Kim Jong-un has addressed their curiosity by importing goods and by quoting his father in saying North Korea is “looking out onto the world” — a country that must become familiar with international customs even if it continues to prefer its own.
“What is a ‘delicatessen?’” one North Korean at the new supermarket asked as a butcher in a white chef’s hat sliced tuna for takeaway sashimi beneath a deli sign written in English. Upstairs, baristas were serving Italian espressos as bakers churned out baguettes and white wedding cakes.
English, the language of the North’s archenemy, is outstripping Russian and Chinese as the foreign language of choice. Over the past six months, a new television channel, Ryongnamsan, has aired Finding Nemo, The Lion King and Madagascar in English — the first broadcasts of US cartoons on North Korean state TV.
Kim Jong-un has not made it significantly easier for North Koreans to travel, channel surf or read travelogues posted online, but he is arranging to bring the Eiffel Tower and Big Ben to them in the form of a miniature world park slated to open later this year.
Pyongyang now has a parade of fashionistas in eye-popping belted jackets, sparkly barrettes clipped to their hair, fingernails painted with a clear gloss. At one beauty salon, the rage is for short cuts made popular by singers from the all-girl band Moranbong, who have jazzed up North Korea’s staid performance scene with their bobbed hair, little black dresses and electric guitars.
“There are so many young women asking to get their hair done like them,” hairstylist Chae Cho-yong said.
Around her, a cavernous barber shop was empty. An employee explained that most North Koreans are at weekly propaganda study sessions on Saturdays, the only day of the week foreigners are allowed inside.
The most coveted housing in North Korea, where homes and jobs are doled out by the state or the powerful Workers’ Party, is an apartment on Changjon Street.
One new resident, Mun Kang-sun, gave foreign media a tour of the apartment she and her husband were given in recognition for her work at the Kim Jong Suk Textile Factory.
A framed wedding portrait hangs on the wall above their Western-style bed, there is a washing machine in the bathroom, an IBM computer in the study and a 42-inch widescreen TV.
Mun said she was an orphan who began working in factories at age 16. She earned the title “hero of the republic” after exceeding her work quota by 200 percent for 13 years. She said she accomplished that by dashing around the factory floor operating four or five machines at once.
“When we heard the news that we’d get a nest where we can rest and we got the key for our apartment and took a look around, we were totally shocked because the house is so nice,” her husband, Kim Hyok, told reporters. “It’s still hard to believe this is my home; it still feels like we’re living in a hotel.”
Though the apartment has faucets, old habits die hard. The bathtub was still filled with water, a bucket bobbing in the tub, as in countless homes across the country where water is pumped from a well, carried in by hand and used sparingly.