Pyongyang s growth defies tough sanctions
Pyongyang's growth defies tough sanctions

Amid raging tensions in the Korean peninsula and with the international community looking to further step up pressure on North Korea, its capital city has undergone an amazing makeover.

The Pyongyang of a year ago now seems little more than a long-forgotten shadow of its present, with splendidly-illuminated main avenues, the launch of several new urban projects, and a burgeoning number of restaurants and shopping malls.

Sunday's missile test by the Kim Jong-un regime, which invited a fresh round of international condemnation, showed once more that North Korea was prepared to press ahead with its weapons program despite foreign pressure and mounting sanctions seeking to choke off its economy.

The move has also prompted some foreign tour operators operating in North Korea to scale back or cancel trips, due to a weakening demand among tourists who are nervous about security.

On the recently-inaugurated Ryomyong Street, one can glimpse families and military men strolling among green areas, surrounded by nearly a dozen residential skyscrapers - one as high as 70-storeys - and malls with department stores, travel agencies, and a variety of high-end stores displaying plasma TVs and tablets.

Ryomyong Street was inaugurated with much fanfare on April 13 by Kim to coincide with celebrations for the 105th birth anniversary of his grandfather, and founder of the country, Kim Il-sung.

The new neighbourhood is just another element that is helping radically change the look of a city where cranes and construction work are a constant reality.

The boom began five years ago when Kim assumed power, and the Mansudae Towers - popularly known as "Pyonghattan" - were inaugurated.

It was boosted by the opening of the colossal Mirae scientists' street in late 2015.

Yet, Pyongyang's urban renaissance is in sharp contrast to the tough economic sanctions put in place by the United Nations, that reached a crescendo in February this year when China - Pyongyang's main ally and trading partner - suspended all coal imports from North Korea, one of the latter's scarce sources of forex.

Trade with China, coupled with a certain liberalisation in the communist state's economic policy, has sparked a palpable change in habits, at least in the capital city.

This is reflected not just in the near-total smartphone penetration in Pyongyang, but also in people's way of dressing, and the growing number of cars - often foreign models imported from China - on the streets.

The finely-lit main streets in the capital, which till not too long ago would be submerged into darkness when night fell, is transforming the feel of the city, and people can even be seen walking their dogs.

However, the sanctions could prove to be a harsh blow in the long term in a country where two-thirds of the population lives in economically difficult conditions, according to the latest UN report.

In 2016, the regime set into motion a five-year plan to boost its economy and resolve endemic problems such as food and power scarcity, by increasing industrial and agricultural production and promoting a model of self-sufficiency, to reduce vulnerability to the fallout of its nuclear and missile development program.


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