North Korea, a land of surprises

Wu Jiao in Pyongyang/China Daily
Asia News Network

Pyongyang (China Daily/ANN) - While the world watched as tensions rose on the Korean Peninsula, the people in North Korea were in festive mood, almost unaware of the fierce diplomatic spat surrounding the country's plan to launch a rocket.

In March, announced that it would launch a satellite as part of the events organised to mark the centenary of the birth of its founder Kim Il-sung. The news produced an uneasy reaction in a number of countries that believed the launch was related to missile tests, not celebrations.

The news has been on the headlines around the world for almost a month, with reports focusing successively on the unprecedented invitation to hundreds of media members to attend the launch, the unexpected failure of the rocket and a massive military parade where large missiles, believed to be the country's most powerful weapons, were on display.

Yet despite all the twists and turns, daily work was suspended in Pyongyang, as people prepared for the festivities.

When we arrived in early April, we saw crowds of people painting the walls along major streets, women planting flowers in the park and crowds of people holding paper flowers and rehearsing for the parades. We were told that the preparations had begun several months before with the construction of residential buildings, department stores and sports stadiums.

The foreign media were taken to several large rallies, featuring tens of thousands of people chanting and proclaiming their loyalty to the country's new leader, Kim Jong-un.

The impression of disconnection between this country and the outside world is manifest. Inside Pyongyang, we were told, roughly 70 per cent of the population uses mobile phones, speeding up the exchange of information. However, phones used by foreigners run on a separate network, which allows no access to the system used by domestic callers. The country's Internet has no connection with the World Wide Web, but allows citizens to chat on an internal network.

One of the country's four TV channels mainly broadcasts documentaries about the leaders, plus a news programme in the evenings. There is also a channel broadcasting programmes about the arts and an international news bulletin twice a week.

Although the country is relatively isolated, we saw how it is putting more emphasis on economic development, despite its "military-first" policy, and is gradually opening up to the outside world.

The capital, Pyongyang, is home to almost every prominent building and political landmark in the country and the 105-story Ryugyong Hotel, a pyramid-shaped behemoth once envisioned as the world's tallest building, dominates the city, but more commercial buildings are under construction. A government official, who declined to be named, told us that the late Kim Jong-il instigated a number of changes in economic policy in his last years and the country is now witnessing a wave of construction of new homes, shopping centres, restaurants and playgrounds.

There has been a distinct policy shift and the new leadership will improve the economy and, therefore, the quality of life, according to the official.

A UN humanitarian official said last year that 6 million people in North Korea face food shortage, up to a quarter of its 24 million people with limited arable land.

Meanwhile, the state media reported that parliament approved an increase in the construction budget last year, while the budgetary allocation for defence remained unchanged. That's notable in this military-first country.

North Korea is also reported to have allowed foreign companies, mainly Chinese and Russian, to manage production of its maritime products and to run markets.

Last year, the country saw its first privately funded university, the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, established through the combined efforts of North Korea, South Korea and overseas Koreans. The university now has three schools - telecommunications, international finance and life sciences - and around 200 students, both under- and postgraduates. The staff is international in composition. Professor Yu Taik-chon, a US citizen, teaches industrial technology, and there are approximately 40 other staff members from countries such as the UK, the US, Canada, and Australia.

The country pays a lot of attention to modern technology, said Yu Taik-chon. "I think it is gradually changing and opening up and the establishment of the university itself is a sign of that."

Antonio Fatiguso of the Italian news agency ANSA, was on his fourth visit to the country. He felt that things are changing. "People in Pyongyang are using cell phones and shopping in supermarkets," said Fatiguso, who added that he'd even seen a traffic jam in the capital. "I thought they would try to figure a way out, but the situation is so tough that we do not know where they are going."

A staff with the Associated Press, who declined to give his name, said North Korea authorities seemed a little more willing to work with the media on this trip. "I first came here in 2008 and I've noticed that this time there is more openness, more cooperation, more access to the Internet, and it has been easier for the journalists to cover stories. So I think there is a feeling that North Korea is opening up to the foreign media," he said.

According to Yang Xiyu, an expert with the China Institute of International Studies, the new openness indicates that the new leadership has an open and confident political mindset.

The country's gradual moves toward opening up have attracted an increasing number of tourists. According to Simon Cockerell, a Beijing-based US tour guide who works for Koryo Tours, there are about 12 tourist agencies in the world arranging trips to North Korea.

nowadays, as many as 3,500 Europeans travel to the country annually, compared with just 1,000 five years ago, said Cockerell. And the tours aren't cheap, a three-day trip costs about 1,000 euros ($1,311). Cockerell noted that the number of US tourists has grown from 200 in 2007 to around 700 last year. "So far this year, I've brought about 1,500 people here," he said. "The country welcomes us, but the profit it earns from tourism is minimal because the number of tourists is so small."

"Before I came here, most of what I knew (about the country) came from TV. It's a bit more modern than I expected and I think a lot of information about the place is outdated," said Michael Woodfood, a US tourist.

The increased economic interaction has also improved the lives of the locals. Overseas workers based in the country said a growing number of people in Pyongyang now shop in markets previously only visited by foreigners.

Foreigners, who mostly shop in stores that only accept payment in foreign currency, such as the euro, the dollar or Chinese yuan, said they were surprised that the local people have foreign currency in their wallets, as most only receive a monthly salary of around 2,000 North Korean won (US$15).

One foreign worker said some locals trade with foreign countries by exporting natural resources and water-related goods. A joint industrial park with South Korea in the border area also provides hard cash.

However, while people are encouraged by signs of a potential policy watershed, the country's future direction remains unclear. On Tuesday, North Korea rejected UN condemnation of its rocket launch and said it would no longer adhere to an agreement with the US to freeze its nuclear and missile programmes. That rejection has resulted in calls for harsher sanctions to be imposed on Pyongyang.

But some observers said keeping North Korea engaged with the outside world is a better solution to the Korean Peninsula crisis.

Katharina Zellweger, who has lived in Pyongyang for five years and served as the director for the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation in North Korea, told Yonhap News last month that helping resolve the country's economic difficulties is the precondition to a change in its attitudes toward the outside world. She urged the international community to provide aid to North Korea and emphasised that dialogue is the best way to promote further opening up.

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