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Geopolitics

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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