site: HOME > > Economic > News > Nation
Evolving Pyongyang
Summary:Though North Korea remains largely isolated from the world, things appear to be changing in the capitol. Cell phones and other basic technology are popping up while young people are developing a sense of fashion.

Pyongyang skyline

photo: Asturkon

By Chen Yong ( 
Issue 599, Dec 17, 2012
Nation, page 10
Translated by Zhu Na
Original article:

21-year-old Li Zhenai (李贞爱) looked down at photos that a foreign reporter had taken on a digital camera. “Take a nice one, then copy it for me,” she said. “Or send it to the Foreign Cultural Exchange Committee. They can receive international mail.”

The North Korean girl in her fifth year of college wore a down jacket with a short skirt that would be fashionable even in China. With a scent of perfume she carried a bag containing a small SONY camera and Pyongyang brand mobile phone. The only pity was that it’s very difficult to receive mail from abroad and she has no email. In North Korea, only a few places have internet access and one must get special approval to use it.

Since Kim Jong-un took office, fashionable accessories like Pyonyang-brand cell phones and Arirang IPads have started popping up in the capitol’s streets. In the town center, there are also some new high-end apartment buildings. Officials said the government has given free units to those who have made contributions to the country.

Cars pass by on the streets, but they’re a strange sight on closer inspection. Sometimes the driver’s seat is on the left and sometimes the right. One Volvo brand taxi had tires on the front with a Mercedes-Benz logo and tires on the back that said Toyota. There were also second-hand Mercedes-Benzs, brand new Audi Q7s and of course, Chinese-made BYD F6s - which are used by the government.

Compared to major Chinese cities, the scene seems somewhat traditional and outdated. But because this is Pyongyang, the sight of skirts, perfume, high-heels and luxury cars give an image of fresh vitality.

The Girl Who Wants to be a Soldier

Li Zhenai was reading books in the library when a government official approached and gave her her first interpreting assignment. At first she stared blankly and didn’t know what to say. But once it sank in, she got very excited. She’d finally have a chance to serve the country

Since it would be her first time interpreting, the official and a teacher repeatedly explained to her the details she needed to pay attention to about the people she was going to serve. Again and again she was reminded that her job was related to the national image. “I promise to fulfill the task,” she replied.

Li first learned Chinese when she spent three-years in China’s Zhejiang Province for middle-school. But just when she had adapted to the food there and developed good friendships with classmates, her parents finished their work and brought her back to North Korea. After returning to the country, she was admitted to Pyongyang Foreign Languages University and continued to study Chinese.

Her only regret from her five-year college study is that her classmates all went out with boys, but nobody chased her. She’s confident that she’s attractive, but thinks maybe it’s her bad temper that scares the guys away.

Born in 1991, Li has the same interests most North Korean girls her age have – good food, handsome boys, popular music and Chinese spy films. Her dream though is to become a soldier. She says the female soldiers on TV are all very brave, and the special uniforms they wear not only look pretty, but also present a strong sense of pride.

After getting acquainted with Chinese tourists in North Korea, Li proudly tells them that she’s been to China and loves eating Zhejiang seafood. If someone photographs something negative North Korea, she’ll ask them to stop. If they don’t listen, she’ll walk away in anger. But sometimes she quietly asks tourists what Chinese girls born in 1991 like to do.

Love at a Convenience Store

Not every girl goes to university. Cui Yuji (崔玉姬), also 21, went to work after high school as a shop assistant in a convenience store. She’s there each day from 9am to 10pm.

The store is located in central Pyongyang. Compared to the past, there are now a much wider variety of products on the shelves, many of which are made in China. There are even beer taps and coffee machine for sale. The prices are pretty cheap for Chinese, but for North Koreans, these are luxury items.

Unlike Li Zhenai, Cui is being pursued by a boy. His name is Li Yongjin (李永金) and he works at a shoe company. Every evening he’ll come by the convenience store to pick up Cui and escort her home.

In the beginning, Cui felt a bit shy about her pursuer, but after a while, she got used to it. Whenever customers ask about the boy though, she’ll just smile and deny that there’s any romance.

In Li Yongjin’s eyes, Cui is like a goddess who’s descended to Earth. He said he’s chased her for a year already, but their relationship remains ambiguous. There have been a few occasions when he’s considered giving up, but once he sees her smile, he quickly discards the thought.

“It’s already been a long time. I’m sure I can capture her,” Li said. “Wish me luck.”

Feelings from Outside North Korea

North Korea may be poor and isolated, but that’s only served to spark curiosity from the outside world. Tourists will usually be taken to places like model schools, factories, farms, art studios and famous attractions. The aim is to give guests a good impression of North Korean life.

Qing Shang Kindergarten is one standard destination. Even Kim Jong-un has visited twice.

53-year-old Liu Dejin, a Chinese tourist and small business owner from Hebei Province, has also visited this Kindergarten. When he entered, he was led by the principal and teachers to visit each class one-by-one. Some classes sang songs, some danced and some were playing games. When his group arrived to a classroom, the performance had always just began. Once they left, the music, songs and laughs would abruptly stop.  

The principal explained that North Korea offers free education and medical care for all people, and that students will be taught two or more languages while they’re children so they can better serve their country.

Liu stayed at the Pyongyang Koryo Hotel, where the only available entertainment was a massage parlor and a swimming pool. The room had a TV with ten channels: Two from CCTV, two from North Korea, two from Russia, as well as NHK, CNN, BBC and Phoenix TV. Electricity in the hotel isn’t stable and there’s no central heating in the room. Although there is an electric blanket and a heater, the room stays very cold.

If Liu wants to go out for a walk, he must be accompanied by a tour guide. He once asked the interpreter if there are any entertainment venues in Pyongyang. The interpreter looked him with surprise and replied that there aren’t.

However, the interpreter also told him that the unofficial private markets in North Korea, which were highly opposed by Kim Jong Il, are thriving nowadays. The middle-aged women who sell products on the streets of Dacheng and Shunan districts no longer need to worry about being arrested. Farmers are allowed to sell 30-50 percent of their harvest in these markets.

Liu said he was surprised and impressed by a few things. For one, the officials there could speak as many as five languages. But the thing that was perhaps most striking was the air. He says Pyongyang’s air quality is much better than that of Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou.

(Names used in this piece are all pseudonyms)

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Li Zhenai would ask tourists to stop if they made negative comments of North Korea. This should have been if they take photographs of negative things in North Korea.


Comments(The views posted belong to the commentator, not representative of the EO)

username: Quick log-in

EO Digital Products

Multimedia & Interactive