The heart of Pyongyang, once famous for its Dickensian darkness, now pulsates with neon. Glossy construction downtown has altered the city’s skyline. Inside supermarkets where shopgirls wear French designer labels, people with money can buy Italian wine, Swiss chocolates, kiwifruit imported from New Zealand and freshly baked croissants. They can get facials, lie in tanning booths, play a round of mini-golf or sip cappuccinos and cocktails while listening to classical music.
More than 1 million people are using cellphones and computer shops cannot keep up with demand for North Korea’s locally distributed tablet computer, known as “iPads.” A shiny new cancer institute features a US$900,000 X-ray machine imported from Europe.
Pyongyang has long been a city apart from the rest of North Korea, a showcase capital dubbed a “socialist fairyland” by state media.
A year after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un promised in a speech to bring an end to the “era of belt-tightening” and economic hardship in North Korea, the gap between the haves and have-nots has only grown with Pyongyang’s transformation.
Beyond the main streets of the capital and in the towns and villages beyond, life is grindingly tough. Food is rationed, electricity is a precious commodity and people get around by walking, cycling or hopping onto the backs of trucks. Most homes lack running water or plumbing. Healthcare is free, but aid workers say medicine is in short supply.
While the differences between the showcase capital and the hardscrabble countryside grow starker, North Koreans feel the effects of authoritarian rule no matter where they live. It is illegal for them to interact with foreigners without permission, very few have access to the Internet and they calibrate their words. Most parrot phrases they have heard in state media, still the safest way to answer questions in a country where state security remains tight and terrifying.
For decades, North Korea seemed a country trapped in time. Rickety streetcars shuddered past concrete-block apartment buildings with broken windowpanes and chipped front steps.
However, in 2010 and throughout 2011, as then-North Korean leader Kim Jong-il was grooming his son Kim Jong-un to succeed him, Pyongyang was a city under construction. Scaffolding covered the fronts of buildings across the city. Red banners painted with the slogan “At a breath” — implying breakneck work at a breathless pace — fluttered from the skeletons of skyscrapers built by soldiers.
Often, the soldiers were scrawny conscripts in thin canvas sneakers, piling bricks onto stretchers or hauling them by hand. In 2011, soldiers working on the Mansudae District complex set up temporary camps along the Taedong River — makeshift shantytowns decorated by red flags. After tearing down the tents, the soldiers built a playground for children where their encampment once stood.
Their work was focused downtown on Changjon Street, where ramshackle cottages were torn down to make way for department stores, restaurants and high-rise apartments.
Today, the street would not look out of place in Seoul, Shanghai or Singapore, and many of the goods on sale at the new supermarket — Hershey’s Kisses, Coca-Cola and Doritos — were actually imported from China and Singapore.
Changjon Street reflects a change of thinking in North Korea. For years, foreign goods and customs were regarded with suspicion, even as they were secretly coveted, especially by those who had traveled abroad or had family in Japan or China.