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A fascinating report from the Associated Press introduces us to some of the individuals within the tightly choreographed crowds North Korea trots out to celebrate its national solidarity. Like the time the press bus made a wrong turn, the AP's Tim Sullivan offers peek behind the scenes at the real Pyongyang most of us will never see, even on a sanctioned visit to the city.

It turns out that even though those mandatory events require hours of standing and squatting in rehearsal, they're also the centerpiece of many North Koreans' social lives. What few bars and restaurants there are in Pyongyang close early, and the rallies are really the only state-sanctioned way for people to get together. Sullivan paints a downright bucolic picture of the post-rally scene:

Young women walk arm in arm, young men eyeing them from nearby. Older women laugh as they swish along in the traditional Korean dresses modernized here into polyester hoop skirts. Across the street from Department Store No. 1, hundreds of people crowd sidewalk stalls to buy 1-cent servings of spring water ("Good for your health!" a saleswoman promises), served in metal cups that are rinsed in buckets and quickly used again.

In many ways, it's a vision of 1950s small-town America. Most men wear hats and ties, few women show even a hint of cleavage. There are no teenagers with mysterious piercings, no fights, no obvious drunks.

Of course, it's that way because of the iron-fisted rule of the North Korean government, whose propaganda has built the ruling Kim family into demigods who can control the weather and will send you to a labor camp for saying the wrong thing. But still, just hearing about the few bright spots of fun in such a notoriously restrictive society is heartening -- even if they do come closely controlled by the state.

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