PYONGYANG – There’s no doubt that Pyongyang is changing: brand new apartments are cropping up, entire new streets have been built, and major public leisure facilities are emerging across the town. It’s a point the government is keen to emphasize, as a cursory glance of state media on any given day will reveal.
But below the shiny new buildings – many of which are hallmark development projects associated with Kim Jong Un, government and the party – dozens of new shops and restaurants are emerging and colorful, modern fashions can be regularly seen worn by local citizens.
For a socialist state where citizens were once known for dressing conservatively and relying on the public distribution system to obtain the bulk of consumer products, the rapid growth of the restaurant and shop sectors and evolution of fashion under Kim Jong Un has been notable.
This isn’t to say that the new styles have entirely replaced the old: old-fashioned Soviet and Chinese-style socialist suits still appear in central Pyongyang, particularly among the elderly and middle aged.
But, slowly, young people in North Korea’s capital are dressing increasingly like their Southern contemporaries: with men opting for branded shirts, sneakers, and sunglasses and women choosing trendy skirts, designer-style jackets, high-heels and handbags.
Yet when asked, remarks to NK News by local citizens on Friday during a visit to Yongwang subway station appeared to overlook some of the changes so clearly visible across the city.
“Right now in Pyongyang, (women dress) in accordance with the current trends of the era of Songun Choson,” said Pak Dal-mi, a woman in her early twenties dressed in a well fitting woollen overcoat with a fur collar, leather handbag and designer-style heels.
“To dress neatly, women, to follow the typical beauty standards of Choson women, wear skirts,” she said. “Also, the Choson traditional dress code is very popular,” of what fashions were currently trending in the capital.
How, then, are young ladies like Pak learning about new styles?
While foreign observers have, of late, attributed the increasingly modern styles to the illicit growth of South Korean TV dramas and movies, Pak told NK News that inspiration instead came from “our socialist educational system.”
“We in Pyongyang, with the Great Suryong, the Great Leader, are doing everything to greet the Day of the Sun wearing our best attire,” Pak continued, referencing Saturday’s forthcoming holiday to commemorate the anniversary of the birth of founding President Kim Il Sung.
Another woman, Kim Sol Young, a university student focused on tourism, grew shy when asked what explained the changing fashions: thirty seconds of silence provided few clues.
As far as restaurants go, however, locals were happier to talk about some of the changes taking place.
“Instead of eating at home, more people would go out and buy and eat the goods that fit their taste,” Pak Yong Chol, a fifty-something male resident of the city, said.
Over the last five years, he said the “quality of the live of our Inmin (North Korean people) has gone up in general.”
“There are now many restaurants in Pyongyang…so many you can go anywhere and find and eat the food of your preference.”
Another resident, 19 year old Kim Sol Young, put the growth of the restaurant sector, which some observers now say is a sign of growing entrepreneurship by the donju class, down to leadership.
“I believe many restaurants are established due to our leader’s politics of love for people,” Kim said.
And pricing at the restaurants largely depends on where you go, Pak, the fifty something male explained: “It depends on the quality of the goods, which makes the price go up and down.”
But notably, pricing of food appears – for now – to be unaffected by sanctions, which some observers have suggested could impact the ability of buyers to import the goods they need.
“Nothing has gone up, it’s all just normal,” Pak said. “The price is steady.”
However, neither Pak nor the 19 year old Kim had heard of some of the newer developments known to have taken place in Pyongyang’s restaurant industry.
Pak, for example, said he always pays for his food with cash and was unfamiliar with prepaid debit cards like the Narae card, while Kim said he hadn’t tried the city’s Samtaesong fried chicken restaurants, a chain which has been growing for over five years.
And neither said they knew about sushi chef Kenji Fujimoto’s new “Pyongyang Ramen” restaurant, which features an upscale miniature sushi bar and has been the focus of widespread media reports in recent months.
Instead of citing fast food or the new and domestically-made snacks and confectionaries visible throughout stores in Pyongyang, Kim simply referenced traditional dishes as being most popular among his peers.
“Young people like Pyongyang cold noodles and mung bean pancake, our people’s traditional food in Pyongyang,” he said.
Oliver Hotham, Dagyum Ji, JH Ahn, Christina Lee, and Seoyeon Kim contributed to this report