Pyongyang Postcard: First Cracks Appear In North Korea's Wall Of Ice

Behind the rigidity of its political system, the North Korean capital offers evidence of a slow evolution, from construction projects to an emerging underground economy. Will Kim Jong-un accelerate the evolution or nip it in the bud? A close-up look.

A view from Pyongyang's Taedong River (David Stanley)
A view from Pyongyang's Taedong River (David Stanley)
Philippe Pons

PYONGYANG – Kim Jong-il's death on Dec. 17 briefly interrupted a frantic construction frenzy in Pyongyang. The city had been busily preparing for upcoming centennial celebrations of his father and North Korea's founder and "Great leader," Kim Il-sung. The April 15 event is supposed to usher in a new era of "strength and prosperity" for North Korea. Blocked streets, road repair, renovating facades, new buildings: the whole city is one big open construction site.

To a mix of music and chants coming out of giant loudspeakers, thousands of men and women, including soldiers, are hard at work. Despite the heavy machinery, shovels, picks and manpower are still king. "When Korea decides, everything is possible!" reads a banner. But at what price? The skeleton of the principal building project has been finished thanks to a steady pace of "two stories a day," but no one will say how many accidents there have been.

The building, a monumental glass and steel pyramid known as the Ryukyong Hotel, dominates the city as a symbol of Pyongyang's renaissance. It is one of the world's tallest buildings, at 300 meters and 105 floors. Construction began in 1987 but was suspended four years later. For two decades, this gigantic building was just a cement skeleton that made a great home for birds, a symbol of the difficulties the country was facing: economic downturn and famine. But work picked up again in 2008. And though for now the pyramid is still an empty shell, at least 25 stories of the inside should be finished by April.

Hustle bustle

With its bright lights, Pyongyang at night doesn't look like the capital of a country with a dismal economy whose population is struggling to survive. The number of foreign cars is growing, markets selling food, clothes and household appliances are full. Roughly 10,000 customers a day visit the Tongil market, the capital's largest. In the center of the city, a 6,000-square-meter store has opened. It sells imported luxury products: electronics, clothes and cosmetics. Foreign goods are imported legally but also through the black market.

There are about one million cell phones in service for a population of 24 million people. Except for the elite, most North Koreans can't afford them. Still, demand is growing, according to Orascom, an Egyptian operator. The service covers the whole country and gives access to official websites, starting with the official party newspaper Rodong Sinmun.

There are actually two networks: one without access to the outside world and another one, reserved to foreigners, through which people can make and receive international calls. The two networks aren't connected to each other. Foreign cell phones are checked in when entering the country and given back upon leaving.

Amusement parks, new theaters, movie houses, restaurants, western-dressed women passing by a propaganda poster promising a radiant socialist future: the atmosphere in Pyongyang is changing, though the fear of repression is still very much alive in a country known for its prison camps.

Indeed Pyongyang is largely just a showcase, where regime elites live by robbing the country's resources. It hardly offers an accurate reflection of the situation elsewhere in the country. "North Korea is seen abroad as a country whose population is starving, a Stalinist state in decline," says Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at the Kookmin University in Seoul, South Korea. "Like all stereotypes, these assessments aren't completely false, but very simplistic. The situation is much more complex."

A study in contrasts

Until the early 1990s, living standards were limited but overall homogenous. Privileges existed but were barely visible. Today, the gap between those who benefit from the system and those who're struggling to survive is blatant.

In Pyongyang, evidence of that gap abounds. Every morning and evening there are lines of men and women queuing to get a seat on a bus or in the back of a truck, while others walk for miles. Some markets are overcrowded, while along the sidewalks, vegetable stands operated by women who trek into the city every morning are nearly empty. These women are the bottom of the heap in the de facto free market economy that emerged following the famine in the late 1990s.

After North Korea's public delivery system crashed, the population's survival depended on the black market, which was initially tolerated. Then, the leadership started following the trend, conceding more autonomy to State companies and monetizing economic activity through the 2002 reforms. There were gains and losses, marked by waves of repression, but the underground economy gave birth to paralegal initiatives like an underground currency exchange, and the practice of linking "private" factories to State companies: an economy that developed so well now seems irreversible.

The brand new investment group Daepung, which is hoping to attract foreign funds, is a symbol of the current transformation. It is directly linked to the National Defense Commission – one of the State's supreme organs, which was lead by Kim Jong-il – and is autonomous enough to "combine political principles and economic imperatives," says its vice-president, Ju Kuang-cho. "Let's just say we are flexible."

This underground economy, which isn't regulated since the only system that officially exists is the socialist one, has severely widened inequalities between those who are "going with the flow" and those whose survival depends on the rationing system. Add to that another major inequality: access to political connections, without which nothing gets done in North Korea. Bribes are necessary for any transaction. Though the criminal code was updated in 2004 and 2007, multiplying by three the number of economic misdemeanors, the leadership does take part in business.

To stabilize North Korea's current transition, Kim Jong-il's successor, Kim Jong-un, will have to regulate the new economy without choking it. He'll also have to begin tending to the needs of a population that struggled mightily under his father. Social inequalities can only feed discontent. Although repression has so far managed to keep the population's dissatisfaction under wraps, the growing inequalities – if they aren't improved – could undermine the socialist ideals the regime has been surviving on.

Read the original article in French

Photo - David Stanley

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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