N.Korea's Potemkin Village

Kim Sung-min Kim Sung-min

An ethnic Korean in the Chinese border city of Dandong had nothing but praise about life in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang. A businessman who shuttles between China and the North trading goods, he was talking to the Chosun Ilbo in a restaurant in Dandong last month and showed photos on his phone of a two-story home with a picturesque view and an imported car parked next to it.

"Whenever I go to North Korea every three to four months, the North Koreans roll out the red carpet and provide me with this accommodation," he said. "They say North Korea is a poor country, but not Pyongyang."

Just before the Lunar New Year last month, the Chosun Ilbo spoke with several people who live in Dandong and found two radically different views of the reclusive country. One was a positive view that the North is developing remarkably now that Kim Jong-un is in power, the other a negative one that living conditions have deteriorated even further.

The positive views were held primarily by people who were involved in business with the North or had connections with high-ranking members of the Workers Party. One ethnic Chinese who claimed to have connections there said, "North Korea is reforming successfully. Every company has been allowed to open a foreign-currency account and to sell surplus products to earn extra money."

Others in this group cite positive developments from electronic account settlements to women in Pyongyang wearing Western fashions like leggings. Listening to them makes it seem like the Stalinist nation is on the brink of embracing capitalism.

But people who actually live in North Korea or do business with traders in the open-air markets tell a starkly different story. Another ethnic Chinese who has lived in North Korea, but moved to Dandong recently said, "Just after he came to power, Kim Jong-un ordered various reforms, but provincial party officials did not follow the orders and abused them instead."

He cited one new measure allowing North Koreans to keep 50 percent of the produce grown on land they have been allocated. "The farmers believed in this new measure and worked hard to produce a bountiful yield of potatoes, but the party bosses switched the crops yielded from productive farms with a lesser yields from cooperative farms. This has been going on since last year, when the measures were introduced, so nothing went right."

Another businessman said, "Coal mines got orders to pay wages to miners, but most just didn't obey. Those who followed that order were afraid of being targeted by conservative party members for spreading capitalist beliefs."

This suggests that people who travel back and forth from North Korea on business are shown modern-day versions of the old Soviet Potemkin villages and end up with a false picture of the North. It would be wonderful if that was a true picture of how ordinary North Koreans live, but it is not.

As dusk approached along the Chinese border, bright lights lit up the bridge connecting the two countries. But the North Korean side was pitch black.

By Kim Sung-min from the Chosun Ilbo's News Desk

englishnews@chosun.com / Feb. 04, 2014 13:23 KST