In 1998, the late Kim Jong-il announced a new initiative with the stated aim of turning North Korea into a “strong and prosperous country” by 2012. The project was unveiled in the Rodong Shinmun (the official newspaper of the North Korean Workers’ Party) and the year 2012 was chosen to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the birth of the nation’s founder, Kim Il-sung.
According to the South Korean unification ministry, their northern neighbor looked to spend over US$2 billion in 2012 alone to achieve their goals.
To put that amount into perspective, the 2011 state budget for the entire country was $5.7 billion and the total money earned from selling North Korea’s resources to China, their sole significant trading partner, was $1.15 billion in 2011.
The project has, however, continued along, though their plans were dealt a major setback on December 17, when Kim Jong-il died and money was diverted to pay for his funeral, and to update national monuments to feature the fallen leader alongside his father Kim Il-sung.
The only ray of light that can be seen in the North Korean countryside is the kids. Thankfully, the system tries not to force them into jobs too early, so they still have time to play outside and enjoy their youth.
The largest example of this was the addition of a 23-meter-tall bronze statue of Kim Jong-il in Mansudae on April 13, 2012, at an estimated cost of $10 million, along with modifications to the adjoining statue of Kim Il-sung that included adding a tie and glasses and making him look older to convey his seniority over his son.
These type of modifications are also currently being made to the 80 large statues of Kim Il-sung, as well as 20,000 smaller statues located around the country. In addition, each North Korean town contains a granite Tower of Eternal Life column, where the slogan, Our great leader Kim Il-sung is eternally with us, had to be changed to, ‘Our great leader Kim Il-sung and dear leader Kim Jong-il are eternally with us.’ There are an estimated 3,000 of these columns throughout North Korea. The overall cost of the changes is estimated to be at least $40 million.
The net effect of Kim Jong-il’s death was that the strong and prosperous country project fell behind schedule and work is still ongoing even though the official centenary celebration date was April 15. Work on the banks of the Daedong River in Pyongyang are nowhere near completed, and many of the new apartment buildings due to be unveiled are also still under construction.
However, some of the projects did manage to find their way to completion, including a large set of modern-style apartments, as well as cultural and sports facilities near Mansudae Hill. This area was officially opened in June 2012 on Changjon Street.
In addition, the 105-floor Ryugyeong Hotel finally saw its exterior completed. This was financed by allowing massive Egyptian company Orascom to operate a mobile phone network inside North Korea. As part of the deal, Orascom installed exterior glass panels and telecommunications antennas, so now the building has become one of the largest mobile phone masts in the world, as opposed to the world’s largest unfinished hotel.
However, none of these improvements to the showcase capital have had much effect on life in rural North Korea. Smaller cities are still virtually devoid of vehicles, and rarely, if ever, have electricity or running water. Most towns have crumbling apartment blocks or detached houses that the people work hard to maintain, as they have no materials for repairs.
In order to survive, villagers must travel long distances on foot just to get drinkable water. People are dressed in rags and have to hand-wash their clothes in the rivers and streams whenever there is enough rainfall. Most of the men wear plain gray pants and jackets while the women wear skirts or loose pants with faded floral patterns.
Most transport has ceased outside the capital, except when used by the military or party officials. It is common to see groups of people walking along empty train tracks or on roadsides to get home from work. In the stifling summer heat or freezing winter, just getting home from a factory or office is an arduous task. Even a bicycle is now a luxury item in the North Korean countryside that few can afford or maintain.
All farming and other work is done by hand, and because most young people are in the military or in factories, it is often left to older North Koreans to do these jobs. Most of this is backbreaking labor to try and get the best from North Korea’s land without the use of fertilizers or modern equipment.
People have to use anything they can get their hands on just to try and scrape together basic meals for their families. The recent floods of July 2012, followed by direct hits by September’s typhoons, have only worsened a dire situation.
UN agencies estimated last fall that three million people would need food aid this year in rural North Korea.
The only ray of light that can be seen in the North Korean countryside is the kids. Thankfully, the system tries not to force them into jobs too early, so they still have time to play outside and enjoy their youth. They can be seen laughing and enjoying themselves in the fields and beside the villages when they are not in school. All we can do is wait and hope that they will have a brighter future than their forebears, if North Korea follows China’s lead and opens up its economy.
Photos by Niall Cavanagh
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