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In Pyongyang, you can also pay in US dollars

Capitalism is developing here, but the ideological face is smooth

In Pyongyang, you can also pay in US dollars

A North Korean soldier during a military parade in Pyongyang in this file photo. (Photo by AFP)

Dorian Malovic, Pyongyang
North Korea

November 3, 2017

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UCAN’s partner, the French Catholic daily La Croix International has just published a three-part series on North Korea, part of the "hermit kingdom" by their reporter Dorian Malovic. In his last article, Malovic observes that behind the mythical founding emblems around which the entire Korean society revolves, there is a warm, lively humanity. 

 

The North Korean capital has undergone a total transformation in the past five years, with its new neighborhoods, but also with the birth of a wealthier social class experimenting with the premises of an undeclared capitalism.

You do not know what to expect on arriving in Pyongyang. Images of military parades, tanks, and missiles crossing the huge Kim Il-Sung Square, one of the ten largest in the world, flit through your mind.

After a flight of just over an hour from Beijing, on board a Tupolev-204 belonging to the national carrier, Air Koryo, you know you’re not arriving in just another capital, in just another country. As soon as the plane lands, it’s time to open your eyes, leave all the interpretation frameworks behind and slide into this ecosystem that is unique in the world.

In the darkness of the night, the great emblematic monuments of the Kim dynasty, in power since 1948, are bathed in white light. The two huge statues of Kim Il-Sung, the founder of the nation, and his son Kim Jong-Il, father of current dictator Kim Jong-Un, guard the imposing Museum of the Revolution. 

The monument to the Workers’ Party casts its hammer, sickle and ink brush towards the sky, while the Juche Tower, symbolizing the country’s ideology of independence and autonomy, lights up the night with its red torch.

 

Korean beer, whiskey, and Rémy Martin cognac

Behind these mythical founding emblems around which the entire Korean society revolves, there is a warm, lively humanity. As soon as you enter a restaurant, you are greeted by the spicy smell of the legendary kimchi, the fermented cabbage indispensable to Korean gastronomy in both the North and the South. Three waitresses dressed in skirts and colored blouses move to and fro among the thirty-odd tables covered with sizzling, appetizing dishes.

Young couples, public servants, North Korean businessmen and businesswomen with reddened faces toast loudly as they down Taedonggang beer "made in North Korea", numbered 1 to 9 according to taste and quality. "Number 2 is the most popular one," a guy at the neighboring table cries out, cocking his thumb and smiling, "but Number 1 is the best!"

A large glass-paneled fridge keeps bottles of Dutch Heineken or Japanese Sapporo beer cold. Magnums of Johnnie Walker red-label and black-label whiskey and bottles of Remy Martin cognac are lined up at the bar. 

The television set installed above it features the news of the day: inauguration of a machinery and tool factory, a visit to an IT workshop by Kim Jong-Un, and finally, the rebroadcast of the launch of the latest intercontinental missile on September 15 to the applause of the nuclear engineers.

 

A hybrid form of capitalism

At the end of the meal, the customers pay up in North Korean won, euros or U.S. dollars, as the cashier types away on her calculator with lightning speed.

This restaurant is open to all, and not at all reserved for foreigners. It’s one of the dozens of new private establishments opened over the past few years in Pyongyang.

"I have a boss who took me on six months ago," one of the waitresses says shyly. "In the evenings I work until 10.30, but I earn more," she adds with a broad smile, handing me a small "satisfaction questionnaire" to be filled out. 

Here, you are far from the State restaurants with single, low-cost menus, which still exist. In this sector, competition is tough, prices are adapted and quality is imperative.

Without shouting it out loud, Kim Jong-Un’s regime is moving forward covertly, like the nuclear programmes, allowing a hybrid form of capitalism — "private business integrated into the State structure" — to take root. 

Capitalism is developing here, but the ideological face is smooth. Dollars, euros, Chinese yuan and even Japanese yen are plentiful in the country, not least along its 1,400-kilometer border with China.

 

The first "made in Korea" subway trains

The next morning, in the passageways and giddy escalators that plunge down into the bowels of the subway, the crowd, clad in varied clothing, scarcely notices the visiting Westerner armed with the right to film and take photos. Decorated soldiers, female workers in black suits and white or pink blouse, public servants in dark suits or bright yellow shirts, stream out of the "made in GDR" train, imported from Berlin.

On the platform opposite, there are sumptuous murals dedicated to the glory of the agricultural cooperatives, steel factories, and missile plants, under the eye of the "eternal president Kim Il-Sung." 

A train pulls up, flaming new, black and red, "made in North Korea", inaugurated last year by Kim Jong-Un. It’s the first locally produced locomotive. While North Korea still imports a huge quantity of goods from all over the world through China, it is stepping up efforts to produce for itself.

As you leave the subway, the sun casts its rays on the central station, where a packed tramway is passing. A big screen worthy of those in Tokyo’s Shinjuku neighborhood dishes out the news, the same as yesterday’s in the restaurant, barring a few differences.

 

A closed-circuit telephone network

A host of taxis painted in different colors, depending on their companies, take care of customers. There, too, liberalism has come on stream. Many companies are in operation, with a host of vehicles "made in China" but also some "made in North Korea", like the Pyong Hua (peace car), manufactured in Pyongyang itself. 

The drivers work for their companies four days out of five. On the fifth day, the take is theirs.

Workers in factories producing manufactured goods can earn the equivalent of 30 euros per month for "living expenses" — officially it’s not a salary because everything is taken care of by the State. But those who manufacture mobile phones (three brands), television sets or computers, all made in Pyongyang, can earn up to 55 euros per month.

Telephones are restricted, functioning in a closed circuit and only within the country. They cannot receive overseas calls. However, they can be seen everywhere and can be used for texting, local Google, Wikipedia-type applications, dictionaries and many games. 

Sure, it’s not yet Hong Kong or Seoul, but on closer inspection, you could sometimes be fooled, out of context, into thinking it is.

 

A society that is becoming unequal

"I must admit that North Korean society has become unequal," says a public servant in his 40s. "The very, very rich can afford to buy private vehicles without gas restrictions — even if the prices have gone up because of the sanctions. The rich trade freely, while paying taxes to the State; the less rich and the poor live in the socialist system."

In the streets of Pyongyang, people walk and cycle a lot — a bicycle costs 34 euros and an electric cycle, 60 euros — and they seem tired. On the other hand, other people drive around in company cars or use minibusses, articulated buses, and trams. 

This two-tiered capital, like the country, is taking the path of its neighbors, but at its own pace and within proportions.

However, a visit to one of the capital’s many, multi-storied shopping malls is enough to convince you that reality is changing very quickly. An increasing number of food goods "made in North Korea" are sharing store space with products of Japanese, British, Chinese, and Malaysian origin, and even French ones, such as Lancome, Nivea or Moulinex. They are open to all North Koreans; and at the cash register, all currencies are accepted.

Pyongyang is thus changing, just like other parts of North Korea glimpsed during a 10-day journey to the provinces. Of course, what’s left is everything that we have not seen, but even if it is partial, this North Korean immersion provides a few keys to understanding the country; beyond the invisible.

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