Dancers celebrate the centenary of the birth of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea's founder Kim Il-sung in Pyongyang on Monday. (Photo: China Daily/Wang Jing)
By Wu Jiao in Pyongyang
BEIJING, April 19 (Xinhuanet) -- While the world watched as tensions rose on the Korean Peninsula, the people in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea were in festive mood, almost unaware of the fierce diplomatic spat surrounding the country's plan to launch a rocket.
In March, the DPRK announced that it would launch a satellite as part of the events organized to mark the centenary of the birth of its founder Kim Il-sung. The news produced an uneasy reaction in a number of countries that believed the launch was related to missile tests, not celebrations.
The news has been on the headlines around the world for almost a month, with reports focusing successively on the unprecedented invitation to hundreds of media members to attend the launch, the unexpected failure of the rocket and a massive military parade where large missiles, believed to be the country's most powerful weapons, were on display.
Yet despite all the twists and turns, daily work was suspended in Pyongyang, as people prepared for the festivities.
When we arrived in early April, we saw crowds of people painting the walls along major streets, women planting flowers in the park and crowds of people holding paper flowers and rehearsing for the parades. We were told that the preparations had begun several months before with the construction of residential buildings, department stores and sports stadiums.
The foreign media were taken to several large rallies, featuring tens of thousands of people chanting and proclaiming their loyalty to the country's new leader, Kim Jong-un.
The impression of disconnection between this country and the outside world is manifest. Inside Pyongyang, we were told, roughly 70 percent of the population uses mobile phones, speeding up the exchange of information. However, phones used by foreigners run on a separate network, which allows no access to the system used by domestic callers. The country's Internet has no connection with the World Wide Web, but allows citizens to chat on an internal network.
One of the country's four TV channels mainly broadcasts documentaries about the leaders, plus a news program in the evenings. There is also a channel broadcasting programs about the arts and an international news bulletin twice a week.
Although the country is relatively isolated, we saw how it is putting more emphasis on economic development, despite its "military-first" policy, and is gradually opening up to the outside world.
Mlitary officers gather at the Kim Il-sung Gymnasium in Pyongyang, capital of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, on April 14, before a meeting to mark the centenary of the birth of the country's founder Kim Il-sung. (Photo: China Daily/Wang Jing)
The capital, Pyongyang, is home to almost every prominent building and political landmark in the country and the 105-story Ryugyong Hotel, a pyramid-shaped behemoth once envisioned as the world's tallest building, dominates the city, but more commercial buildings are under construction. A government official, who declined to be named, told us that the late Kim Jong-il instigated a number of changes in economic policy in his last years and the country is now witnessing a wave of construction of new homes, shopping centers, restaurants and playgrounds.
There has been a distinct policy shift and the new leadership will improve the economy and, therefore, the quality of life, according to the official.
A UN humanitarian official said last year that 6 million people in DPRK face food shortage, up to a quarter of its 24 million people with limited arable land.
Meanwhile, the state media reported that parliament approved an increase in the construction budget last year, while the budgetary allocation for defense remained unchanged. That's notable in this military-first country.
The DPRK is also reported to have allowed foreign companies, mainly Chinese and Russian, to manage production of its maritime products and to run markets.
Last year, the country saw its first privately funded university, the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, established through the combined efforts of the DPRK, the ROK and overseas Koreans. The university now has three schools - telecommunications, international finance and life sciences - and around 200 students, both under- and postgraduates. The staff is international in composition. Professor Yu Taik-chon, a US citizen, teaches industrial technology, and there are approximately 40 other staff members from countries such as the UK, the US, Canada, and Australia.
The country pays a lot of attention to modern technology, said Yu Taik-chon. "I think it is gradually changing and opening up and the establishment of the university itself is a sign of that."
Antonio Fatiguso of the Italian news agency ANSA, was on his fourth visit to the country. He felt that things are changing. "People in Pyongyang are using cell phones and shopping in supermarkets," said Fatiguso, who added that he'd even seen a traffic jam in the capital. "I thought they would try to figure a way out, but the situation is so tough that we do not know where they are going."
A staff with the Associated Press, who declined to give his name, said the DPRK authorities seemed a little more willing to work with the media on this trip. "I first came here in 2008 and I've noticed that this time there is more openness, more cooperation, more access to the Internet, and it has been easier for the journalists to cover stories. So I think there is a feeling that the DPRK is opening up to the foreign media," he said.
People dance at a party in Pyongyang on April 13, to mark the centenary of the birth of its founder Kim Il-sung. (Photo: China Daily/Wang Jing)
According to Yang Xiyu, an expert with the China Institute of International Studies, the new openness indicates that the new leadership has an open and confident political mindset.
