August in Pyongyang

|Korean Peninsula

I visited the Diplomatic People’s Republic of Korea the end of July and spent about a month there, staying until the end of August to conduct academic exchange with researchers at Kim Il Sung University and Academy of Social Science. Although it was a period when the international situation was unusually tense because of the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula, Pyongyang seemed peaceful and stable as it approached the 55th anniversary of its founding, and business activity in particular was coming to life once more.

As has already been reported, markets began to be publicly promoted in each district in March. Formerly called farmers’ markets, their name has been altered to reflect the fact that they sell not only agricultural products, but also manufactured goods; they are apparently administered by the commercial division of the People’s Committee of the district. I was able to go and see Pyongchon Market, which, probably because it was after 5:00pm, was packed not only with housewives, but also with such people as students and factory and office workers on their way home. Of course, the prices were market ones, which were several times higher than those in state-owned shops, but there were many different kinds of goods on display in an open-air area that had been divided up into lots; it seemed as though there was nothing that it didn’t have, with the goods available including such foodstuffs as rice, meat, seasonings and ready-cooked foods, as well as clothing, groceries, tools and stationery. A low gymnasium-like building with a car park has already been built on Tongil Street as a model for markets around the nation, and is currently trying to attract shops in time for its opening.

The shops and restaurants were crowded as well. As well as national restaurants, so-called “agreed-price restaurants” (restaurants in which prices are settled not by government order but by agreement between customers and the restaurant), which are cooperative-style restaurants invested in by several people, were popular. Apparently, these restaurants rent the premises of existing national restaurants, or part thereof, in order to provide food in domestic rather than foreign currency; they mainly serve such dishes as grilled meat, chilled noodles and tangogi (a typical Korean dish made from dog meat), as well as various alcoholic and soft beverages. As I stayed in the Pyongyang Hotel, I ate several times at an “agreed-price restaurant” near the hotel, and it was always jam-packed with diners. It also seems that national shops, which used to be deserted, have made a comeback. Although not abundant, goods could be seen in shops on the city’s main streets and customers were frequenting them. It is said that, in the near future, national shops will not only sell merchandise that they have acquired through state distribution channels, but also sell on commission goods brought to them by individuals; large retail outlets, such as Pyongyang Department Store No. 1, are apparently also considering the idea of leasing selling space to tenants.

The first thing to catch my eye was the work being done on roads and houses throughout the city, such as on Yongwang Street, which runs in front of the hotel. I saw roads and sidewalks being repaired, as well as apartments being renovated and enlarged, with outside walls being covered with new tiles and wooden or iron window frames being replaced with plastic sashes. The city of Pyongyang has announced that, for the foreseeable future, it will spend most of the funds raised from the sale of the ‘people’s life public bonds’, which began in April, on this construction work.

This is merely the limited scope of my experience, but I was able to get a flavor of how the policy of thoroughly enforcing utilitarianism in running the economy while also adhering to the socialist system, as well as the series of measures put in place on the basis of this policy, have gradually been effective since economic reforms were implemented in July last year.

[Translated by ERINA]