MOUNT KUMGANG, North Korea - Autumn has always been the most cherished season in Korea, a time to harvest and to hike, to store up food and enjoy the last days of warmth before the peninsula's notoriously brutal winters.
Even in the impoverished North, families find time to gather, around a mountain campfire or in a courtyard where cabbage is laid out to make the year's supply of pungent kimchi.
This year, in North Korea, as the days become shorter and the evenings chilly, there is a greater sense of urgency in the air.
The whole country is preparing for the big celebrations next April to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung, the ex-guerrilla fighter who founded North Korea in 1948 and remains the nation's “eternal president” long after his death in 1994. His son, current leader Kim Jong Il, is simultaneously grooming his own young son, Kim Jong Un, to succeed him.
Throughout the capital, Pyongyang, and in cities and towns across the country, soldiers pressed into construction work scurry around building sites trying to finish renovations before the temperatures plummet and snow begins to fall. Dilapidated homes have been torn down to make way for high rises apartment complexes; the faded facades and interiors of shops, restaurants and office buildings are being refurbished and repainted.
As labourers hammer away, students crowd plazas practicing the choreographed steps that will transform city squares into swaying, synchronized shows of unity in the spring. Young gymnasts toss hoops into the air and a flock of schoolchildren on inline skates rehearses a flag-bearing ceremony.
Yet these ambitious preparations belie a sobering fact: The United Nations and aid groups say millions of North Koreans are going hungry in poorer areas outside the capital city. An “unacceptable” number of children under 5 are malnourished, U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos warned after a recent visit.
In this mountainous country with little arable land, food is chronically in short supply. Stocks are dipping even lower, aid groups say, due to a harsh winter and summer floods that destroyed crops, while aid from overseas has been entangled by disagreements over the nation's nuclear ambitions.
Despite the hardship, life goes on in North Korea.
A mother, father and daughter sing at the top of their lungs, a boom box strapped to the dad's back, as they climb the steep trail toward jagged Mount Kumgang beneath a canopy of blood-red leaves.
Along a country road, farmers sit cross-legged in a circle behind a truck, enjoying a simple meal in the sun and passing a bottle of soju liquor. Another catches a midday snooze in the back of his ox-cart, his back against a pile of plucked rice plants.
In Pyongyang, a bride in red with a spray of flowers tucked into her carefully coifed chignon poses for a wedding portrait at riverside pavilion. The gingko trees that line the streets throughout the capital are in full autumn colour, a riot of canary yellow.
As evening arrives, the city descends quickly into darkness. Fuel, always in short supply, is being used sparingly as the nation braces for another long, cold winter.
By 11 p.m., it's pitch black, except for the car headlights and the floodlit portraits of the late President Kim Il Sung that glow in the night sky.
EDITOR'S NOTE - Jean H. Lee, The Associated Press bureau chief in Seoul, and David Guttenfelder, AP's chief Asia photographer, spent much of October in North Korea.