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Pyongyang Progressive? Early Signs Of Hip Fashion, High-Tech In North Korea

A Chinese reporter crosses the border to take the pulse of the closed-off nation, where young North Korean leader Kim Jong-un may have begun to loosen things up ever so slightly.

The Pyongyang metro
The Pyongyang metro
Chen Yong

PYONGYANG – Twenty-one-year-old Li Zhenai* looks down at photos that a foreign reporter had just taken on a digital camera. “Take a nice one, then copy it for me,” she says. “Or send it to the Foreign Cultural Exchange Committee. They can receive international mail.”

The young woman is wearing a down jacket with a short skirt that would be fashionable even in China. There is a scent of perfume as she carries a bag containing a small Sony camera and a Pyongyang-brand mobile phone. The only problem is that it’s very difficult to receive mail from abroad and she has no email. In North Korea, only a few places have Internet access and you need special approval to use the Internet.

Since Kim Jong-un took office, fashionable accessories like Pyongyang-brand cell phones and Arirang iPad tablets have started popping up in the streets of the capital. In the city’s center, there are also some new high-end apartment buildings. The government has awarded free apartments to those who have made significant contributions to their country.

Cars pass by on the streets, but upon closer inspection, they look strange. Sometimes the driver’s seat is on the left and sometimes the right. One Volvo taxi has tires on the front with a Mercedes-Benz logo and tires on the back that say Toyota. There are also second-hand Mercedes, brand new Audi Q7s and of course, Chinese-made BYD F6s – which are used by the government.

Compared to major Chinese cities, the scene seems somewhat traditional and outdated. But because this is Pyongyang, the sight of skirts, perfume, high-heels and luxury cars give an image of vitality.

A would-be soldier girl

Li Zhenai was at the public library, reading, when a government official approached and gave her her first job as an interpreter. At first she stared blankly and didn’t know what to say. But once it sank in, she got very excited. She would finally have a chance to serve the country.

Since it would be her first time interpreting, the official and a teacher repeatedly explained to her the details she would need to pay attention to about the people she was going to translate for. Again and again she was reminded that her job was linked to the national image. “I promise to be up to the task,” she said.

Li learned Chinese when she spent three-years in a middle school in China’s eastern Zhejiang Province. But just when she had gotten used to Chinese food and developed friendships with classmates, her parents’ job posting in China ended and the family moved back to North Korea. Upon her return, she was admitted to Pyongyang Foreign Languages University and continued to study Chinese.

Her only regret from her five years in college is that all the other students dated, but nobody ever asked her out. She’s confident and attractive, but she thinks it might be her bad temper that scares the boys away.

Born in 1991, Li has the same interests than most North Korean women her age have – good food, handsome boys, popular music and Chinese spy movies. Her dream, though, is to become a soldier. She says the female soldiers on TV are all very brave, and the special uniforms they wear not only look pretty, but also make them feel proud.

When she meets Chinese tourists who are visiting North Korea, Li proudly tells them that she’s been to China and loves Zhejiang seafood. When they photograph something that would reflect negatively on North Korea, she asks them to stop. If they don’t listen, she walks away in anger. But sometimes she discretely asks tourists what Chinese girls born in 1991 like to do.

Love at a Convenience Store

Not every North Korean girl goes to university. After high school, Cui Yuji, also 21, found a job as a shop assistant in a convenience store. She’s there every day from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.

The store is located in central Pyongyang. Compared to before, there is now a much wider variety of products on the shelves – many of which are made in China. There are even beer taps and coffee machines for sale. Their prices might be considered cheap for Chinese people, but for North Koreans, they are luxury items.

Unlike Li Zhenai, Cui has an admirer. His name is Li Yongjin and he works for a shoe company. Every evening he comes by the convenience store to pick her up and escort her home.

In the beginning, Cui was a bit shy about having a suitor, but after a while, she got used to it. Whenever customers ask her about him, she smiles and denies that there is any romance.

In Li Yongjin’s eyes, Cui is a goddess who has descended to Earth. He says he’s been courting her for a year, but their relationship remains platonic. There have been a few occasions when he’s considered giving up, but every time he sees her smile, he quickly discards the thought.

