The Paradox of North Korea

10 10 2009

Pyongyang_Ryugyong HTL John Sudworth (BBC News, 7 October 2009)

…The BBC’s attempts to record sound and pictures in the streets of Pyongyang are met with a stiff response. Our camera and tapes were temporarily seized by government minders.

We do, however, catch glimpses of daily life, at least of that led by the privileged citizens of Pyongyang. On the face of it, given North Korea’s broken command economy and the added burden of international sanctions, the country’s capital looks in pretty good shape.

The Ryugyong Hotel, an unfinished 105-storey hulk that has long loomed large on the Pyongyang skyline as a symbol of failure, is finally beginning to resemble its original conception. The giant, creaking, pyramid structure is being made sound and then clad in glass.

Some of the city’s foreign residents suggest that there are more cars on the street lately, although the majority of citizens travel on foot or on bike, making their way to and from work in the autumn sunshine. A campaign to boost productivity is under way; repairs are being made and many more of the buildings are being given a lick of paint.

But the makeover masks a grim underlying reality. Just a few miles out of the capital the traffic almost disappears and the main highway south turns into what is, in effect, one of the world’s widest bicycle lanes. From time to time we pass a broken-down army Jeep, bonnet up, with soldiers peering into the engine. A collapsed bridge on the main highway forces our bus driver to make a detour through countryside, and into another century.

There is precious little mechanisation, the crops are being harvested by hand with the maize loaded on to waiting oxen carts, and the poverty is everywhere. This year the country is once again predicted to face big food shortfalls. North Korea prefers to show the few tourists, and the even fewer journalists given permission to come, an altogether different image…

…Back in Pyongyang we say goodbye to our minders — educated, friendly people (despite the odd run-in) but also, of course, members of the North Korean elite and strong supporters of the state. It is impossible to know what the average North Korean is really thinking at the moment. They would be unlikely to risk speaking their mind to a visiting BBC reporter, even if we were allowed to get close to them.

Nonetheless, it is fair to say that while the outside world struggles to respond to Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions, visitors are met with a striking paradox. This may be a deeply authoritarian and impoverished place, but at least some of its citizens appear genuinely proud and defiant. Upon whatever it is based, it is that strand of legitimacy, as much as the physical controls, that has helped make North Korea so resilient for so long.

See video footage and read the full text here…