Tag Archive: Pyongyang

Privileged Pyongyang a political strategy

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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.

The elite mystery of Pyongyang

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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.