Pyongyang Puts On A Modern Face But Misery Lingers

An Italian reporter gets a rare glimpse past the North Korean regime's attempt to portray the country in a positive new light.

In the center of Pyongyang
In the center of Pyongyang
Nicola Busca

PYONGYANG — Every year North Koreans spend months preparing the capital for the country's most important holiday: the birthday of the country's founder, Kim Il-sung.

No expense is spared on "The Day of the Sun," the April 15 festivities commemorating the hermit nation's "eternal president."

An enormous military parade in the capital demonstrates North Korea's newest weaponry and missile technology, followed by a four-hour-long civilian parade replete with chanting, goose-step marching and tears of joy. Grand dance performances are held in city squares, executed with rigorous precision to the tunes of triumphal music. Women in colorful costumes dance to intricate choreography with bouquets of fake flowers.

"We've been working and preparing for the parade for six months," says Jo Bong-chol, a colonel in the North Korean army, ahead of this year's event last month.

Look past the aesthetic beauty of the parades and performances, however, and the regime's true motivation becomes clear: eliminating any sense of individuality to promote a uniform society.

With its population of 2.5 million and its extravagant architecture, Pyongyang portrays just one side of the reclusive country's peculiar culture. The capital has changed considerably in the last three years. The authorities have erected new neighborhoods in place of old ones, imposing new buildings have gone up across the city, and new recreational centers have opened to bring the local quality of life up to what the regime deems "contemporary standards."

But for all the bluster and propaganda, life in Pyongyang is genuinely changing. There is more traffic in the streets than before and more people talking on cellphones. Some subway passengers can even be seen glued to their phone screens, playing the local version of the popular game "Candy Crush.

Small shops and grocery stores have sprung up on every street corner, and the rising North Korean middle class has been eager to spend its little disposable income to increase meager monthly rations.

The image of a developing, modern Pyongyang quickly fades as you reach the capital's outskirts. The province of Pyongyang, which stretches northward from the city, is a desolate, ghostlike place. Dirt roads lie in poor condition, turning even a short journey of a few dozen kilometers into an hours-long odyssey. Rural land is rocky and unsuited for agriculture, with peasants laboring to plow the earth by hand or with the help of skeletal cows that often collapse from fatigue.

The number of tractors in this province can be counted on one hand, and even these are Soviet-built relics from a bygone era. There is no irrigation system and few local farmers have access to fertilizers. Some tufts of grass emerge here and there in the drought-stricken landscape, a testament to efforts by exhausted but determined locals to try to live off the land.

China"s decision in February to stop coal imports from its North Korean ally, in an effort to abide by United Nations sanctions, compounded the country's economic misery. Coal exports make up 40% of North Korea's trade with China, by far its largest trading partner. It seems the pressure will not relent anytime soon, with the Chinese carrier Air China recently announcing the suspension of flights from Beijing to Pyongyang.

Just 60 kilometers from the capital, in the hills of Hoechang, lie battlefields that witnessed some of the most ferocious fighting in the Korean War. Many soldiers on both sides of the conflict lost their lives there, including the eldest son of the Chinese leader, Mao Zedong. The trenches and tunnels dug 60 years ago are still visible on the ridges; they are armed with anti-aircraft guns, ready for the next war with the South, whenever it may come.

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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.



• 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 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.


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.

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"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."


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."

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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!!

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