“It’s already been a long time. I’m sure I’ll get her in the end,” Li said. “Wish me luck.”

Foreign Tourists and First Impressions

North Korea may be poor and isolated, but that has only served to spark curiosity from the outside world. Tourists are usually taken to places like model schools, factories, farms, art studios and famous attractions. The goal is to give guests a good impression of North Korean life.

Qing Shang Kindergarten is one of these typical destinations. Even Kim Jong-un has visited it twice. Fifty-three-year-old Liu Dejin, a Chinese tourist and small business owner from northeastern Hebei Province, has come to visit the kindergarten.

The principal and teachers take him on a tour of each classroom, one after the other. Some classes sing songs, some dance and some were play games. Every time his group arrives in a new classroom, the performance has just begun. Once they leave, the music, songs and laughs abruptly stop.

The principal explains that North Korea offers free education and medical care for all its citizens, and that children are taught two or more languages so they can better serve their country.

Liu is staying at the Pyongyang Koryo Hotel, where the only available entertainment is a massage parlor and a swimming pool. The room has a TV with ten channels, including two from Chinese CCTV state-television, two from North Korea and two from Russia. Electricity in the hotel isn’t very stable and there is no central heating in the bedroom. There is an electric blanket and a heater, but the room stays very cold.

If Liu wants to go out for a walk, he must be accompanied by a tour guide. He asks his interpreter if there are any entertainment venues in Pyongyang. The interpreter looks him with surprise and replies that there aren’t, but that there are unofficial private markets. They used to be banned by Kim Jong-il, but are thriving today. The middle-aged women who sell products on the streets of Pyongyang’s Dacheng and Shunan districts are no longer worried about being arrested. Farmers are allowed to sell 30 to 50% of their harvest in these markets.

Liu admits he was surprised and impressed by a few things. The first being that North Korean officials speak as many as five languages. But what impressed him most was the air. He says Pyongyang’s air quality is much better than that of Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou.

*The names used in this piece are all pseudonyms

Translated by Zhu Na

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Preparing a COVID-19 vaccine booster in Huzhou, China.

Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Ciao!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where Brazil's senate backs "crimes against humanity" charges against Jair Bolsonaro, the UN has a grim new climate report and Dune gets a sequel. Meanwhile, German daily Die Welt explores "Xi Jinping Thought," which is now being made part of Chinese schools' curriculum.

[*Italian]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Senators back Bolsonaro criminal charges: A Brazilian Senate panel has backed a report that supports charging President Jair Bolsonaro with crimes against humanity, for his alleged responsibility in the country's 600,000-plus COVID-19 deaths.

• Gas crisis in Moldova following Russian retaliation: Moldova, one of Europe's poorest countries, has for the first time challenged Russia's Gazprom following a price increase and failed contract negotiations, purchasing instead from Poland. In response, Russia has threatened to halt sales to the Eastern European country, which has previously acquired all of its gas from Gazprom.

• New UN climate report finds planned emission cuts fall short: The Emissions Gap Report 2021 concludes that country pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions aren't large enough to keep the global temperature rise below 1.5 °C degrees this century. The UN Environment Program predicts a 2.7 °C increase, with significant environmental impacts, but there is still hope that longer term net-zero goals will curtail some temperature rise.

• COVID update: As part of its long-awaited reopening, Australia will officially allow its citizens to travel abroad without a government waiver for the first time in more than 18 months. Bulgaria, meanwhile, hits record daily high COVID-19 cases as the Eastern European's hotel and restaurant association is planning protests over the implementation of the vaccination "green pass." In the U.S., a panel of government medical advisors backed the use of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for five to 11-year-olds.

• U.S. appeals decision to block Julian Assange extradition: The United States said it was "extremely disappointed" in a UK judge's ruling that Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, would be a suicide risk of he traveled across the Atlantic. In the U.S., he faces 18 charges related to the 2010 release of 500,000 secret files related to U.S. military activity.

