North Korea’s nou­veaux riches

Rise of mer­chant class has some liv­ing fash­ion­ably

SundayXtra - - WORLD -

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

PHOTOS BY LINDA DAVID­SON / WASH­ING­TON POST

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.

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