The sprawling site, which buzzes in the shadow of a giant bronze statue of North Korea founder Kim Il-sung, looks at first like a high-security military installation.
Scores of soldiers march through a zone sealed off by green mesh fencing and checkpoints. A crew of about 1,000 soldiers and 2,000 police officers works around the clock, along with thousands more civilians in street clothes and hard hats, spurred on by billboards that rate their performance.
However, they are not building tanks here at the foot of Mansu Hill, or weapons, except perhaps for a propaganda war. They are building 3,000 new apartments, a department store, schools and a theater, in the hope of selling a modern version of Pyongyang to the people of North Korea — albeit one that most will never get to see.
North Korea has long been known for its military-first policy, which in effect translated into a military-only policy with little room left for investment anywhere else, but now, without abandoning its focus on what it calls defense and the world calls defiance, it also appears to be trying to revive a dying economy and rebuild on the home front.
The stated aim of the reconstruction sweeping Pyongyang is to put North Korea on the path of being a “strong and prosperous nation” in time for the 100th anniversary of the birth of founder and former president Kim Il-sung on April 15, but the campaign also serves another political purpose: It sets up Kim Jong-un as the new leader of a great people, just as a construction frenzy heralded his father’s ascension before him.
“They had hoped, and will sell it to their people, that they’ve achieved something by the time this anniversary comes around,” said Hazel Smith, a professor of humanitarianism and security at Britain’s Cranfield University who lived in North Korea for a few years. “This is to show their own people they are not poor and underdeveloped ... Construction is the cheapest thing you can do and show visible results if you’re an economy that hasn’t got much money.”
Thirty years ago, when Kim Il-sung was grooming his son Kim Jong-il to succeed him, he launched an urban makeover of Pyongyang, the capital city. The iconic landmarks built during that succession campaign included the Mansudae Assembly Hall, the May Day Stadium where the Arirang Mass Games are held, and the ornate Grand People’s Study House overlooking the vast plaza where the nation’s biggest parades and rallies are staged.
However, upon taking power after his father’s death in 1994, Kim Jong-il focused resources on the nation’s defense, beefing up the army and pumping money into nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. Projects like the 105-story Ryugyong Hotel, a pyramid-shaped behemoth once envisioned as the world’s tallest building, stalled as funds for construction dried up.
In turn, the succession of his son Kim Jong-un has again brought a wave of construction, but this time the blueprints call for new homes, shopping centers, restaurants and playgrounds. They fit into a distinct policy shift designed to suggest that the younger Kim’s leadership will improve the economy and the quality of life.
In truth, much of the country is likely to remain poor. Pyongyang houses only 3.25 million of North Korea’s 24 million people, with residency viewed as a privilege reserved for the political elite.