not allowed to visit other apartments to compare whether the furnishings are typical for Pyongyang residents.
Orphaned as a child, Mun said she began working in factories at age 16. She earned the title "hero of the republic" after exceeding her work quota by 200 percent for 13 years. She says she accomplished that by dashing around the factory floor operating four or five machines at once.
"When we heard the news that we'd get a nest where we can rest, and we got the key for our apartment and took a look around, we were totally shocked because the house is so nice," said her husband, Kim Hyok. "It's still hard to believe this is my home; it still feels like we're living in a hotel."
Though the apartment has faucets, old habits die hard. The bathtub was still filled with water, a bucket bobbing in the tub, as in countless homes across the country where water is pumped from a well, carried in by hand and used sparingly.
Elsewhere in the city, aging buildings are getting upgraded. But most are still drafty, the walls poorly insulated, even in the capital. Elevators and heat are rare. North Koreans are accustomed to wearing winter jackets and thermal underwear indoors from October to April.
Power cuts have been less frequent in Pyongyang since the opening of a hydroelectric power station to the northwest, but it's still common for the lights to go out in the middle of dinner. Most people just carry on drinking and eating.