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Hamish Macdonald is an NK News contributor and has previously worked at The Korea Herald and for the Australia Centre for Independent Journalism in Sydney.
PYONGYANG – Kim Jong Un officially opened Pyongyang’s new Ryomyong Street on Thursday, with a ribbon cutting ceremony attended by tens of thousands of citizens from across the country.
The large-scale marquee construction project has featured heavily in state media since work began little over a year ago and Kim’s attendance – as well as the invitation of the international press – further established its importance to the state.
So too, did the lengths it took to get to the ceremony in the first place, with the media undergoing intense security checks at the People’s Culture Palace at the break of dawn before being chaperoned to the site.
Journalists were not allowed to take cell phones and other standard items with them to the ceremony, permitted to carry only items necessary for reporting.
The press and masses of North Koreans subsequently congregated at the junction leading into Ryomgyong Street, opposite the April 15 Culture House.
After two hours, Kim Jong Un’s Mercedes limousine emerged from the east, and passed under a large monument to his grandfather and father emblazoned with “Our great leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il will always be with us”.
Kim climbed the steps to a stage with key government and military officials at his side as music from a military band and shouts of “live forever” from the crowd echoed his arrival.
While Kim himself did not deliver a speech, the Prime Minister – Pak Pong Ju – extolled the pace of the construction, describing it as evidence of the might of the country.
He also used the speech to praise the leadership, saying that Kim was following in the footsteps of his grandfather and father and alluding to his personal guidance on the completion of the project itself.
The Ryomyong Street project is the latest major piece of property development in Pyongyang since Kim Jong Un took power, and adds to the city’s growing skyline, accompanying recent projects such as Mirae Scientist’s Street.
Ryomyong Street has been a well-publicized objective of North Korea’s government since Kim Jong Un ordered the beginning of construction in March 2016, and the groundbreaking ceremony was held on April 3.
It was originally intended to be completed by the end of December last year, but work was temporarily halted to divert resources into flood relief efforts in the northeast of the country in September.
A new deadline was set for April 15: the day of the anniversary of founding President Kim Il Sung’s birthday, a date known as the “Day of the Sun” in North Korea.
Ryomyong was then cited as a key priority in Kim Jong Un’s New Year Address.
Much has been made of its size and scale: the street features a 70-floor skyscraper, the second largest building in Pyongyang, and the Pyongyang Times in March said it would be “three times wider” than Mirae Scientist’s Street.
The project also represents – for many North Koreans – a sign of the country’s economic development.
“In five years you can witness the change,” Rim Duk Jae – a 58-year-old factory section chief from Ryanggang Province – told NK News following the ceremony.
“When you wake up you see different things and when you go to sleep you see different things, the Korean people have worked fast with strong energy and we have built many modernized buildings.”
This was a message the government was keen to convey in the face of mounting sanctions against the country. The Prime Minister said the opening demonstrated that sanctions were not having their desired effect, and that the DPRK was growing stronger.
Enhanced sanctions regimes, both at the multilateral and unilateral level, have been imposed following North Korea’s continued development of its ballistic missile and nuclear programs.
A major tenant of Kim’s rule is the establishment of the “Byungjin Line” policy, which sets in stone the simultaneous growth of the nuclear program and the country’s economy.
The opening of the ambitious project could provide the government with further evidence of – at least at face value – the policy’s initial success.
Despite the security measures prior to the event, Kim appeared relaxed and calm on stage and during the ribbon cutting.
After Kim’s limousine exited back towards the east, the tens of thousands that had gathered for the ribbon cutting ceremony – many who had taken part in the street’s construction – walked down the thoroughfare for the first time.
A worker from west Pyongyang’s Taedonggang Restaurant tearfully told NK News that a colleague had been provided with a new home on the street.
“Fellow servants moved into the new building,” she said. “I am very excited.”
The street itself also contained evidence of emerging trends in the city’s relative construction boom with solar panels featuring heavily on many of the buildings.
While many of Pyongyang’s residents have used privately owned solar panels in recent years to supplement energy needs, the appearance of large solar panels and solar powered street lights point to the government’s increasing promotion of renewable energy.
What was also clear were the increasing consumer options available to Pyongyang’s citizens. Among the new shops on the street were a drug store, fruit and vegetable stores, and restaurants.
The ceremony took place amid growing tensions on the Korean Peninsula. Earlier in the week North Korean state media said the country would attack the U.S. with nuclear weapons at “first sight” of a pre-emptive attack.
The Trump Administration has recently suggested that it may seek to tackle North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs unilaterally, and last week the U.S. moved the USS Carl Vinson carrier to the peninsula.
Featured Image: NK News