Don’t Expect a Pyongyang Spring Sometime Soon, by Hazel Smith

[CanKor Brain Trust member Hazel Smith published this travelogue in the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) PacNet Newsletter #60 on Friday, 8 October 2011. Dr. Smith is Professor of Security at Cranfield University, UK. Her books include North Korea: History, Politics Economics, Society (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming); Reconstituting Korean Security (UN University Press, 2007) and Hungry for Peace: International security, Humanitarian Assistance and Social Change in North Korea (USIP Press, 2005). –CanKor.]

Pyongyang restaurant for the well-to-do (Photo by Erich Weingartner)

Walking the streets of Pyongyang after an absence of eight years it’s easy to be seduced by a superficial optimism that things have changed for the better. Apartment blocks and streets are lit at night. New shops and restaurants catering for local people are thriving. Traffic, including private cars, though hardly at the level of Seoul or Beijing, is a constant on Pyongyang’s streets which at last have a traffic light system that works.

The pyramid-shaped ‘Ryugyong’ hotel, the long-neglected and still tallest concrete building in the world, whose 330-meter spire disappears into overhanging rain clouds, built in the late 1980s but left for 20 years to decay, is being clad with glass imported from China. The temporary fence of the building site surrounding the structure is covered with Socialist Realism depictions of women workers with fists held high proclaiming progress toward completion.

Even 10 years ago the shops available to the city’s 3 million inhabitants could be counted on one hand; the city streets were almost silent and usually pitch black at night, with apartment blocks seldom displaying more than flickering and muted light from torches or candles after dark. Construction had all but stopped in every part of the city. Read the rest of this entry »

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