North Korea can appear outwardly stagnant, a country frozen by poverty and Soviet economic policies, but a small but resonant market economy has taken root over the past 15 years or so. While the country still has a per capita GDP of just $1,800 per year, according to U.S. figures, this new economy – a mix of underground trading, investment funds, particularly from China, and the growth of government-authorized commercial enterprises – has helped reshape its capital Pyongyang.
Pyongyang is a closed city, sealed off by security forces that monitor movement at dozens of checkpoints. North Koreans cannot move there, or even visit, without official permission. Its estimated 3 million residents have been vetted for their ideological purity, or at least their connections to the inner circle.
Today, the Pyongyang rich, spending their dollars, euros and Chinese yuan, can buy everything from high heels to imported watches. They have bought enough cars in the past couple years to cause the occasional traffic jam. But few of these changes have gone beyond the capital, and the elite who live there. That contrast, between Pyongyang and every other city in the country, reflects an ever-growing chasm between North Korea’s elite and the daily struggles of everyone else.
The urban divide can be seen in the industrial city of Hamhung, where the skies above the handful of working factories are filled with gray soot, and workers are ferried to the beach on their day off in crowded, cobbled-together trucks powered by wood-burning stoves. It’s visible on the “Youth Hero Highway” outside the port city of Nampho, where there are so few cars on the eight-lane road that it looks like an empty parking lot stretching toward the horizon.
It’s in the province around Chongjin, where U.N. data shows the rate of abnormally short children – a key indicator of chronic malnutrition – is 50 percent higher than around Pyongyang.
You can also find the urban divide in the hospitals of the other second-tier cities, according to people who have fled North Korea. They say desperate doctors struggle to treat patients with almost no medicine, using equipment that can be decades old.