North Korea’s nouveaux riches
Rise of merchant class has some living fashionably
improve the lives of his fellow millennials in particular. He has ordered the construction of amusement parks and water parks and skate parks, even a dolphinarium and a ski resort. Around the capital, volleyball and tennis courts are full of young people.
On a trip to Pyongyang this month, three Washington Post reporters went to a German-themed restaurant near the Juche Tower, with exposed brick walls and seven kinds of North Korean beer on tap, and a huge screen that was showing ice skating.
On the menu, there was a prime steak with a baked potato for US$48, although the wiener schnitzel, at US$7, was more reasonable. Most of the North Koreans in the restaurant seemed to be opting for the local food, although at US$7 for a bowl of bibimbap — the kind of price you’d pay in Seoul — it was hardly cheap.
At the Sunrise complex, there’s a sushi bar and a barbecue restaurant where groups of North Koreans were enjoying grilled meat — the waitress recommended cuts of beef that were US$50 for a one-person portion — and bottles of soju, Koreans’ favorite alcoholic beverage, on a recent Saturday night.
A North Korean couple pulled the bamboo curtain across the front of their table when they heard some foreigners arrive. In Pyonghattan, discretion is key.
“If it weren’t for the little badges, they could be South Koreans,” said one expat in Pyongyang, referring to the pins of Kim Il-sung or Kim Jongil, the first two generations of leaders, that North Koreans must wear over their hearts. “They’re paying 10 to 15 euros for a meal.” The man asked not to be identified. There are other signs more people have more disposable income. There are now five or six taxi companies, although the drivers grumble business isn’t great, and a reporter spotted several people with pet dogs, something that wouldn’t have been seen a few years ago.
Women, perhaps seeing a green light from Ri Sol-ju, Kim’s fashionable wife, have started wearing brighter and trendier clothes.
About three million North Koreans, out of a population of 25 million, have cellphones, including Arirang smartphones. Ask North Koreans about their children, and chances are they’ll whip out their phones and show you photos.
A fancy supermarket stocked with imported products was selling Australian beef, Norwegian salmon, craft beer and granola — all at astronomical prices. The store was empty when the Post visited at 8 p.m. on a Saturday evening, but others who’ve visited said they’ve seen Koreans shopping there.
Until last year, Lee Seo-hyeon and her brother Lee Hyeon-seung, now 30, were part of this privileged set.
They lived and went to a university in China, where their father, a high-ranking North Korean official, was tasked with earning foreign currency for the regime. But they travelled back and forth to Pyongyang.
Hyeon-seung described his teenage life in Pyongyang, one that involved listening to Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys in the days before the South Korean wave of K-pop and schmaltzy dramas had arrived.
For the average Pyonghattanite, fast fashion such as Uniqlo, Zara and H&M is affordable and popular.
“All my friends lived abroad, and everyone would bring stuff like this back,” Hyeon-seung said.
But there were limits. Sleeveless tops and tooshort
A young woman wearing a modern, brightly coloured outfit waits next to others in traditional Korean dresses. Designer styles, in colours, and expensive jewelry are on the rise in Pyongyang.
Smartly uniformed women team up to make a pie at an upscale pizza restaurant in Pyongyang.
An elevator operator sports a bright jacket with embellishments of rhinestones, sequins and lace — complete with a fox pin to offset a patriotic one.