The Last Temptation Of Pyongyang

A visit to North Korea reveals fears about the Internet's pernicious influence on youth, but also a big push in computer science training. The market economy calls, but 'social control' is at risk.

Pyongyang Taedong River at sunset
Pyongyang Taedong River at sunset
Philippe Pons

PYONGYANG — This restaurant with a local clientele, where diners place their orders on a touchscreen, is never empty despite prices that scant North Koreans can afford. In the street, little shops sell vegetables, fruit, drinks, frozen products and imported cosmetics. Their signs are lit until around 10 p.m. — late for Pyongyang. Taking advantage of the urban light, sparse as it is, young couples walk hand in hand. The An Sang Taek quarter, with its skyscrapers for the elite, doesn't have the flashy look of a city center, but it does reveal two noticeable features of the North Korean capital: the development of electronic communication and the taste for consumption.

North Koreans are far from able to navigate freely on the Internet. But that doesn't mean that the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) has any less presence online — just that it avoids the "corrosive" influence from the outside and integrates information technology into its system of social control.

In a country where only official channels can broadcast on radio and TV, and where foreign media is banned, communications, however restricted and monitored, are nevertheless growing. In addition to 2.4 million mobile phones (for 24 million inhabitants) without international access or Internet, there is the Samjiyon tablet and the 3G Arirang smartphone that's been out for nearly a year. Both the tablet and smartphone are made locally from foreign components. The number of users is actually higher than the official statistics for mobile phones indicate, as the mobiles are often the property of several people who use them in rotation. They can send text messages and emails, log on to official sites and dictionaries, get Rodong Sinmun (the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party) online and play games such as Korean chess and soccer.

Competing imperatives

At the entrance to the electronic library at Kim Il-sung University, which was inaugurated in 2010, a marble plaque is engraved with a handwritten directive by his son Kim Jong-il (1942-2011). It reads, "Turn towards the world but stay rooted in your country."

At Pyongyang's Kim Il-sung University — Photo: Uri Tours

The second part of the command is the operative one, but the government insists that younger generations be familiar with scientific and technological progress abroad. By providing intensive training in computer science, North Korea is trying to catch up on decades of socialist inefficiency, hoping one day to give India and the Philippines a run for their money by entering the computer services outsourcing market. The few foreign operators working discreetly with North Korean programmers praise their talents.

The advances in computer science also enable the government to reinforce its cyber-attack capacity. In the 16 lecture halls, each equipped with 100 computers, students have access to two million works in the library as well as those at other universities and research facilities. On their consoles, supervisors can see what site each student is on by clicking on the student's seat number. The student's photo appears along with whatever text is on his or her screen. A lecture hall with Internet access is reserved for professors and certain students. All sites visited are duly noted.

The Internet remains forbidden territory, but there's a lot of curiosity about it. In addition to authorized information, students also clandestinely glean information from DVDs and USB keys, easier to hide, containing various data and Chinese or South Korean movies.

The risks are substantial. The penal code equates watching South Korean DVDs with acts of treason. The government is worried about the Internet's pernicious influence on a population largely cut off from the rest of the world, and maintained in a permanent state of mental siege. In early September, it placed restrictions on diplomatic missions and NGOs using Wi-Fi for their Internet access because the networks could be used by others in the neighborhood. Even though it is highly monitored and restricted to a minority, growing online access is the sign of a society developing despite strict policing.

An emerging market economy

Until the 1990s, all that existed were weekly farmer's markets. Then came the survival economy's black markets during the famine years (1995-1998), and these later became general, and legal, markets. The apparition over the course of the past few years of Pyongyang's "pockets of prosperity" bears witness to the rapid development of a parallel economy that accounts for $1 billion to $3 billion of GDP — as much as the state economy — says Cho Bong-hyun, an expert on the North Korean economy at Seoul's IBK Economic Research Institute.

On Pyongyang's Taedong River — Photo: David Stanley

South Korean researchers have dubbed the new consumer fringe the "market generation." It is made up of the children of the traditional elite (members of the Worker's Party and high-ranking individuals) but also those of a new social class of merchants, wholesalers and intermediaries working in a parallel economy greased by corruption. These young people, seen at the markets or in amusement parks, dress like their Chinese peers. The girls wear stiletto heels or platform shoes (local manufacturers say they try to "follow the taste of the clientele.") If they can afford it, they buy new products that can now be found in abundance in stores.

They are aware of the new social nuances based on income, and not just loyalty to the party, according to a survey of young refugees who have arrived in the south since 2010, conducted by the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul. In a country where every action has a political meaning, almost everything can now be bought. Although the government insists it wants a "Korean-style socialist economy," this works with "adjustments" and is reminiscent of the Chinese economy when reforms first began in the 1990s.

Looking at the merchandise for sale, North Korea hardly looks like a country under embargo. But international sanctions were implemented following its ballistic and nuclear testing. During the first four months of 2014, North Korea imported four times the number of digital TVs from China than during the same period in 2013. And state stores, such as Department Store Nr. 1 in central Pyongyang, now offer home deliveries. New taxis have appeared, and customers can order them by phone.

More visible, if not ostentatious, consumption of a growing elite can be seen in luxury restaurants and bars such as those in the Haemaji complex in downtown Pyongyang — where Paulaner beer from Munich is served — and it is widening the divide between the privileged few and the great majority of the population.

In Haemaji, Pyongyang — Photo: Uri Tours

A growing minority is getting rich, and another class is now living better, but the rest is struggling. The government, which has promised quality-of-life improvements, is actively trying to show it doesn't forget its promises. For example, a hospital specializing in pediatrics and an institute for the treatment of breast cancer, both with state-of-the-art German and Italian equipment, have just opened in Pyongyang. In theory, the most severe cases are admitted. The provincial hospital system, however, is in an advanced state of dilapidation.

Appeasing the masses

The opening or renovation of recreation sites (amusement parks, aquatic parks) are also attempts at "solicitude" on the part of the young dictator Kim Jong-un, who disappeared for a while then reappeared and who is shown on TV surrounded by adoring crowds and soldiers hopping up and down with joy at the sight of him.

What's happening in Pyongyang is only a part of the North Korean reality: Development in provincial cities is less spectacular. There, smartphones are rare. But over the past year, proliferation of solar panels, now on sale in state stores, makes it possible to provide part of the population with electricity for daily use. There has been progress too in agricultural production, which reached 5.6 million tons in 2013: 350, 000 tons more than the preceding year. A deficit of 1.4 million tons is covered in part by imports and Chinese aid. According to world food program experts, "the situation is getting better."

But the majority of North Koreans (80%) live on the edge of malnutrition. The least variation in climate can send whole regions and poorer segments of the population into destitution. The growing parallel economy, a new generation more attracted by consumption than by collectivist ideals, and the development of information technology are corroding the totalitarian system, even though there are no current opposition movements. It is the improved access to information that poses a dilemma for the government.

In small doses, it is both an economic necessity and poison for the dictatorship.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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