N. Korean Capital Gets Major Facelift

N. Korean Capital Gets Major Facelift

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Brand new apartments, theaters and parks are popping up as has, apparently, a new department store hawking Chanel and Armani. Sidewalks are bustling with activity and, at last, the final touches are being applied to the exterior of a massive showpiece hotel.

This is clearly not the Pyongyang of old.

The North Korean capital is reportedly buzzing with activity as it undergoes a facelift ahead of the 100th anniversary in April of the birth of founder Kim Il-Sung, a milestone date when the Stalinist regime has promised to emerge as a "strong and prosperous nation.”

In line with the upgrades, living conditions for those in city appear to be improving ― on the surface at least ― observers say. What it means for the country as a whole, however, as it battles food shortages and hands power over to a young heir, remains up in the air.

“There’s construction everywhere,” said Bernhard Seliger, resident representative of the Seoul-based Hanns-Seidel-Foundation Korea who frequents the North for engagement projects. “You can see dust hanging over the city from all the construction.”

The efforts, according to reports, are bearing fruit in the form of semi-high-rise apartment complexes featuring 3,000 units in the Mansudae district, complete with cultural amenities and upgraded street lights and signs. A water park that can accommodate 4,000 fun-seekers was said to have opened this summer.

New public buildings, too, are going up and old ones being refurbished.

Then there’s the 105-story pyramid known as the Ryugyong Hotel, which has seen stop-and-go construction since 1987. In time for the celebrations next year, recent visitors say its exterior looks markedly improved. It is expected to hold offices as well as accommodation.

Confirming reports that students have been mobilized for the renovations, Seliger said he saw large groups of them marching and singing along the Taedong River that runs through the city on their way to sites.

Reports also said that North Korean leader Kim Jong-il ordered his staff to prioritize the supply of drinking water, heating and electricity in Pyongyang, though some visitors have said the city remains relatively dark and quiet at night due to an apparent lack of power.

The makeover coincides with lifestyle changes among Pyongyang residents marked most distinctly by rapidly increasing use of cell phones after the regime introduced a 3G network in 2008. Visitors also note an increase in imported cars and technology, Western-style restaurants and fashionable clothes as signs of modernization.

“There’s a lot going on,” said John Delury, an assistant professor of international studies at Yonsei University who has made multiple visits to Pyongyang, most recently in September. “Not everyone is wearing the same thing. Especially among women you can see more variety. There’s a clearer socioeconomic differentiation.”

But the renovations have prompted some skepticism from South Korean media, which said the improvements were the regime’s attempt to bolster allegiance among the country’s elite, who are concentrated in the city. Analysts suggest such consolidation is particularly important as Kim appears to accelerate the succession process of his youngest son, Jong-un.

“There is significance in linking the anniversary and the legitimacy of the regime with delivering on the promise of improving living conditions and convincing people their lives are getting better,” Delury said.

But the question looms: Will the improvements succeed in creating the aura of a strong state at a time when the government has asked for international aid and the United Nations says a quarter of the population needs food?

It remains a topic of debate here. Defector groups who report on the North have said that skepticism among citizens over the “strong and prosperous state.” Others who have visited the capital say the situation feels stable and point out that the North has managed to survive despite decades of predictions of instability.

Seliger said more time was needed to assess what lasting impact the changes would have on the country as a whole. For one, he said, it seemed clear that the people in the countryside were poorer and that those in the capital were getting preferential access to resources. Others have wondered how the regime was paying for the changes amid ongoing sanctions, with some speculating whether China, the North’s ally, was helping to foot the bill.

“Or is it just a redistribution of resources from the countryside? If so, it should not be confused with sustainable growth,” Seliger said.