“We’re supposed to dress conservatively in North Korea, so people like going to the gym so they can show off their bodies, show some skin,” said Lee Seo-hyeon, a 24-year-old who was, until 18 months ago, part of Pyongyang’s brat pack.
Women like to wear leggings and tight tops — Elle is the most popular brand among women, while men prefer Adidas and Nike — she said. When young people go to China, they travel armed with shopping lists from their friends for workout gear.
At a leisure complex next to the bowling alley in the middle of Pyongyang, they run on the treadmills, which show Disney cartoons on the monitors, or do yoga.
The complex also has a fancy restaurant that advertises for wedding functions — glitzy venues cost as much as $500 an hour — and a coffee shop, where most drinks are priced between $4 and $8, although an iced mocha costs $9.
“It’s a cool spot. When you’re in there it feels like you could be anywhere in the world,” said Andray Abrahamian, who is British and helps run an exchange program that provides financial training to North Koreans. He recently played squash on one of the three courts at the center. “It’s not cheap. It’s a few dollars for a class. It’s definitely for people who have disposable income.”
North Korea as a whole remains economically backward — industry has all but collapsed, and even in Pyongyang, the official salary remains less than $10 a month — but the rise in recent years of a merchant class has created a whole layer of nouveaux riches in the capital city.
“Donju,” or “masters of money,” have emerged with the tentative moves toward becoming a market economy that began about 15 years ago but has picked up momentum under Kim Jong Un, the third-generation leader who took over the reins of North Korea at the end of 2011.
The donju usually hold official government positions — in ministries or the military, running state businesses abroad or trying to attract investment into North Korea. On the side, they trade in everything they can get their hands on, including flat-screen TVs and apartments.
The money that they are making now flows through society, through the markets that are present in every population center to the high-end restaurants of Pyongyang.
“Kim Jong Un is very pro-market. His policy has essentially been benign neglect,” said Andrei Lankov, a Russian historian specializing in Korea who once studied in Pyongyang. “A number of North Korean capitalists I’ve talked to say that they’ve never had it so good.”
Kim, 33, has made it a high priority to improve the lives of his fellow millennials in particular. He has ordered the construction of amusement parks and water parks and skate parks, even a dolphinarium and a ski resort. Around the capital, volleyball and tennis courts are full of young people.
On a trip to Pyongyang this month, three Washington Post reporters went to a German-themed restaurant near the Juche Tower that had exposed brick walls and seven kinds of North Korean beer on tap. A huge screen showed ice skating.
On the menu, there was a prime steak with a baked potato for $48, although the Wiener schnitzel was more reasonable, at $7. Most of the North Koreans in the restaurant seemed to be opting for the local food, although at $7 for a bowl of bibimbap — the price you’d pay in Seoul — it was hardly cheap.
At the Sunrise complex, there’s a sushi bar and a barbecue restaurant, where groups of North Koreans were enjoying grilled meat — the waitress recommended cuts of beef that were $50 for a one-person portion — and bottles of soju, Koreans’ favorite alcoholic beverage, on a recent Saturday night.
A North Korean couple pulled the bamboo curtain across the front of their table when they heard foreigners arrive. In Pyonghattan, discretion is key.
“If it weren’t for the little badges, they could be South Koreans,” said one expat in Pyongyang, referring to the pins of Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il, the first two generations of leaders, that North Koreans must wear over their hearts. “They’re paying 10 to 15 euros for a meal,” he said. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the trouble his remarks could cause for him.
There are other signs that more people have more disposable income. Five or six taxi companies are operating — although the drivers grumble that business isn’t great — and a reporter spotted several people with pet dogs, something that wouldn’t have been seen a few years ago.
Women, perhaps seeing a green light from Ri Sol Ju, Kim’s fashionable wife, have started wearing brighter and trendier clothes.
About 3 million North Koreans, out of a population of 25 million, have cellphones, including Arirang smartphones. Ask North Koreans about their children, and chances are they’ll whip out their phones and show you photos.
A fancy supermarket stocked with imported products was selling Australian beef, Norwegian salmon, craft beer and granola — all at astronomical prices. The store was empty when The Post visited at 8 on a Saturday evening, but others who have visited said they have seen Koreans shopping there.
Until last year, Lee Seo-hyeon and her brother Lee Hyeon-seung, now 30, were part of this privileged set.
They lived in China and went to a university there. Their father, a high-ranking North Korean official based in China, was tasked with earning foreign currency for the regime. But they traveled back and forth to Pyongyang.
Lee Hyeon-seung described his teenage life in Pyongyang, one that involved listening to Britney Spears and Backstreet Boys in the days before the South Korean wave of K-pop and schmaltzy dramas had arrived.
For the average Pyonghattanite, fast fashion from such brands as Uniqlo, Zara and H&M is affordable and popular. “All my friends lived abroad and everyone would bring stuff like this back,” Lee Hyeon-seung said.
But there were limits. Sleeveless tops and too-short skirts are out, as is hair dye.
“If your clothes are too radical or extreme, or they’re not in line with North Korean style, the police might take your name and then your name will be broadcast on the radio,” Lee Seo-hyeon said. The siblings defected, together with their mother and high-ranking father, to South Korea in 2014, and they now are in Northern Virginia, hoping to go to college in Washington this fall.
Plastic surgery, already commonplace in the South, has come to Pyongyang. Double-eyelid operations — to give Asian eyes a more Western look — are de rigeur, as are nose jobs. Doing your eyelids costs between $50 and $200, depending on the skill of the surgeon.
“You can get a visa to leave the country for medical reasons, but plastic surgery is not considered a valid medical reason,” Lee Seo-hyeon said. “Being beautiful and being handsome are considered a competitive advantage.”
But how much of the change is skin-deep, and how much is real?
So much of this development is about image, Abrahamian said. One woman who took part in his training program started a coffee shop.
“The coffee shops don’t make much money. It’s just a signifier that you’re fancy and cosmopolitan,” he said.
One of the most obvious changes has been the construction boom in the capital.
The high-rise apartment buildings that have popped up in the center of Pyongyang, from the Changjon complex near Kim Il Sung Square to the Mirae Scientists Street, look impressive from a distance.
But up close, tiles are falling off buildings that are only a year old and electricity supply remains so patchy that the most-sought-after apartments are the ones on the lower stories. Who wants a 20th-floor walk-up?
With the Mirae Scientists Street complete, Kim has ordered the development of Ryomyong Street, named for the place where “the dawn breaks in the Korean revolution.”
Kim said the area would contain “magnificent skyscrapers” — one is planned to rise 70 stories — with eco-friendly design incorporating solar panels and greenhouses.
These may all be part of a Potemkin village, but they nonetheless underscore the fact that in North Korea, poverty is no longer equally shared.
“There is only one game in town,” said Lankov, the historian. “Capitalism.”