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North Korea's lucky few who live in luxury

Deep poverty prevails but signs of affluence are emerging

North Korea's lucky few who live in luxury

Picture: AFP Photo/Mark Ralston

Fragkiska Magaloudi for Al Jazeera

May 14, 2014

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It's rush hour and the once-empty streets of the North Korean capital now show signs of traffic congestion. Expensive cars with tinted windows occasionally pass crowded public buses and trucks crammed with soldiers, prompting traffic officers to raise their hands in a military salute.

In downtown Pyongyang, department stores are filled with goods from all over the world: Swiss chocolates, packets of Doritos, German sausages, Coca-Cola and Italian wine. Clothes from the Spanish Zara stores, Chanel makeup kits and perfumes, watches and jewellery stock the shelves. Chinese middlemen, who serve as brokers between North Korean trading firms and China-based companies, secure a continuous flow of goods and equipment into the country.

Mobile phones and elegant handbags lay on the tables of smartly dressed young women who sip drinks at Sunrise Coffee and Bakery on Changjon Street. Waitresses roam the tables with iPads, ready to place customers' orders.

The latest figures show that 1.4 million people in North Korea own a mobile phone and demand for computers is high. Although only a handful of the population has access to the Internet, owning a laptop is a sign of prestige.


A new fleet of taxis cruise the streets of Pyongyang, alongside the outdated, poorly maintained public buses and trams. There are reportedly more than 1,000 taxis imported from China.

Over the past two years, Pyongyang has been transformed. The military barracks and shabby cottages on the banks of the Taedong River were replaced by roller-coasters, playgrounds, tennis and basketball courts. Children line up to get marshmallows and candy floss from street vendors at the parks.

State-controlled media claim the parks are "constructed for the joy of the people". But the joy has a price: 10 won (0.8 cents) to enter the park and 60 won (5 cents) to use the playground. Renting a pair of roller skates costs 2,000 won ($15), while an hour in the basketball court is priced at 4,000 won ($31).

Official statistics are not available, but monthly state wages in the country are between 2,000 and 4,000 won. The state subsidises food rations and housing is free, but the majority of North Koreans try to supplement their income in the informal private sector.

Changjon Street, with its high-rise apartments, new restaurants and department stores, is at the heart of the transformation.

Nineteen-year-old Lee proudly points to the upper floors of a residential compound on Changjon Street. He moved to a five-room apartment on the 42nd floor in 2012, with his parents and two younger brothers. Lee says getting this apartment is proof of the "love and care" from North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un to his people.

Lee is a student of fine arts at the prestigious Kim Il Sung University. He spends his spare time painting idyllic scenes of Pyongyang on the banks of the Taedong River with his girlfriend, an 18-year-old student.

Their families belong to the fortunate middle-class of North Korea. There are no figures on how many belong to the middle-class, and officially there are no class differences. However, those living and working in North Korea have observed this non-existent middle-class has been expanding since 2009 - not just in the capital, but beyond.

While the affluent middle-class is growing, the majority of North Koreans still rely heavily on international aid. Two-thirds of the population struggle to secure their daily meal, while some 2.4 million people - mainly children, pregnant women and the elderly - need food assistance to survive, according to the World Food Programme.

Following North Korea's February 2013  nuclear test , sanctions were imposed by the international community, banning imports and financial transactions. Sanctions and economic isolation are supposed to stem financing for North Korea's nuclear programme and halt the import of luxury goods to the country's elite, but their impact is not apparent in Pyongyang.

"Sanctions are not working in any sense," says Andrei Lankov, professor of Korean Studies at Kookmin University in Seoul, South Korea, and author of The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia.

"The North Korean government faces some minor problems it can easily manage and the general population, while very poor by the standards of the region, do not feel much pressure. Had such pressure existed, the people in North Korea would have little if any way to challenge government policy."

Full Story: North Korea: Sanctions, luxury and aid
Source: Al Jazeera


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