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.
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Compared to major Chinese cities, the scene seems somewhat traditional and outdated.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