North Korea is supposed to be a workers' paradise and clearly that is the vision of its young leader, Kim Jong Un, who ordered a construction blitz of sports and entertainment facilities.
The facilities opened up one after another last year, and they certainly provide a splash of color in the drab state. But electricity shortages and economic difficulties remain a constant reminder of reality in North Korea.
It was against this background that Mitsuhiro Mimura, a senior researcher of the Economic Research Institute for Northeast Asia (ERINA), based in Niigata, and an expert on North Korea, especially its economic system, visited North Korea from April 2 to 9. He was invited by the country’s academy of social sciences, a think tank of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea.
The Asahi Shimbun interviewed him on his return to Japan to gain a better grasp of prevailing conditions in the reclusive country.
According to Mimura, a fancy ski resort opened in a suburb of Wonsan, a coastal city facing the Sea of Japan, late last year. The usage fees for four hours, including chair-lift tickets at the Masikryong Ski Resort, were 62,000 won for North Korean citizens and 1,470 won for foreigners.
With an official foreign exchange rate of 96 won per U.S. dollar for foreigners and 8,000 won for North Korean citizens, the actual usage fees came to $15.30 (1,500 yen) for foreigners and $7.75 for North Korean citizens.
Thus, foreign visitors pay almost double for the privilege.
Mimura also visited the Mirim Equestrian Club, the Meari Shooting Range and the Munsu Swimming Complex, all located in or around Pyongyang.
The country’s young leader Kim Jong Un, whose title is first secretary of the ruling party, has put priority on building facilities for sports and entertainment.
During his visit, Mimura said it quickly became clear that manufactured products from China have made big inroads. Much of the equipment used in the facilities and affiliated hotels was Chinese-made.
The liquid crystal televisions installed in the Meari Shooting Range to display scores bore a label stating they were “Arirang-made,” or “Korean-made,” but they were obviously imports from China, Mimura said.
The construction of the sports and entertainment facilities provides a revenue source for the military, which is constantly seeking ways to raise funds.
Construction work for and the operations of the Masikryong Ski Resort was undertaken by the military. But the operations of a hotel in the compound were entrusted to the twin-towered Koryo Hotel in Pyongyang.
The military also constructed the Mirim Equestrian Club by renovating part of the training center for its cavalry unit.
The average monthly salary for Pyongyang citizens is about 3,000 won. Even ordinary North Koreans can purchase imported products if they pay the prices set for foreigners.
When Mimura visited the Masikryong Ski Resort, there were few people on the slopes as it was already off-season. However, other facilities were relatively busy.
“As the usage fees are different depending on facilities, each North Korean citizen can enjoy one that is suitable for his or her income level,” said Mimura.
The Kaeson Youth Park in Pyongyang is an amusement park known for its thrilling rides. Some companies distribute tickets to visit to their employees who have achieved their quotas. A hamburger at the park is priced at 500 won.
Many of the sports and entertainment facilities were constructed simultaneously, and it remains unclear if their operations will run smoothly all the time.
“Even in off-seasons, electricity and materials are necessary to maintain those facilities,” Mimura said.
ECONOMY STILL STAGNANT
North Koreans have begun referring to Kim as “Wonsu nim” (Dear marshal). During his visit, Mimura noticed that title being used for the first time. It apparently is intended to shore up Kim’s grip on power as quickly as possible.
In Pyongyang, badges and portraits of Kim Jong Un have yet to appear. His birthday, Jan. 8, is not an official holiday, either. However, North Korea’s diplomatic offices abroad, including those in Dandong and Shenyang in China, treat the day as a holiday, as do North Korean workers dispatched abroad.
Kim's father, Kim Jong Il, died two and a half years ago. Compared with his father’s initial years as the country’s leader, Kim has had less leeway. If the country’s economic situation improves, his hold on power will strengthen. At present, however, the situation has yet to improve.
According to Mimura, Kim’s policy of placing equal importance on economic improvement and nuclear development is now set in stone, so to speak. Therefore, North Korean officials did not give detailed explanations on either economic or nuclear policy.
As part of its embrace of greater economic freedoms, North Korea has allowed government-run companies to operate side businesses to expand their “management autonomy.”
“But the current situation shows that the central government cannot provide a stable supply of materials and electricity to fully meet the production capacity of those companies,” Mimura said.
Each selected company is required to offer 30 percent of its income to the central government and distribute the remaining 70 percent to the workers. Even if the company has a deficit, it has to provide the government with its share.
With regard to agricultural reform being pushed by the Kim regime, the government stipulated detailed quotas and evaluation criteria based on the ability of soil to produce crops and job tasks to motivate farm workers. But the entire picture of how reform efforts are progressing remains unclear.
Electricity shortages are still a serious problem in North Korea. However, it is increasing its exports of smokeless coal to China to earn foreign currency by ignoring demand for the fossil fuel in the country.
The May Day Stadium in Pyongyang, where the Arirang Festival featuring grand mass gymnastics and artistic performances is held each year, is now being renovated. The renovation is apparently part of preparations to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Workers’ Party next year.
According to Mimura, North Korea seems willing to promote its nuclear and ballistic missile development programs and also negotiations to normalize diplomatic relations with Japan. But North Korean officials did not discuss these issues in detail with the researcher.
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