‘We’re not afraid of US, we’re a strong nuclear power’: an inside look at how North Korea is coping amid sanctions
Despite petrol stations limiting supply amid possible tightening of oil exports, a Post reporter finds signs of vigour in North Korea’s capital city
“Thank you all for visiting us at such a tense time, when we are having so many difficulties,” Kim, my Pyongyang tour guide, told the guests. “If the sanctions cut off our oil supply, our bus will have to stop.”
Kim was the tour guide assigned to my group of visitors to Pyongyang late last month. It was my first time in five years revisiting the capital city of the reclusive state that keeps a tight watch over its foreign visitors and carefully vets what they are allowed to see and experience.
As Kim spoke, I observed some of the city’s small number of vehicles visibly parked off-road. It was said some petrol stations had limited their supply amid growing concern that China would tighten its oil exports to North Korea.
But restricted fuel sales do not seem to have affected daily life in Pyongyang, as public transport has continued to function normally. Most people in the capital city actually ride bicycles to work. In fact, the use of electric bikes has grown, and some of the green and orange taxis on the road are hybrid or electric vehicles made by China’s BYD.
As our tour bus bumped up and down on the cracks and pits, the poor maintenance of roads exposed another obvious result of sanctions. Most of Pyongyang’s roads were built in the 1990s, before the economy fell into trouble and the songun, or military-first policy, prioritised defence programmes such as nuclear and missile research over any infrastructure development.
The guide apologised for the road condition, and explained it would take too much asphalt – another imported petrol product on which North Korea relies – to properly repair the road built with old techniques. Meanwhile, teams of construction workers were burning wood to melt some solid black substance – likely asphalt – in large iron woks by the roadside, creating heavy black smoke and a stink.
This April, although tensions in the Korean Peninsula continued to grow, tourism by train to North Korea remained open, generating valuable foreign currency revenue to the isolated country. The sleeper carriage departing from China’s border city Dandong was filled with visitors excited at the prospect of an adventure; the passengers were predominantly from China, but several were from Europe and had been heavily charged for their passage.
As had occurred during my first visit to Pyongyang in October 2012 - six months after Kim Jong-un ascended to power - foreigners were carefully examined, in a search that ranged from the money they carried in their wallets to the photos they had in their cameras.
My belongings were checked very thoroughly, with my mobile phone almost confiscated at one point. The official allowed me to keep the device after I offered him a nice pen. But though my phone was allowed into the city this time, it had no signal.
Again, guests were kept in closely watched groups, travelling a preset route in designated buses and isolated hotels to prevent any free activity or unnecessary communication with local people.
But several times, when my train or tourist bus passed by a team of school kids, a truck loaded with new military recruits or a group of construction workers, they looked at us from behind their shut windows and excitedly waved their hands, flashed big smiles and appeared happy.
This was impressive. In 2012, nobody in this country did such things to outsiders; back then, they also appeared more rigid, uneasy and distant.
This time, the passengers riding Pyongyang’s “deepest underground metro system of the world” looked no less relaxed; but some of them got to look at big-screen smart phones, just as subway riders in any other city would.
All this may be superficial, and fragile, under the tightening sanctions, but it is a sign how – a little surprisingly – the city of Pyongyang has changed under Kim Jong-un’s reign.
The Swiss-educated 34-year-old leader has yet to adopt a Chinese-style “opening and reform”, but at least he has changed the street fashion of Pyongyang, by presenting his wife Ri Sol-ju as a style icon. Ri’s suit jackets, trench coats, knee-length skirts, sheer stockings and high heels could be seen on almost every woman under 40.
Five years ago, though, I was advised to change my “too-short and inappropriate” clothes, when I tried to wear a skirt just above the knee.
Kim Jong-un upgraded his father and grandfather’s totem, “chollima”, or “a horse running a thousand miles a day”, into “ten thousand miles”. In 2014 and 2016, he twice suspended his father’s trademark massive Arirang Festival show, which provided alternative employment for some 100,000 college graduates turned performers. Instead, he marshalled the country’s manpower, including soldiers and students, to build two big compounds in central Pyongyang.
On the eve of April 15, the “Day of the Sun” anniversary of grandfather Kim Il-sung, he invited 200 international journalists to Pyongyang to cover what he called a “big and important event”. As the world nervously speculated another nuclear test was about to be announced, the leader instead stood in front of television cameras to cut the ribbon heralding the completion of Ryomyong Street (Dawn Street), following the completion of Mirae Scientists Street (Future Scientists street) in 2015.
