N.Korea seeks to brighten image with white 'fairyland'

Sebastien BERGER
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Tens of thousands of people attended the apartment project opening in Pyongyang

The penthouse apartments at the top of the tallest tower in Pyongyang's showpiece development offer impressive views, ice green wallpaper and purple sofas – but had no hot water when the project opened Thursday.

Ryomyong Street is the third prestige project in as many years in the North Korean capital, and by far the largest, said to have nearly 5,000 apartments, which according to authorities will be distributed free to deserving citizens.

Its name translates as "illumination" and the official KCNA news agency described it as "an icon of modern street architecture and a fairyland representing the era of the Workers' Party".

The white concrete towers come in multiple shapes – square, round and octagonal – and sizes, the tallest proclaimed as 70 storeys and 234 metres high.

Leader Kim Jong-Un -- who made the project a priority -- opened it Thursday in front of an audience of tens of thousands of citizens and an invited coterie of international media.

It was built in only around a year, to ensure completion in time for Saturday's 105th anniversary of the birth of Kim's grandfather, the North's founder Kim Il-Sung - who lies in state nearby.

"Keeping up appearances in Pyongyang makes a lot of sense for the government" of the nuclear-armed country, said Chad O'Carroll, managing director of specialist service NK News.

"Part of it is renovating and increasing capacity in Pyongyang, part of it is to reward those loyal to senior levels of leadership, and part of it is of course for show.

"That's the reason they have invited so many journalists here, to show successful completion of a project in the face of increasing sanctions and international pressure."

Kim's association with the project also bolstered his domestic portrayal as "a leader that cares about the people", he added.

A giant crowd of soldiers, officials and citizens – men in suits, women in traditional hanbok dresses - packed a plaza from early morning for the opening ceremony, waiting in the cold spring air for hours before Kim made his entrance, leading a delegation of senior officials and generals onto the dais.

"Long live comrade Kim Jong-Un, the supreme leader of our party, nation and army," read one banner.

- 'All day and all night' -

Culture ministry official Kim Ok-Hwa was assigned to the construction project's technical department, and said site personnel toiled for 18 hours a day, seven days a week, for a year, to finish it on schedule.

But she played down their role. "The Supreme Leader devoted his very best efforts so our effort is very small compared to his effort," she told AFP.

Seeing him at Thursday's ceremony, she said, made her feel "proud we have the greatest Supreme Leader in the world".

Ordinary North Koreans usually express only officially-sanctioned views when questioned by foreign news organisations.

Personnel from North Korea's army – among the largest in the world by numbers – are regularly deployed on construction projects, where they are known as "soldier-builders".

"To implement thoroughly the order of the Supreme Commander we worked all day and all night," said Lt-Col Kim Pyong-Ho, who worked on the 70-storey tower.

Staff say its hot water system is geothermal, and was not switched on for the opening ceremony.

But O'Carroll described the build quality on similar projects as "not so good".

One of the apartment complexes erected to mark Kim Il-Sung's 100th birth anniversary collapsed in 2014, he said, with the North admitting there had been casualties.

"It went up in less than a year, I believe, and it came down two years later," he told AFP. “When you're rushing to complete things mistakes will be made. It is a risk."