• Deposed Sudan prime minister released: Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok has been released from custody, though remains under heavy guard after Sudan's military coup. Protests against the coup have continued in the capital Khartoum, as Hamdok has called for the release of other detained governmental officials.

Dune Part 2 confirmed: The world will get to see Timothée Chalamet ride a sandworm: The second installment of the sci-fi epic and global box office hit has officially been greenlit, set to hit the screens in 2023.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

Front page of the National Post's October 27 front page

Canadian daily National Post reports on the nomination of Steven Guilbeault, a former Greenpeace activist, as the country's new Environment minister. He had been arrested in 2001 for scaling Toronto's CN Tower to unfurl a banner for Greenpeace, which he left in 2008.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

Chinese students now required to learn to think like Xi Jinping

"Xi Jinping Thought" ideas on socialism have been spreading across the country since 2017. But now, Beijing is going one step further by making them part of the curriculum, from the elementary level all the way up to university, reports Maximilian Kalkhof in German daily Die Welt.

🇨🇳 It's important to strengthen the "determination to listen to and follow the party." Also, teaching materials should "cultivate patriotic feelings." So say the new guidelines issued by the Chinese Ministry of Education. The goal is to help Chinese students develop more "Marxist beliefs," and for that, the government wants its national curriculum to include "Xi Jinping Thought," the ideas, namely, of China's current leader. Behind this word jam is a plan to consolidate the power of the nation, the party and Xi himself.

📚 Starting in September, the country's 300 million students have had to study the doctrine, from elementary school into university. And in some cities, even that doesn't seem to be enough. Shanghai announced that its students from third to fifth grade would only take final exams in mathematics and Chinese, de facto deleting English as an examination subject. Beijing, in the meantime, announced that it would ban the use of unauthorized foreign textbooks in elementary and middle schools.

⚠️ But how does a country that enchants its youth with socialist ideology and personality cults rise to become a world power? Isn't giving up English as a global language the quickest way into isolation? The educational reform comes at a time when Beijing is brutally disciplining many areas of public life, from tech giants to the entertainment industry. It has made it difficult for Chinese technology companies to go public abroad, and some media have reported that a blanket ban on IPOs in the United States is on the cards in the next few years.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

"I'm a footballer and I'm gay."

— Australian soccer player Josh Cavallo said in a video accompanying a tweet in which he revealed his homosexuality, becoming the first top-flight male professional player in the world to do so. The 21-year-old said he was tired of living "this double life" and hoped his decision to come out would help other "players living in silence."

🇸🇩💥  IN OTHER NEWS

Why this Sudan coup d'état is different

Three days since the military coup was set in motion in Sudan, the situation on the ground continues to be fluid. Reuters reports this morning that workers at the state petroleum company Sudapet are joining a nationwide civil disobedience movement called by trade unions in response to the generals' overthrow of the government. Doctors have also announced a strike.

Generals in suits At the same time, the military appears firmly in control, with deposed Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok allowed to return home today after being held by the coup leaders. How did we get here? That's the question that David E. Kiwuwa, a professor of international relations at the University of Nottingham, takes on in The Conversation:

"Since the revolution that deposed Omar el-Bashir in 2019, the military have fancied themselves as generals in suits. They have continued to wield enough power to almost run a parallel government in tension with the prime minister. This was evident when the military continued to have the say on security and foreign affairs.

Economy as alibi For their part, civilian officials concentrated on rejuvenating the economy and mobilizing international support for the transitional council. This didn't stop the military from accusing the civilian leadership of failing to resuscitate the country's ailing economy.

True, the economy has continued to struggle from high inflation, low industrial output and dwindling foreign direct investment. As in all economies, conditions have been exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19. Sudan's weakened economy is, however, not sufficient reason for the military intervention. Clearly this is merely an excuse."

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

471 million euros

Rome's Casino di Villa Boncompagni Ludovisi, better known as Villa Aurora, will be put up for auction in January for 471 million euros ($547 million). The over-the-top price tag is thanks to the villa having the only known ceiling painting by Renaissance master Caravaggio.

✍️ Newsletter by Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Who wants to start the bidding on the Caravaggio villa? Otherwise, let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world! info@worldcrunch.com!

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