PYONGYANG: North Korea’s use of its showcase capital city to promote an image of national success and prosperity has cemented Pyongyang’s reputation as a Potemkin Village boasting leisure facilities that amount to little more than “playgrounds for cadres.”
Pyongyang has always been an exclusive city, and the 10 percent of the 25 million population allowed to live there generally enjoy a lifestyle the vast majority of North Koreans can only dream of.
But there are increasing signs that the capital’s political elites are not the only ones able to indulge a taste for consumer goods and a spot of rest and recreation.
A closely monitored but tolerated grassroots capitalism, born out of a spirit of survivalist self-sufficiency that got many through the catastrophic failure of the state distribution system in the famine years of the mid-to-late 1990s, has given rise to a growing entrepreneurial class with disposable income and free time.
It emerged during the leadership of Kim Jong-Il, but has only begun to prosper under his son Kim Jong-Un who took power after his father died in 2011.
Its rise can be seen in Pyongyang in the number of mobile phone users, the growing fleets of taxis that ply the capital’s wide avenues and the splashes of street fashion among young women.
If the sort of genuine wealth that creates car owners is still limited to a tiny minority, it seems there is larger, aspirant middle class gaining a foothold in the capital and presumably other cities.
Some observers such as veteran North Korea watcher Andrei Lankov believe Kim Jong-Un wants to promote a style of “authoritarian capitalism” that allows room for private enterprise while maintaining absolute political control over its development.
The rewards for those who benefit from such a system include the ability to afford a meal at one of Pyongyang’s new restaurants or a family outing to watch a dolphin show.
Since taking over from his father, Kim has pushed through a number of costly “leisure” projects that range in scale and ambition from theme parks to a swanky equestrian center and ski resort.
This in a country where, according to the United Nations, 70 percent of the population remains “food insecure” and cash-starved infrastructure leaves millions vulnerable to floods and drought.
For the North Korean leadership, the projects serve the dual purpose of projecting prosperity, while also catering to the elite and satisfying the aspirations of those with newfound disposable income.
And it clearly hopes the really high-end facilities, like the Masik Ski resort, will help bring in much-needed hard currency from increased tourism.
A lower-end example is a Folk Park built just outside Pyongyang and opened three years ago.
With its full-size replica of a 5th century pagoda and scaled down representations of Pyongyang’s landmark monuments, it is similar to the sort of theme parks that proliferated in and around Chinese cities in the 1990s.
Parks and recreation
The entrance fee is low and the complex claims an average daily turnover of 5,000 visitors though nothing like that number was visible during a tour of the park last Sunday.
But a fair number of families and couples strolled round the attractions, some taking smart-phone pictures of each other posing before the exhibits.
More than two million North Koreans have signed up for the 3G network service operated by Egypt’s Orascom in partnership with North Korea’s Koryolink.
“Our respected Marshal Kim Jong-Un said we must make this park a great education site for the nation, and to raise people’s spirits,” intoned the official tour guide.
More up-market is the dolphinarium completed in Pyongyang in 2012 and fed by a specially constructed seawater pipeline from the port of Nampo.
While the Folk Park partly aims to educate, the dolphin show is wholly aimed at entertainment
And apart from a brief nod to Kim Jong-Un and a message of congratulation regarding the previous day’s 70th birthday for the ruling Workers’ Party, it is also largely devoid of the political trappings that cling to so many aspects of North Korean public life.
But it is an entirely political project, originally devised by Kim Jong-Il and eventually realized by his son, with trainers selected from top universities and sent to China to learn how to handle the dolphins.
And the obviously high construction and running expenses again raise the issue of skewed priorities in a country where poverty runs so high.
The head of customer service at the dolphinarium, Jon Suk-Yong declines to reveal its daily operational cost.
“But the seawater is brought in through a 70-kilometer pipeline and we have 10 dolphins that each eat 10 kilos of fish every day, so you can imagine,” Jon said.