North Korea opens up
Kim Jong-un is quietly allowing a tightly controlled fortunate few to savour the flavour of life in the west
At the Ryuwon shoe factory in Pyongyang, Adidas trainers gleam on a stand beside the production line, a personal gift from dictator Kim Jong-un to inspire workers churning out imitations for the North Korean faithful.
“The Great Marshall sent shoes from other countries so the workers can see and touch them,” said the factory guide. Kim’s style hints have been embraced. The factory showroom boasts virtual copies of western brands from Puma to Nike, alongside more experimental hybrids
Footwear design may seem an incongruous concern for a man more famous for building up his nuclear arsenal, assassinating relatives and playing high-stakes diplomatic games with Donald Trump. But Kim has been managing a transition of sorts for his hermit nation.
His vision of change is not political. Kim has held tight to the dynastic personality cult, the brutal police state bolstered by a gulag network, and the official ideology of isolationist self-reliance handed down by his father and grandfather.
Instead, he has apparently decided that life should become a little more pleasant for the tiny, tightly controlled elite – a little bit more like the vision of westernised consumer society that slips into the country through strictly banned, but eagerly consumed, foreign films and television shows.
The opaque nature of North Korean society means there has been no official acknowledgement of the rise of this carefully managed version of consumer society, much less any insight into why Kim has allowed it to flourish on his watch. But last week one possible explanation came from Oh Chong-song, a soldier in his midtwenties who made a dramatic dash across the border last year.
In his first interview since the extraordinary defection, Oh, who appears to have belonged to this gilded world, said Kim faced a lack of loyalty from his peers even though they must pay lip service to the dynasty in public.
“People my age, about 80% of them are indifferent,” he told Japanese paper Sankei Shimbun. “Not being able to feed the people properly, but the hereditary succession keeps going on – that results in indifference and no loyalty.”
The son of a major general, Oh described himself as “upper class” and said most members of the North Korean elite had a well-developed taste for imported pleasures, despite the formal doctrine of self-reliance.
“North Korean people condemn Japan in politics, but respect Japan in economics,” he said, citing the Nissan Patrol SUVs used exclusively by military officers as one example of the taste for Japanese goods.
For decades an indulgence limited to the Kim dynasty and their inner circle, this kind of imported luxury today offers Kim a way of co-opting his elite – or at least distracting them.
At state-run supermarkets in the capital Pyongyang, journalists on an official tour earlier this year saw shoppers browsing shelves of counterfeit Pumas and Nikes, real Colgate toothpaste and Pampers nappies, Japanese whisky and even cans of California La Tourangelle walnut oil, on sale for around $30.
Taxis waited outside to whisk the fortunate few around the city’s vast, empty roads. The fare for a single ride starts at around 16,000 won, equivalent to just under $2 at the black market exchange rate used by North Koreans, but around a month’s wages for many.
It is a far cry from the images of frugality, uniformity and military-style mass coordination – epitomised in weapons parades and “mass games” – that the country has traditionally presented to the world.
“I think he [Kim] really wants this lifestyle; he is not a fan of austerity, he grew up in the consumer culture of the west and he sees it as both normal and good,” said Professor Andrei Lankov of Kookmin University in Seoul.
“This is pretty much how the elite, old apparatchik and new bourgeoisie class are living now. They want consumption, material pleasures, and a measure of consumer choice, and they are getting it.”
The loosening of controls is only for a fortunate few. Most North Koreans still face a daily grind of and deprivation. One in five of the country’s children are stunted, an indicator of malnutrition, according to Unicef, and 40% of adults are undernourished.
Statistics are hard to come by in Pyongyang, but analysts who follow North Korea think perhaps 10% of the 25 million population belong to what is effectively a new middle class.
Only a tiny fraction of that elite can afford to travel around the capital in cabs shopping for designer knock-offs, and the most luxurious state-provided benefits seem modest by western standards. Even a somewhat more comfortable life gives a slice of North Korean society more of a stake in the regime’s survival, however, and less reason to consider defection or opposition.
Kim may in part be embracing the economic realities of his country, in a world where no country will sponsor state provision as the Soviet Union did. Informal, semi-legal commerce has become vital to feeding North Korea.
Another consideration may be public relations. For a country constantly, if quietly, fishing for international aid and fighting sanctions imposed over nuclear weapons and other programmes, the world’s view of its government is extremely important.
Kim has transformed the face North Korea shows to outsiders with carefully curated trips, with most tours including prestige projects such as a new waterpark, a sprawling science museum, high-rise apartments and new fairgrounds.
Women wear more subtle giveaways of change on their ears and around their necks. For decades badges with portraits of the Kim dynasty were the only adornment allowed in North Korea – under an unofficial dress code that also prohibited trousers and bright colours for young women.
Now trousers, necklaces and the occasional pop of colour or set of ear studs can be spotted on the most fashionable young women in Pyongyang, possibly inspired by Kim’s fashionconscious wife Ri Sol-ju. The couple have broken decades of precedent by appearing together in public, with Ri often wearing jewellery and carrying designer bags.
For children of the elite, images of Hello Kitty and Winnie the Pooh are painted on bags and umbrellas – enduring symbols of a capitalist world that North Koreans have been taught to denounce. And just as the shifting boundaries of fashion have been set by the first couple, it’s clear that a directive to spend – for the few who have the cash – comes right from the top.
Pride of place at the Pyongyang bag factory is a mural-sized photo of Kim beaming at a children’s backpack with a cheery cartoon rabbit emblazoned on its front, apparently seized by a desire to spend.
“When the Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un was here, he was really satisfied with the bag with the rabbit,” the factory guide explained. “He even said he had a feeling he wants to buy it.” Observer
‘The elite want consumer choice and are getting it’
EMMA GRAHAM-HARRISON IS A GUARDIAN AND OBSERVER FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT
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