The country's gradual moves toward opening up have attracted an increasing number of tourists. According to Simon Cockerell, a Beijing-based US tour guide who works for Koryo Tours, there are about 12 tourist agencies in the world arranging trips to the DPRK.
Nowadays, as many as 3,500 Europeans travel to the country annually, compared with just 1,000 five years ago, said Cockerell. And the tours aren't cheap, a three-day trip costs about 1,000 euros (1,311 U.S. dollars). Cockerell noted that the number of US tourists has grown from 200 in 2007 to around 700 last year. "So far this year, I've brought about 1,500 people here," he said. "The country welcomes us, but the profit it earns from tourism is minimal because the number of tourists is so small."
"Before I came here, most of what I knew (about the country) came from TV. It's a bit more modern than I expected and I think a lot of information about the place is outdated," said Michael Woodfood, a US tourist.
The increased economic interaction has also improved the lives of the locals. Overseas workers based in the country said a growing number of people in Pyongyang now shop in markets previously only visited by foreigners.
Foreigners, who mostly shop in stores that only accept payment in foreign currency, such as the euro, the dollar or Chinese yuan, said they were surprised that the local people have foreign currency in their wallets, as most only receive a monthly salary of around 2,000 DPRK won (15 U.S. dollars).
One foreign worker said some locals trade with foreign countries by exporting natural resources and water-related goods. A joint industrial park with the ROK in the border area also provides hard cash.
However, while people are encouraged by signs of a potential policy watershed, the country's future direction remains unclear. On Tuesday, the DPRK rejected UN condemnation of its rocket launch and said it would no longer adhere to an agreement with the US to freeze its nuclear and missile programs. That rejection has resulted in calls for harsher sanctions to be imposed on Pyongyang.
But some observers said keeping the DPRK engaged with the outside world is a better solution to the Korean Peninsula crisis.
Katharina Zellweger, who has lived in Pyongyang for five years and served as the director for the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation in the DPRK, told Yonhap News last month that helping resolve the country's economic difficulties is the precondition to a change in its attitudes toward the outside world. She urged the international community to provide aid to the DPRK and emphasized that dialogue is the best way to promote further opening up.
Women dress up for the celebration.(Photo: China Daily/Wang Jing)
A tale of dictionaries and cosmetics
"Do young lovers in Pyongyang dare to hold hands in public?" I put this question to my guide, Cha Yun-ho, a 26-year-old from the foreign affairs ministry of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. That was one of the many stories - along with "Do people eat meat every week?" and "How can you build so many tall buildings?" - that we foreign reporters wanted to investigate.
The young diplomat, who is fluent in Chinese, immediately became animated: "How can you think such a thing? That's very insulting. Of course we can do everything here."
Cha wore a perpetual expression of grief when members of the foreign media - in the country to cover the satellite launch - asked about daily life in Pyongyang. Except for the 100 or so foreigners who work here long-term, we were told that every visitor from overseas would be accompanied by a guide while away from the hotel. Even if visitors simply wanted to walk out of their hotel, they had to notify the guide first. So the guide is one's primary source of information about how the ordinary people live and the country's policies towards foreigners, especially the foreign media.
Cha apparently comes from a well-off family in Pyongyang, wearing a watch worth hundreds of dollars. He proudly pointed out landmark buildings as our bus passed by and translated the songs when we were taken to the large-scale rallies arranged to mark what would have been the 100th birthday of the nation's founder, Kim Il-sung. This serious young man would occasionally take out a small notebook and jot down one of our colloquial Chinese expressions to decipher the correct meaning of the phrase.
A graduate of the Pyongyang Foreign Languages University, Cha said many of his middle-school classmates chose to enlist in the army instead of studying at university. In this country, which follows a military-first policy, he said the experience of being in the army is beneficial in later life.
When he caught a glimpse of the country's new leader, Kim Jong-un, while accompanying us during an interview, Cha became very excited and later solemnly informed us that we would have to use the word "Comrade" whenever we discussed Kim Jong-un with him.
Although he currently lives with his parents, Cha is planning to marry his long-term girlfriend in the next couple of years, when the young couple will be provided with a house by the state. He told us that his monthly salary is 2,000 DPRK won (15 U.S. dollars), but claimed that he never worries about money, because citizens get free medical treatment, education and houses. Food is also issued by the government through a quota system.
However, despite his assertion, Cha was indeed worried about money. He asked why women use cosmetics and perfume. "It really burns money," he sighed.
I told him, "If I have the opportunity to come to Pyongyang again, I will get you some perfume or cosmetics as a gift for your girlfriend".
"No, thanks," he replied. "Can you bring me the latest edition of a Chinese dictionary, instead?"