Like Havana, only more so, the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, is bereft of commercial billboards but covered with propaganda posters. In recent years, however, one company has been allowed to advertise its products: Pyonghwa Motors, a joint venture between the Rev Sun Myung Moon’s South Korea-based Unification Church and North Korea’s state-run Ryonbong General Corporation. A few signs promoting the company’s Whistle sedan can be seen in Pyongyang and surrounding areas. Essentially a Hyundai, the Whistle is an increasingly common sight on Pyongyang streets, along with a growing number of BMW, Lexus, Mercedes, Nissan and other luxury and nonluxury vehicles, many privately owned.

Once notable for the absence of traffic (not to mention a lack of streetlights), Pyongyang is a much busier and visibly more affluent city than it was just a few years ago. The source of this new wealth is something of a mystery, but presumably Chinese trade and investment account for a good part of it. With its residents dressed mostly in Western-style clothing and clutching mobile phones, Pyongyang today looks more like a tidy Chinese provincial city than the spartan capital of the world’s last Stalinist state. Under its new ruler, “Respected Leader” Kim Jong-un, North Korea is clearly on the move.

But moving where, exactly? Some analysts say that North Korea is on the verge of collapse; others say it is on the verge of serious economic reform. To judge from what I saw during a trip to North Korea in July, the reality is less momentous: a change in the face of the leadership and of the capital city, but not of policy. The status quo remains and is unlikely to change any time soon.

There is no doubt, though, that this is Kim Jong-un’s regime. When I visited North Korea in 2011, before the death of Kim Jong-un’s father, “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il, the official propaganda only obliquely suggested that Kim Jong-un was the heir apparent. In my recent visit, I saw slogans extolling the new leader everywhere: “Long Live Great Leader Comrade Kim Jong-un!” “Long Live Kim Jong-un, Sun of Military-First Korea!” and more ominously, “Follow Great Leader Kim Jong-un to Final Victory!”

Kim Jong-un has already proven himself to be a much more visible and publicly engaged leader than his more reticent father; he appears a natural politician in the mold of his still-revered grandfather, Kim Il-sung, North Korea’s founding leader. The regime is clearly trying to cultivate that image, as if to make the North Korean people forget the famine and other failures of the Kim Jong-il era and relive the hopeful and relatively well-off era of Kim Il-sung, who died in 1994. Even Kim Jong-un’s appearance, including the Mao suit, paunch and short-sided haircut, seems deliberately designed to make him resemble Kim Il-sung when he came to power in the 1940s.

But Kim Jong-un’s public image gives little indication of the political and economic policies his regime will follow. He is distancing himself from his father’s power circle, especially the military old guard to whom Kim Jong-il was much beholden; it is possible that by reducing the influence of the military he is preparing the way for major economic reform, something the military has long resisted. But at the moment, there is scant evidence that serious reform is in the cards.

This is not say that the North Korean economy is unchanging. Pyongyang is more visibly affluent in part because of a tremendous effort to improve the city for the 100th anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s birth this past April. According to foreign diplomatic sources, universities were closed for the entire 2011-12 academic year as students were mobilized for construction. Impressively modern 45-story apartment blocks have just gone up; residents were still moving in during my visit. Kim Jong-un, apparently a big fan of amusement parks, has overseen the renovation of several fun fairs and the construction of a new water park, complete with a dolphin circus. While much of this change is a result of classic Stakhanovite labor mobilization, the market economy is increasingly visible as well, most literally in the form of the large and crowded public markets, where most consumer goods are now purchased.

On the other hand, the contrast between the relative affluence of the capital and the continuing poverty in the countryside is truly striking. On the bumpy six-hour bus ride from Pyongyang to the industrial city of Hamhung on the east coast, there were a fair number of Chinese-built trucks but hardly any private vehicles (and long stretches with no cars at all). Locally made vehicles consisted mostly of battered, slow-moving pickup trucks retrofitted to run by burning wood. Farm vehicles were almost entirely absent. Poorly dressed, unkempt children could occasionally be seen sleeping on the empty highway.

One wonders at what point a population increasingly connected by mobile phones and exposed, albeit clandestinely, to information from China and South Korea will question the regime’s claim to be a “Powerful and Prosperous Country.” But North Korea can most likely muddle through for some time to come.

Change in North Korea can feel like more of the same. Throughout the country, hundreds of “Eternal Life Monuments,” erected in 1997 on the third anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s death, once said “The Great Leader Comrade Kim Il-sung Will Always Be With Us.” Now sign-makers are busily altering the monuments’ stone facades to say “The Great Leader Comrade Kim Il-sung and Comrade Kim Jong-il Will Always Be With Us.” If nothing else, sign alteration in North Korea constitutes a public-works project of immense proportions. A 65-foot-tall bronze statue of Kim Jong-il now stands alongside the equally tall statue of his father in Pyongyang. Posters announce a new ideology, “Kim Il-sung-Kim Jong-il-ism.”  Kim Jong-un is said to be ruling according to the “last will and testament of Kim Jong-il.” How he interprets this legacy is the central question for the future of North Korea. But for now, there are few  signs of change, even if the signs themselves are changing.

Charles K. Armstrong, a professor of history and the director of the Center for Korean Research at Columbia University, is the author of a forthcoming book on North Korea in the cold war era.    –NY Times