North Korea opens up

Kim Jong-un is qui­etly al­low­ing a tightly con­trolled for­tu­nate few to savour the flavour of life in the west

The Guardian Weekly - - Inside - By Emma Gra­ham-Har­ri­son PY­ONGYANG

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

the­guardian.com/ in­pic­tures See more pho­to­graphs of daily life in Py­ongyang in our on­line gallery:

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