First Signs of Change in Dour Capital
PYONGYANG, NORTH KOREA — WEARING a yellow dress, Cho Ryu Hee chews gum and swings slowly to a jazz band in a basement restaurant. She might be any Asian woman in any number of Asian capitals. She smiles, jokes, and enjoys herself.
But in the capital of North Korea, she's an oddity. Most people in this controlled city would rarely wear bright clothes or appear to live it up. Pyongyang, by design and at great cost, is supposed to be the showcase for a workers' paradise, not the Ginza district in Tokyo.
Ms. Cho is a waitress at a state-run restaurant which, to earn hard currency, has begun to cater to foreign tourists, mainly Japanese, who are arriving in big numbers this year and who don't want to be served by dowdy, dour, and drab waitresses. "I've really learned a lot about the outside world," Cho says.
She is a contrast simply because Pyongyang itself is such an odd city. It is perhaps the least Asian of Asian capitals for its lack of motorbikes, food stalls, slums, pollution, private shops, religious shrines, or crush of humanity (except on the few trolleys).
And it lacks even more, all by official design. On the streets, there are no handicapped people, no pets, few bicycles or cars, almost no old people, no smiles, and absolutely no jay-walkers.
Depending on one's perspective, this city of nearly 2 million people is either a Potemkin village, a waste of money, or a "revolutionary" capital. At the least, it is a Stalinist metropolis of monuments to the ideas of "Great Leader" Kim Il Sung, museums to his past, stadiums and statues to his glory, government offices, tall apartment buildings, one giant belching coal-fired power plant, a few shops with sparse goods, and little else.
"The people allowed to live in Pyongyang are high-class, party elite, while the people born in the countryside are destined to engage in agriculture all their lives," says Masao Okonogi, a Korea specialist at Keio University in Tokyo.
Residents are highly regulated and many live in dreary buildings, some with just one toilet for every two floors. Instead of day-care for children, the government sometimes takes kids for "week-care." City dwellers are required to spend one to two weeks in the countryside each year helping farmers to plant and harvest.
Pyongyang was built up rapidly and at tremendous cost over the past decade as a showcase for Kim's regime and to try to keep pace with the rapid growth of South Korea's capital, Seoul, even though the average income per capita in the North is only a few hundred dollars a year.
In 1986-88, at an estimated cost of $4 billion to $7 billion, the North raced to construct buildings in hopes of co-hosting the Summer Olympics with South Korea. But that never came off.
Then it rushed construction of 260 structures in Kwangbok on the outskirts of Pyongyang in time to play host for 20,000 guests at a "world youth festival" in 1989. By then, North Korea was nearly broke, unable to pay $6 billion in foreign debt, and in addition was losing its trading partners in the communist world.
And as testament to lavish socialist grandeur, the city has been left with one of the most expensive white elephants in history: the 105-story Ryugyong Hotel. This pyramid-shaped hotel was to open by 1989 as the "tallest attraction in Asia" with a phenomenal 3,000 rooms. Instead, it is a colossal eye-sore, unfinished due to a dispute with the French contractor.
In contrast, the Pyongyang subway is efficient, cheap, and beautiful. Riders can enjoy the marbled walls, tiled murals of Kim, and chandeliers.
The economic woes, caused in part by the high cost of a new Pyongyang, have helped to bring a few reforms to the city. Besides allowing more worldly waitresses, the city now has semi-private taxis.
Women have been told to wear brighter clothes, although few can afford them. At the Paradise Department store, one of two such stores which carry imports, North Koreans can buy a Japanese shortwave radio, but only with hard currency. Color TVs recently were put on sale, but they cost about four months' salary.