North Korea: change of signs

Pyongyang looks and feels different under Kim Jong Un's leadership, but how much do new buildings, markets and facades reveal about the direction of policy? Charles K Armstrong, who recently visited North Korea, reflects.

Charles K Armstrong
5 October 2012

North Korea’s capital Pyongyang is - like Havana, only more so - bereft of commercial advertising but covered with propaganda posters. In recent years, however, one company has been allowed to advertise its products on billboards: Pyonghwa Motors, which is 70% owned by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon’s South Korea-based Unification Church (also known as the "Moonies"). Pyongyhwa is a joint venture with North Korea’s Ryonbong Corporation, and a few signs promoting its "Whistle" sedan – apparently modeled on a Fiat - can be seen in Pyongyang and surrounding areas.

The Whistle is an increasingly common sight on Pyongyang streets, along with a growing number of BMW, Lexus, Mercedes, Nissan and other luxury and non-luxury vehicles, many privately owned. This city, once notable for the absence of traffic (and streetlights) is a much busier and visibly more affluent place than it was just a few years ago. The source of this new affluence is something of a mystery, but presumably Chinese trade and investment accounts for a good part of it. With its residents dressed mostly in western-style clothing and clutching mobile-phones, Pyongyang today looks more like a tidy Chinese provincial city than a spartan capital of the world’s last Stalinist state. North Korea, under "Respected Leader Kim Jong Un", is clearly on the move, but exactly where the young leader will take his country is open to question.

The spruced capital

There is no doubt, though, that this is Kim Jong Un’s regime. When I visited North Korea in 2011, before Kim Jong Il’s death, the official propaganda only obliquely suggested that Kim Jong Un was heir-apparent. In my most recent visit, in July 2012, I saw slogans extolling the new leader everywhere: "Long Live Great Leader Comrade Kim Jong Un!"; "Long Live Kim Jong Un, Sun of Military-First Korea!"; and, more ominously, "Follow Great Leader Kim Jong Un to Final Victory!" (Victory against what?, over whom?, and exactly where would that final destination be?)

Kim Jong Un has already proven himself to been a much more visible and publicly engaged leader than his more reticent father - even a natural politician in the mould of his still revered grandfather, North Korea’s founding leader Kim Il Sung. The regime is clearly trying to cultivate that image, as if to make the North Korean people forget the Kim Jong Il period and relive the hopeful and relatively well-off era of Kim Il Sung, whose death in 1994 was soon followed by a disastrous famine. Kim Jong Un’s very appearance - complete with Mao suit, paunch, and short-sided haircut - seems deliberately designed to make him resemble Kim Il Sung when he first came to power in the 1940s, just a few years older than Kim Jong Un is now.

In an unprecedented move, North Korean media have announced that Kim Jong Un is married to the woman - named Ri Sol-ju - who in recent months has been frequently seen by his side at public events. North Korea has never before had a living "first lady". Kim Il Sung’s first wife, Kim Jong Suk, died in childhood in 1949 and was elevated to "Mother of Korea" only some twenty years after her death. The name of Kim’s second wife, Kim Song Ae, is unknown to most North Koreans. Kim Jong Il fathered children by at least three different women but none were publicly declared to be his legal wife. By showing Kim Jong Un happily married to an attractive and fashionable young woman (whose alleged Dior handbag has been the subject of much discussion  in the western media), North Korea further humanises the young Kim as a family man, role model and legitimate leader of his people.

Kim Jong Un’s public image gives little indication of the political and economic policies his regime will follow. At the very least, though, he is distancing himself from his father’s power-circle, especially the military old guard to which Kim Jong Il was much beholden. The young leader's dismissal of army chief Ri Yong Ho in July, and his own assumption of the title of "marshall", suggests Kim Jong Un’s aggressive consolidation of power over the military. This may indicate a shift in the balance of power from the military, which dominated in the Kim Jong Il era, back to the ruling party. It is even possible that by reducing the influence of the military Kim Jong Un is preparing the way for major economic reform, something the military has long resisted. But for now, there is little indication that serious reform is on the cards.

But the absence of reform doesn't equate to a lack of change. Pyongyang appears more affluent in part because there was a tremendous effort to improve the city to mark the centenary of Kim Il Sung’s birth in April 2011, the date by which North Korea had long announced it would be a "powerful and prosperous country". Foreign diplomatic sources report that the country's universities were closed for the entire 2011-12 academic year as students were mobilised for construction projects. These include strikingly modern, forty-five-storey apartment-blocks whose residents were still moving in during my recent visit.

