Rising signs of wealth in N. Korea's capital city

Taxis parked outside a train station in Pyongyang on Wednesday. Evening traffic was clogged this week in the North Korean capital, until recently a city of wide empty streets. The jams were due both to rising numbers of cars, and also because many ro
Taxis parked outside a train station in Pyongyang on Wednesday. Evening traffic was clogged this week in the North Korean capital, until recently a city of wide empty streets. The jams were due both to rising numbers of cars, and also because many roads were closed to prepare for anniversary events.PHOTO: REUTERS

Growing affluence evident in Pyongyang despite isolated country's stagnant economy

PYONGYANG • Smartphones, traffic jams and energy-saving lights are casting a dim glow on the streets of North Korea's capital city, which is showing signs of change even as it prepares for a pageant of military muscle and propaganda of the kind the country is known for.

North Korea - one of the world's most inaccessible places - has invited foreign journalists to Pyongyang this week for celebrations marking the 70th anniversary of its ruling Workers' Party , and rising wealth is evident despite a creaking state economy.

Only recently a niche item, cellphones are now common in Pyongyang, with subscriber numbers topping three million, said an employee with cellular carrier Koryolink, which is controlled by Egypt's Orascom Telecom. The number has tripled since 2012.

North Korea's state-directed economy is stagnant but thriving grey-market entrepreneurship is driving increased spending on consumer goods and services like restaurants and taxis.

A growing number of Pyongyang residents could be seen tapping screens of smartphones, which can be used to access only a domestic intranet.

Evening traffic was clogged this week in Pyongyang, until recently a city of wide empty streets. The jams were due both to rising numbers of cars, and also because many roads were closed to prepare for anniversary events expected to be capped by a military parade today.

North Korea's state-directed economy is stagnant but thriving grey-market entrepreneurship is driving increased spending on consumer goods and services like restaurants and taxis, which have proliferated in Pyongyang.

Much of North Korea remains impoverished, experts and aid officials say, despite rising market activity. Its staple food production could plummet by 14 per cent this year because of bad weather, sparking fears of exacerbating chronic food shortages, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation warns.

The country, which has a population of 24 million people, remains subject to heavy UN sanctions for its missile and nuclear programmes, and is as isolated as ever.

On Wednesday, a high-level United States military official said Washington believes North Korea has the capability to launch a nuclear weapon against the US mainland, and that America stands ready to defend itself against any such attacks.

But a planned satellite launch by the North - expected by officials in Seoul to be a centrepiece of the celebrations in Pyongyang, and suspected by the US and South Korea to be a test of a long-range missile - seems less likely to take place soon.

In Seoul, University of North Korean Studies professor Yang Moo Jin said Pyongyang may have held back on its launch plans under pressure from its ally China, which is sending high-level Communist Party official Liu Yunshan to North Korea for the anniversary events.

Pyongyang has tried to turn on the charm ahead of the anniversary. On Thursday, visitors were taken to a football match between North Korea and the Philippines, which played out to a tense, scoreless draw before an enthusiastic crowd.

The movements of journalists were tightly controlled, minimising interaction with ordinary citizens, and the welcome was not always universal.

As foreign journalists photographed three soldiers rowing through the early morning mist on the Taedong river, one of them shouted: "Son of a dog!"

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 10, 2015, with the headline 'Rising signs of wealth in N. Korea's capital city'. Print Edition | Subscribe