PYONGYANG, North Korea — This is not a city on the ropes.
Cars, for instance. A recent visitor, in the capital for the first time since 2008, found many more of them on the streets — and not just the locally produced “Pyonghwa” brand or Chinese BYDs, but Lexus sport-utility vehicles and late-model BMWs and Audis.
And shoes. Many women are dressing more fashionably, and brightly colored, shiny high heels, often with jewels, appear to be the trend du jour.
Changjon Street, in the heart of the city, near Kim Il Sung Square, is unrecognizable from a few years ago. Rows of round apartment towers line the street. Lit up at night, they are festooned with neon bands, giving them the appearance of giant fireworks. By day, the towers are reflected in the glittering river, making the city look “just like Dubai,” in the words of one government-appointed minder.
Pyongyang, always a showcase city, has become even more of a Potemkin village.
But the situation in the cities outside the capital, and even more so in the countryside, remains extremely dire. The state does not provide anything like the kinds of rations it once did, and hunger remains widespread.
Even in Pyongyang, there are still many more signs of extreme poverty than wealth. Bent-over elderly women carry huge sacks on their backs, men with weathered faces sit on their haunches by the roadside, and North Korean children appear noticeably smaller than their South Korean peers.
Foreign visitors to Pyongyang are driven along the same routes from their hotels, no matter where they are going, leading them to conclude that only certain streets are fit for foreign consumption.
One of those streets leads to the Pyongyang Folk Park, which opened two years ago. It is one of the many developments in the city that mark the centenary of Kim Il Sung’s birth. (He was born on April 15, 1912 — the day the Titanic sank.)
In a city that already feels like a theme park, this scaled-down reproduction of some of North Korea’s most famous settings takes the theme to the next level. Here is Pyongyang without its blemishes, and all within the scope of an easy stroll.
There’s a tiny Kim Il Sung Square, complete with miniature tanks and missile transporters, and bronze statues of Kim and his son Kim Jong Il, shrunk down to mere life-size. (The real ones, in central Pyongyang, are a towering 19 feet).
There’s the sacred mountain of Paekdusan in the north, the dams of the West Sea and the ancient city of Kaesong near the southern border. And all of it is conveniently located together for the citizens of a country so repressive that even the elites in the capital face strict travel restrictions.
“Our great leader Comrade Kim Jong Un gave instructions to build this park for our people to teach them about our history from ancient to modern,” said Kim Hyung, a state-appointed tour guide who was selling maps of the park. “We are very proud of our North Korean nation.”
On a sunny Sunday morning, however, few people were at the park. There was a solo tourist, a few organized groups of children in school uniforms, and a flock of mainly Japanese journalists who were shooed away from the small monuments when they got too close while taking pictures.
Construction still abounds. The Pyongyang airport is getting a new terminal — although foreign residents here say it’s taking a long time — and new riverside parks feature basketball courts and picnic areas.
A drive around Pyongyang passes building sites filled with mounds of dirt, dump trucks and cranes, where men in olive green uniforms and yellow hard hats scurry around with spades. Visitors staying at a hotel near the Daedong river go to sleep and wake up to the sound of boats dredging up sand to be made into cement.
Then there are the facilities for the elite that have been added to the revolutionary monuments of the standard visitor’s tour.
There’s the Munsu water park in Pyongyang — a huge indoor space with water slides — where the North Korean patrons all seemed to be in large groups and many were wearing what appeared to be standard-issue swimsuits. Meanwhile, the shop, selling Nike shoes and SpongeBob water guns, was empty.
At a fancy new equestrian center on the outskirts of the capital, with its faux-log-cabin buildings and manicured tracks, the “horse trainers” were all 20-something men with crew cuts, looking as though they had come straight from their barracks. There was not a “customer” — or, for that matter, any horse poop — in sight.
It’s part of what Evans Revere, a former U.S. diplomat with a long career spent dealing with North Korea, calls the “bread and circuses” approach.
“The theme parks, amusement parks, water parks, equestrian parks — these are all directed at the elite, while people in the rest of North Korea are not doing well at all,” Revere said. “The regime is making every effort to present an image of economic success.”
To be sure, the vast majority of what outsiders see is staged.
The U.N. World Food Program, which feeds about 10 percent of the North Korean population, said in its latest monitoring report that 39 percent of the people it surveyed did not consume any kind of protein in the week before the agency visited.
Meanwhile, political repression remains as fierce as ever, with the state using fear of labor camps — or worse — to keep people from agitating for change.
But there is nevertheless a noticeable improvement in the living conditions of the elite — Pyongyang is home to the 10 percent of the population considered most loyal to the Kim family.
This raises many questions, including:
Where is the money coming from? The North Korean regime has long diverted its resources to its pet projects — away, say, from food to its nuclear program — but its recent missile tests suggest that it is not cutting corners with the military.
And will this contribute to social unrest? Although information is strictly controlled in North Korea, the country is more open than it was even a few years ago. Cellphones are now in use — maybe not widely, but in use all the same — and some people are allowed to travel.
It will be hard to keep up the charade of communist egalitarianism when the elites in Pyongyang are clearly living so much better than everyone else.
But then again, the people who have political power — the party cadres who live in the fancy new apartment towers — will be happier and even less likely to rock the boat.