Kim Jong Un, who is apparently a big fan of amusement-parks, has overseen the renovation of several funfairs and the construction of a new water-park (complete with a dolphin circus). But if many of Pyongyang's large-scale changes are owed to classic Stakhanovite-style labour mobilisation, the market economy is increasingly evident too - literally in the form of the large and crowded public markets, where most consumer goods are now purchased.

The economic prospect

The contrast between the relative affluence of the capital and continuing poverty in the countryside is truly striking. A bumpy six-hour bus ride from Pyongyang to the industrial city of Hamhung on the east coast reveals a fair number of Chinese-built trucks but hardly any private vehicles (and long stretches with no cars at all). What native vehicles there are consist mostly of battered, slow-moving pick-up trucks retrofitted to run by burning wood. Farm vehicles are almost entirely absent. Poorly dressed, unkempt children could occasionally be seen sleeping on the empty highway.

Hamhung is North Korea’s second-largest city, with a population of 800,000, and was once the industrial centre of the country. Today it still shows the effects of the economic catastrophe of the 1990s. Many factories remain shuttered. Pyongyang has always been the showcase capital of North Korea, and the poverty of the countryside is far less obvious than that of, say, India. But still, the contrast raises the question: at what point will a population increasingly connected by mobile-phones and exposed (albeit clandestinely) to information from China and South Korea begin to question the regime’s claim to be a "powerful and prosperous country"?

North Korea, it was reported in late June 2011 by South Korean sources, has announced changes in "economic management" in both agriculture and industry, which would be implemented in late 2012. This may indicate movement toward market-oriented reform along the lines of China in the late 1970s or Vietnam in the 1980s, or these new policies may be as abortive as the state's own reforms of the early 2000s (which were cut short by the nuclear crisis of 2002-03). Kim Jong Un told a visiting Chinese delegation in early August that he will focus on "developing the economy and improving people’s livelihoods", though this rather banal statement gives no indication of how such economic improvement is to be achieved. The Supreme People’s Assembly, North Korea’s equivalent of a parliament, concluded its recent meeting without any mention of economic reform, its only major decision having been to extend compulsory education by one year.

China is now by far North Korea’s largest trading partner, and Chinese investment has more than offset the loss of South Korean investment in the north in recent years, under the conservative administration of Lee Myung-bak, South 's president. Western sanctions have certainly hampered the North Korean economy, but are weakly enforced by China, if at all. China has long encouraged North Korea to follow the Chinese path of reform, but for now at least China is more interested in keeping its Korean ally economically and politically viable than pushing for any real change in Pyongyang. And if indications of economic reform are ambiguous at best, there are no signs whatsoever of political reform or any attempt to address North Korea’s serious human-rights issues.

The Pyongyang way

North Korea is neither on the verge of collapse nor, as far as can be seen, on the verge of serious economic reform. What comes over is a de facto acceptance of the status quo: Korea divided indefinitely between an affluent south and a poor but stable north. Unification is still the official goal of both Seoul and Pyongyang, but has been deferred for the foreseeable future. True, the Arab world and Myanmar have shown that change can come quickly and unexpectedly to the seemingly most intractable dictatorships. But given its past history, North Korea can most likely muddle through for some time to come.

In Pyongyang and throughout North Korea, hundreds of "eternal life monuments", erected in 1997 on the third anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s death, were once inscribed with the words, "The Great Leader Comrade Kim Il Sung Will Always Be With Us." Today, sign-makers are busily altering the monuments’ stone facades to say, "The Great Leader Comrade Kim Il Sung and Comrade Kim Jong Il Will Always Be With Us."

If nothing else, sign-alteration in North Korea constitutes a public-works project of massive proportions. A twenty-metre bronze statue of Kim Jong Il now stands alongside the equally tall statue of his father in Pyongyang. Posters announce a new ideology, "Kim Ilsung-Kim Jongil-ism". Kim Jong Un is said to be ruling according to the "last will and testament of Kim Jong Il." How he interprets this legacy is the central question for the future of North Korea. For now there are few and scattered signs of change, even if the signs themselves are changing.

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