From North Korea's Oz to its forgotten cities

By Tim Sullivan

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, Oct. 7 2012 6:15 a.m. MDT

It's in the province around Chongjin, where U.N. data shows the rate of abnormally short children — a key indicator of chronic malnutrition — is 50 percent higher than around Pyongyang.

It's in Kaesong, where residents even have a little extra money because so many work in South Korean-owned factories in the nearby industrial zone, but who still see themselves as poor country cousins to people from the capital. Few from this city, though, ever move to Pyongyang. Kaesong was part of South Korea before the Korean War, and many of its residents are seen as potential security risks because of family ties to the south.

You can find it in the hospitals of those second-tier cities, according to people who have fled North Korea, and who spoke on condition their names not be used, fearing it would cause trouble for their relatives. They say desperate doctors struggle to treat patients with almost no medicine, using equipment that can be decades old.

It's not an issue North Koreans will discuss with outsiders, especially not foreign journalists accompanied by government minders. But the contrast is obvious, and people who have fled the country, along with analysts and academics, say the discrepancies cause widespread frustration.

Like so much else in North Korea, the urban divide is really about the politics of single-family rule.

Pyongyang grew after the Korean War into a showcase of Stalinist propaganda, a city of hulking government buildings, enormous stadiums, broad avenues and omnipresent monuments celebrating the lives of founding ruler Kim Il Sung and his son and successor, Kim Jong Il.

It was proof to the world, the regime believed, of the victory of totalitarian socialism. More importantly, it was also a way to reward the regime's key supporters, and to keep them close.

Pyongyang is a closed city, sealed off by security forces that monitor movement at dozens of checkpoints. North Koreans cannot move there, or even visit, without official permission. Its estimated 3 million residents have been vetted for their ideological purity, or at least their connections to the inner circle.

In many ways, the capital is a complex mixture of facade and reality: blackouts remain commonplace in many neighborhoods; backstreets are dusty and potholed; the outsides of many apartment buildings are splattered with patches of mold.

But life is also far less grim than in the rest of the country. If nothing else, there is the appearance of opportunity.

Top officials in the ruling party, the government and the military live in gated neighborhoods closed to outsiders. They shop in stores filled with goods, and sing karaoke in wood-paneled restaurants. They live and work in constant proximity to power, opening up channels for professional promotion, business opportunities and black market profits.

So when the regime needs to ensure support, it knows where it needs to focus.

"The government is privileging Pyongyang as a political strategy," said Glyn Ford, a former European Union parliamentarian and international consultant who travels regularly and widely in North Korea. "The people who live in the capital are the people who count. They're the people who underpin the regime."

Their support is particularly important right now, with the ascension of third-generation leader Kim Jong Un, who clearly sees his political survival linked to improved standards of living.

His grandfather, Kim Il Sung, was an anti-colonial guerrilla who led the country during North Korea's Cold War heyday, when the Soviets showered the country with everything from oil to food. Things grew desperate in the next generation, when Kim Jong Il hardened the police state and launched a nuclear program that made the country an international pariah. He led the country through a mid-1990s famine that foreign economists believe killed hundreds of thousands of people.

Now, with Kim Jong Un's abrupt rise to power, Pyongyang is getting even more.

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