North Korea's claims it has tested a nuclear explosive device have brought the isolated country to the center of the world stage. A year ago, VOA correspondent Luis Ramirez was permitted to visit the Marxist state, which has suffered hunger and a decline economy for more than a decade. But he found that while millions of people in the countryside still struggle to recover from a devastating famine in the 1990's, the elite in the capital enjoy a life of relative privilege.
In a pattern very much like that of ancient Korean societies, people in today's communist North Korean state are categorized by a three-tiered caste system.
The top echelon is the class of core loyalists to the ruling dynasty begun by North Korea's late leader Kim Il Sung and extended by his son, current ruler Kim Jong Il.
Most workers and peasants belong to the middle, or neutral, class. The hostile class, at the bottom rung of North Korean society, includes those who have in any way expressed dissatisfaction with the state, whose relatives may have escaped to South Korea, or whose ancestors were landowners. Experts on North Korea and refugees now abroad say members of this class and their families are often in prison camps, far from view.
Only members of the loyal top class are allowed to live in the showcase capital city - mostly in towering, austere apartment blocks.
It is difficult for foreign observers to see what their everyday lives are like. People are forbidden to invite foreigners to their homes. All international aid workers and diplomats interviewed in Pyongyang said they have never seen the inside of local residents' homes.
A peek inside apartment windows from a speeding bus shows neatly painted rooms, each with twin portraits of the late so-called "Great Leader" Kim Il Sung, and Kim Jong Il, who is known as the "Dear Leader."
That loyalty pays off in many ways. Aid workers report dire shortages of food and medicine in the North Korean countryside, but residents of the capital have privileged access to consumer goods such as packaged foods and washing machines.
Only those who hold high positions in the regime have access to the few motor vehicles - including some luxury cars - seen in Pyongyang. Residents also have access to better medical care.
At the clean and bustling 1,500-bed Pyongyang Maternity Hospital, administrators explain what a privilege it is for women to give birth here. Even residents of Pyongyang are only allowed to have their firstborn children in the facility.
Dr. Kim Cheun Heui proudly displays her hospital's modern X-ray and scanning equipment to a small group of American journalists.
"Last year, the great General Kim Jong Il sent us so many updated machines," explained Dr. Kim. "This is a state-of-the-art piece of equipment that can check the inside of the body. If you have a small tumor, it can find it easily."
Dr. Kim shows reporters a hall where newborns and their mothers are kept in strangely hermetic conditions. Visitors can see the women only on closed-circuit television, and speak to them by telephone.
Hospital administrators allow reporters to interview two young mothers in a carefully prepared scene. With their hair impeccably combed, their spotless blankets perfectly folded and their babies sleeping peacefully in their arms, they strike an angelic pose. A reporter asked 26-year-old Som Yun Mi what dreams she has for her daughter.
"I want my daughter to be forever devoted to the great General Kim Jong Il's army, even though she is a woman," she said.
Also on the hospital tour was a stop at the nursery, where a nurse proudly shows off a set of triplets. Multiple births are a special source of pride in North Korea, where the government encourages women of the loyal class to give birth to nine or more children - all presumed to be future soldiers in Kim Jong Il's million-man army.
The scene is a stunning contrast to refugees' tales of the North Korea they know, where women of the hostile class are forced to have abortions at prison camps. This, they say, is part of Mr. Kim's drive for ethnic and ideological purity.
Authorities in Pyongyang turned down requests by visiting reporters to visit hospitals in the countryside. Humanitarian officials say conditions there are much worse than at the showcase hospital in the capital.