The signs of change may be subtle, but they are unmistakable on the streets of Pyongyang, the showcase capital city of the reclusive Hermit Kingdom — North Korea.

Young North Koreans can be spotted sipping espresso in an Austrian café off a main square, while residents crossing the famously wide, empty boulevards — today filled with an increasing number of cars — can be seen talking into new mobile phones.

Markets, once banned by the regime, are sprouting up in Pyongyang, selling DVDs, including Indian films. The portraits of Marx and Lenin that once adorned Kim Il-sung Square have been removed.

“There is a sense of high dynamism in the country,” said Dr. Wolfgang Jamann, secretary general of the German aid agency Welthungerhilfe who was granted a rare and unprecedented glimpse into life there during a visit this week. Dr. Jamann returned from a five-day visit on Thursday, following a trip that took him across two provinces and deep into the North Korean countryside.

Yet, any long-overdue steps that North Korea might be taking towards reforms, under its new young leader Kim Jong-un, may hinge on a crucial few months ahead for the country, Dr. Jamann said, with drought fears once again raising the spectre of dire food shortages.

Mr. Kim took over leadership in December following the death of his father, the “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il.

“Every person we talk to confronted us with the statement that they were in the most severe drought in sixty years,” he said. “This could mean severe malnutrition, or even famine.”

Dr. Jamann said the country was at a crucial moment in its agricultural cycle, with a prolonged dry spell threatening this year’s harvest. His aid agency has been running, since 1997, a number of projects in rural and urban North Korea, including building greenhouses, mechanising farm equipment and developing better quality seedsThe planting season for the main crops, rice, maize and cabbage, is already under way. The country faced a deadly famine in the 1990s which claimed an estimated million lives.

“We don’t know if the plants will survive the dry spell or not,” he said. Wherever he travelled, he saw “every square metre under cultivation”. “The maize is being watered manually as there is no rain, and there are no large irrigation schemes,” he said. “A huge effort is now being made to provide water.”

Aid agencies estimate that the North faces an annual food shortage of 500,000 tonnes. The United Nations warned last week that at least 3 million people in the country of 23 million were in urgent need of international food assistance. If this year’s harvest is lost to the dry spell, that number could be far greater.

Dr. Jamann heard from diplomats that the inputs into the Public Distribution System were so low that last year the boundaries of Pyongyang had to be redrawn, extending to 2.5 million residents rather than three million, so that fewer people could be served.

In the villages he visited in the South Hwanghae and North Pyong’an provinces, he observed an increasing number of private plots of land.

Villagers are now allowed to grow their own crops in plots restricted to 100 square metres. There are, however, no markets for them to sell their produce, so it does not give them additional income.

“In the countryside, there is mostly only barter trade,” he said.

Dr. Jamann did however see larger markets in Pyongyang, signs of gradual loosening of economic controls by the regime. “Compared to five years ago, the Pyongyang market is ten times in size,” he said.

“The city is also a more illuminated city. Part of the energy problem for the capital seems to have been solved one way or another.” He also suggested that State propaganda was becoming less effective than in the past with at least one million mobile phones now being used in the country, facilitating greater communication.

Dr. Jamann acknowledged it was difficult to raise funds as there was reluctance in the West to support an aid organisation working with a regime that spends billions on a nuclear programme and the military.

“It is a valid question,” he said, adding that it even pertained to the agency’s work in “a place like India which has 220 million poor people, and is a rich country”. “We have a feeling that by what we do we are improving the living conditions of a significant number of people who will otherwise live in worse conditions,” he said. “But this is the dilemma that we work in.”

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