Beyond skyscrapers, dark homes, chimneys without any smoke in Pyongyang

Buildings go dark after 9pm. Only the Tower of Juche (right) is lit. Express Photo by Mihir Vasavda Related News

IT’S 9.30 pm and Pyongyang is pitch black. The LED-illuminated buildings have gone dark, street lights are off and there’s not a car on the roads. Only the Tower of Juche burns bright in the night sky. The red flame is the country’s symbol and guiding principle. Juche, translated as self-reliance, calls for North Koreans to be the “masters of their own destiny”.

By “conserving energy”, people here believe they are doing just that. The rest of the world, however, sees this blackout as a success of the sanctions it has imposed on the “rogue” nation. In August, the United Nations banned the export of North Korean textiles and iron ore, and put a cap on its coal exports. None of these sanctions have deterred the Koreans from testing more nuclear weapons. But the decision to limit their oil imports last Monday has got some worried.

Ko ri-Hwang is among the handful of North Koreans who drives a Mercedes. But he cannot ride it in the nights after 9. On weekends, there’s a complete embargo unless he has prior police permission. Pyongyang had even tried the odd-even rule a couple of years ago. But with so few cars on the road, that fizzled out.

Hwang, however, fears the current situation can only get worse in the coming months. “Crude oil is important for any country to develop. If we are not allowed to import that, it might get tough for us,” says the 43-year-old.

It’s already getting difficult. There aren’t many gas stations here. Some are shut while a few others have limited their services. The fuel supply for an individual is controlled by the state, which provides coupons to car-owners. One coupon costs roughly $29, which will get you “15 kg of liquid petrol”. Three months ago, the rate was $12. For a tourist visiting Pyongyang right now, hiring a cab for eight hours can cost up to $100.

Hwang says the reason to “conserve energy” is not a fallout of the sanctions imposed on his country. “These tricks adopted by our enemies will not work. Under our dear respected leader, we will continue to progress,” he says.

This isn’t just rhetoric. Despite the sanctions, Pyongyang appears to have continued to develop at breakneck speed. The capital is in the middle of a construction boom, which belies the claims that the strong sanctions are damaging North Korea’s economic aspirations.

Abroad, Kim Jong-un is seen as a dictator. At home, he has developed a reputation of being a master planner, who has developed facilities that have uplifted the country’s middle class.

There is talk that the 105-storey Ryugong Hotel, built in a shape of a pyramid, might soon open for public. The glistening new buildings on Ryomyong Street and Mire Street are artistically designed and are on par with those in any modern city. They recently finished constructing a 72-storey building in just eight months. These apartments are “gifted” by the government to teachers, researchers and scientists.

A few kilometres away, there’s a water park and a science centre, which also has an eight-lane bowling alley. On the sidewalks, youngsters are tapping on their smartphones, navigating the state-controlled intranet while children buy “eskimos” (ice-creams) from the colourful, tiny shops you see everywhere. “All this is built by Korean people with our money and our material. We don’t need outside help to build our nation,” says Hwang.

But this is the part of the city they let you see. The view from the revolving restaurant on the top of Yanggakdo Hotel provides a glimpse into what the other side might be. Hiding behind the skyscrapers are modest homes, which are dark inside. There are chimneys but no smoke comes out of it.

People queue outside the stores for milk — the best quality can cost up to $2.75 for one litre. Milk products, mainly butter, is in short supply while the cost of vegetables has risen by around 30 per cent, say local residents.

At the football match with Bengaluru FC last Wednesday, they played a 10-minute documentary at half time on farming. But at the breakfast table, they will serve three slices of apple and half a banana, along with two slices of bread, cereals, a boiled egg and an omelette.

The locals call it conservation. The rest say it’s the impact of the sanctions. Somewhere in between the regime’s propaganda and world’s perception, lies the mystery behind Pyongyang’s economic boom.

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