High-rise apartment buildings, streets lined with stores selling expensive products and high-end restaurants are cropping up in Pyongyang since North Korean leader Kim Jong-un focused state spending on the capital. But that modernizing drive has come at a heavy cost to the provinces, which are languishing in backwardness and poverty.
"In December of 2011, after he just came to power, Kim Jong-un issued an order to populate Pyongyang by the end of 2012 with the cream of North Korean society in terms of political and ideological beliefs," a source recalls.
Residents of Pyongyang and provincial areas were given different identity cards as the regime ensured that only the most fervent supporters of the young leader could stay in the capital.
Divisions have existed since the 1970s, when nation founder Kim Il-sung parceled the population into three categories -- core (10-20 percent), basic (60-70 percent) and complicated (20 percent) -- and implemented discriminatory policies in terms of housing, party membership, schooling and employment.
Those living in Pyongyang are apparently banned from marrying people from the provinces to prevent supporters of the regime from mixing with those with weaker ideological beliefs.
◆ Building Boom
The regime has spent heavily to beautify the capital, planting grass and building high-rise apartments. A water park, amusement park and equestrian club were built to win over the elite. A government source here said, "In recent years, we’ve witnessed the rise of a socialist aristocracy. They live in apartments that cost between US$30,000 to $100,000 filled with imported home appliances and furniture and they have maids to do the cleaning, spending between $500 and more than $1,000 a month."
One home in a high-riser currently under construction in Pyongyang recently sold for some $350,000. The cream of North Korean society feed their babies South Korean formula and drink imported coffee and bottled water, keeping dogs and working out at the gym. Stores in the capital sell luxury goods, where the wealthy can buy Chanel and Dior clothes and handbags. They eat at restaurants in the newly-opened swish Haedanghwa shopping mall in Pyongyong where a dish costs more than $50.
An intelligence official here said around one percent of North Korea's population, or 240,000 people, are believed to own between $50,000 and over $100,000 in assets. Most of them live in Pyongyang.
◆ Neglect in the Provinces
But most other parts of North Korea have stopped receiving state rations of food and supplies, forcing local party officials to prey on the population there. Ordinary North Koreans have to resort to side jobs to make ends meet, but their hardships have only grown worse due to the various bribes they need to pay, according to sources. The vast majority of North Koreans outside of Pyongyang live in shabby flats or share small houses between several families.
Some analysts believe the North Korean regime has practically given up on supporting the provinces. In a front page editorial on Tuesday, North Korea's state-run Rodong Sinmun daily said the all counties "must adhere strictly to the principle of self-sufficiency." The regime's mouthpiece is openly telling people in the provinces to fend for themselves. A government official here said, "They say the number of cars, stores and mobile phones in North Korea has increased, but that is restricted to Pyongyang. There is a huge divide between Pyongyang and other parts of North Korea."