The two streets are the sites of mostly high-rise residences. They feature modern architectural design, with lights spelling out names and slogans in the night, and even illuminating the signs of fast food shops on the ground floor. The projects could have been easily copied and pasted in Pyongyang from a metropolitan city in the capitalist world.
But there is strangely no outdoor advertising or billboard, and few pedestrians actually walk down the street, making it look more like a sci-fi movie set representing a world slightly in the past, than a real-life neighbourhood – or as our guide said, a model of a “North Korean dream”.
“This street is a prototype of how our ideal city looks like and is what we North Korean people would work hard to realise,” he said.
Still, it is worth remembering that for all of Pyongyang’s healthy appearance, it is the result of the pooling of the whole nation’s resources into developing the capital city. Only a small handful of privileged elites in fact live out this “ideal” and enjoy the modern facilities available.
Chinese parliament spokeswoman Fu Ying wrote in a report published April 30 by the Brookings Institution, the Washington-based non-profit think tank, that the North Korean economy has crawled out of its “gonanui haenggun” (“Arduous March”) or terrible famine, since the 1990s.
“The reality is that the Korean economy has already passed through its most difficult time. Kim Jong-un … has stabilised the domestic situation,” she wrote.
The electricity supply might support Fu’s point. Five years ago, Pyongyang had to black out its districts, due to an insufficient summer power supply. The city was dark and quiet after dusk, although some enthusiastic football fans stayed at the square outside the Pyongyang train station, where there were two big TV screens, and watched pre-recorded matches of the European Championship 2012.
This April, whether due to the important anniversaries or not, Pyongyang was brightly illuminated. The sound of heavy trucks even could be heard across the river, and the lights didn’t go out until the middle of the night.
In rural areas, bikes were seen commonly used by peasants working in the fields, and the machines looked new. Tractors and cattle both were used in ploughing, and goats were freely herded.
It is difficult to make sense of why some of the peasants’ work involves encircling very small trees near the road with small white pebbles, and enlarging the circle around trees that had grown. My guess is it
reflects the impact of both deforestation and underemployment.
North Korea’s late leader, Kim Jong-il, initiated a movement to cut down most of the country’s wood, and the results are obvious: many mountains are unvegetated and barren. Their condition has caused water and soil erosion, leading to drought or flooding during unfavourable weather. Now an effort is under way to recover the vegetation, by showering it with care. I also presume that due to the low efficiency of their communal work in rural area, some people are just there encircling trees.
It was during the so-called “April crisis” of the Peninsula that worries rose in the world over the possibility that North Korea might conduct nuclear or missile tests on its important anniversaries, amid the warning from Washington that US warships were sailing to nearby waters, ready for a pre-emptive strike.
Yet, as April 25 marked the 85th anniversary of the founding of the Korean People’s Army (KPA), and the presidents of the United States and China called on each other to deal with a potential North Korean nuclear test, the environment in Pyongyang stayed disproportionately peaceful with modest celebrations. No big event was staged, other than flower presentations to previous Kim leaders’ statues, homage visits to the national cemetery of the fallen soldiers by the KPA officers, and smaller-scale mass dancing and singing on public squares across the city.
The DMZ in Panmunjom was still open to foreign tourists, although the time of stay was cut very short.
Rather, the military day was big for some of the KPA soldiers personally – they had a day off to get married. In Kaesong, just over the border from South Korea, many servicemen were having their wedding photo-shoot take place in a palace of the Koryo dynasty, a world cultural heritage site.
Professional photographers holding digital camera directed the couples to pose. The brides wore traditional costumes as well as heavy makeup. For one bride, it was the day she would finally be eligible for a set of “Chunhyang” cosmetics, a popular brand in the country that is rationed only to married women.
Next to the grooms and their best men in military uniform, most of the families looked glad. As a result of the “songun” policy, ideologically and practically, some 1.2 million military personnel have become most desirable in the marriage market. Indeed, “service in the military” has beaten “college degree” and “good looking” to become the number-one requirement for an ideal husband for a North Korean girl.
“My sister married a handsome college graduate, but my mother isn’t happy enough,” the guide said.
It looked like those in the North Korean military are happy with the “powerful self-defence means” the nation has developed – one that no sanction can easily force them to give up.
“We know that the US aircraft carrier is coming at us, but we are not frightened,” guide Kim said. “Whether the Americans believe it or not, we now are a strong nuclear power.”
He referred to Syria as an example, saying that its vulnerability was exactly why North Korea would never give up their nuclear programmes.
“Assad has no powerful self-defense weapons, so the Americans could fire missiles at him whenever they want,” he said. “But they couldn’t do the same thing to us.”