North Korea on the move
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Lile Havana, only more so, the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, is bereft of commercial billboards but covered with propaganda posters. In recent years, however, one company has been allowed to advertise its products: Pyonghwa Motors, a joint venture between the Rev Sun Myung Moon's South Korea-based Unification Church and North Korea's state-run Ryonbong General Corporation. A few signs promoting the company's Whistle sedan can be seen in Pyongyang and surrounding areas.
Once notable for the absence of traffic (not to mention a lack of streetlights), Pyongyang is a much busier and visibly more affluent city than it was just a few years ago. The source of this new wealth is something of a mystery, but presumably Chinese trade and investment account for a good part of it. With its residents dressed mostly in Western-style clothing and clutching mobile phones, Pyongyang today looks more like a tidy Chinese provincial city than the spartan capital of the world's last Stalinist state. Under its new ruler, "Respected Leader" Kim Jong-un, North Korea is clearly on the move.
But moving where, exactly? Some analysts say that North Korea is on the verge of collapse; others say it is on the verge of serious economic reform. To judge from what I saw during a trip to North Korea in July, the reality is less momentous: a change in the face of the leadership and of the capital city, but not of policy. The status quo remains and is unlikely to change any time soon.
There is no doubt, though, that this is Kim Jong-un's regime. Kim Jong-un has already proven himself to be a much more visible and publicly engaged leader than his more reticent father; he appears a natural politician in the mould of his still-revered grandfather, Kim Il-sung, North Korea's founding leader. The regime is clearly trying to cultivate that image, as if to make the North Korean people forget the famine and other failures of the Kim Jong-il era and relive the hopeful and relatively well-off era of Kim Il-sung, who died in 1994.
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