Sun, Nov 11, 2012 - Page 14 News List

Promises fail to revive North Korean economy

When the country’s new leader took the helm last year, he inspired hope that the nation’s dire standard of living would rise, yet observers say the only thing rising is inequality

By Ju-min Park  /  Reuters, DANDONG, China

A magazine on display in a North Korean restaurant in Shenyang, China, showed the third Kim to rule the North touring a new theme park and luxury 40-story apartments in Pyongyang.

Kim Jong-un has been shown on North Korean media riding a rollercoaster and eating popcorn at a high-end restaurant in Pyongyang.

His wife, Ri Sol-ju, has a penchant for Christian Dior designer bags, a sign that conspicuous consumption among the elite is growing, said people who have had contact with the North.

“In the past, people couldn’t feel the gap between the rich and the poor because of state control, but since that control is loosening up, the gap between those who have and don’t have is widening,” said a Chinese trader who sometimes sells clothes to North Koreans.

For those left out, options appear to be narrowing.

An estimated 60,000 to 70,000 North Koreans sell their labor outside the country, working in factories in China, logging camps in Siberia and construction sites in the Middle East, Seoul-based advocacy groups say.

Some choose a more direct route to escape the North’s poverty, where annual GDP per capita is estimated to be US$1,800 on a purchasing power parity basis, based on an independent analysis.

A middleman in Shenyang who says that he helps North Korean refugees escape to prosperous South Korea has seen women choosing to be sold into marriage in China, or to work in brothels.

“They want to flee home, but there’s no other way than to be sold in a form of marriage,” said the man, who requested anonymity because of his safety. “One person is worth 10,000 yuan to 2,000 yuan.”

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