PYONGYANG (Reuters) - While the world wonders if North Korea is in the throes of a leadership crisis over Kim Jong-il's suspected stroke, the real power struggle for ordinary people in the hermit state is coping with electricity shortages.
Blackouts frequently interrupted a four-day stay in Pyongyang for South Koreans attending a rare joint seminar between the Cold War rivals, with the North's showcase city often plunged into pitch darkness by power outages.
"What is going on here?" a North Korean border control officer said when computer terminals lost power and the lights went out at the Soviet-era Sunan Airport terminal, which serves Pyongyang, while he was processing the documents of the visiting South Koreans.
One of his colleagues tried in vain to keep the line of visitors moving by checking passports in the faint light from a distant door.
When the sun goes down in Pyongyang, people hurry along unlit sidewalks before they have to grope their way home in near total darkness. At street level there were far more apartments in complete darkness than there were enjoying the faint glow of fluorescent lights.
Outside observers are equally in the dark over Kim's health and succession plans in Asia's only communist dynasty.
U.S. and South Korean officials said Kim suffered a stroke in August, raising questions about who was in control of the reclusive state and who was making decisions about the North's nuclear weapons programme.
In the past week the secretive North has announced it will close its few border crossings with the South and will refused to allow international inspectors remove nuclear samples from a plutonium-producing plant.
Analysts fear the North is retreating deeper into its shell amid growing speculation over Kim's health.
IN THE DARK
Outwardly, the North says the moves are in response to perceived mistreatment by conservative South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, who cut off what once had been a free flow of unconditional aid when he took office in February and tied future handouts to the North's denuclearisation.
The North's official KCNA news agency said at the weekend that Kim attended an art festival given by soldiers where he heard the troops sing ""Soldier Lives near the General" and waved to the performers.
The appearance at the art performance was one of several events in recent weeks where Kim has been shown in his state's media, although doubts persist about his health.
Inside North Korea, its citizens remain in the dark, figuratively and literally.
The official Rodong Sinmun newspaper said in a front-page feature article on Friday that workers at the Pyongyang power station were hard at work "in the battle to increase electric power production" under Kim's guidance.
North Korea's dilapidated power system means that its factories are largely idle, dealing a heavy blow to its already battered economy.
"We can bring about exaltation in the production and construction (of electric power) through correct strategy and execution, especially when the condition is adverse," the newspaper quoted Kim as saying at an unspecified occasion.
The visiting South Koreans were treated to a performance by artistically gifted students but had to wait to applaud because the lights went out at the end of the show in an unheated hall, leaving them wondering if the darkness was part of the act.
One of the visiting South Koreans was injured during a blackout at the hotel where they were staying, considered one of the country's finest. He bumped his head when stranded in a lightless corridor, leaving him with a gash on his forehead and in need of medical treatment.
"It's all because it is so damned dark in there," a fellow visitor said.
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