A mix of underground trading, investment funds, particularly from China, and the growth of government-authorized commercial enterprises has helped reshape North Korea’s capital, Pyongyang, with its 3 million residents.
The capital is a complex mixture of facade and reality: blackouts remain commonplace in many neighborhoods; backstreets are dusty and potholed; the outsides of many apartment buildings are splattered with patches of mold.
But life is also far less grim than in the rest of the country. If nothing else, there is the appearance of opportunity.
Top officials in the ruling party, the government and the military live in gated neighborhoods closed to outsiders. They shop in stores filled with goods, and sing karaoke in wood-paneled restaurants. They live and work in constant proximity to power, opening up channels for professional promotion, business opportunities and black market profits.
“The government is privileging Pyongyang as a political strategy,” said Glyn Ford, a former European Union parliamentarian and international consultant who travels regularly and widely in North Korea. “The people who live in the capital are the people who count. They’re the people who underpin the regime.”
Their support is particularly important right now, with the ascension of third-generation leader Kim Jong Un, who clearly sees his political survival linked to improved standards of living. With Kim Jong Un’s abrupt rise to power, Pyongyang is getting even more.
In just the past few months, the regime has opened the Dolphinarium (which also required a new 30-mile pipeline to pump in fresh seawater), a $19 million amusement park and an elaborate pool-and-water-slide complex. All are filled with adults, and all are wildly popular.
Outside of Pyongyang though, there are no $19 million amusement parks. Asked what Kaesong residents do for enjoyment, a city official paused to think. There’s the pool, Kim Ryong Mun said eventually, though it’s really just for children. Finally, he had something: “Many people go outside and have picnics.”
Kim, with his faded, blue-striped tie and digital camera hanging from his wrist as a sign of his success, blames international sanctions, imposed because of Pyongyang’s nuclear program, for the lack of development.