Speaking to North Koreans in Pyongyang these past few days, it’s as though last year’s “fire and fury” back-and-forth between President Donald Trump and DPRK leader Kim Jong Un never took place.
Locals wryly told journalists that anti-American posters, long a mainstay of Pyongyang streets, will remain out-of-sight as long as diplomacy continues – though foreign journalists were able to see some hidden away in a local factory.
Sunday’s much-discussed military parade in Kim Il Sung Square also saw the authorities opt not to include the country’s ICBMs – and the mass games event later in the day pushed the theme of international peace and friendship.
Also frequently discussed is Kim Jong Un’s April decision to shift the ruling party’s priority from the country’s nuclear program to the economy. The era of Songun, North Korea would have you believe, is over.
And conversations with locals, always through the conduit of government-approved “minders,” suggest that while the country’s economy remains firmly centrally-planned, hints of a growing capitalism with DPRK characteristics have emerged in recent years.
As with any on-the-spot interview in North Korea, many began all their answers by praising the country’s leadership and its economic system.
“I think all the lines announced by the Marshal have helped the economy,” Rye Kyong Sung, head of the quality control department of the Pyongyang Cosmetics Factory, told journalists on Saturday.
Rye told journalists that her factory’s main competitor lies in the northern province of Sinuiju – a facility visited earlier in the year by Kim – and that it continues to export to Russia, China, Cyprus, and Australia.
“[The DPRK leader] said these two factories should compete with each other to improve the quality of the cosmetics,” she said.
This, Rye told NK News, was essential to innovation – adding that she would welcome the prospect of her factory competing with South Korea’s world-famous cosmetics industry.
“I cannot say we can develop without competition.”
Manager of the Kim Il Suk Silk Factory in downtown Pyongyang Kim Myong Hwang agreed.
“We are making competition from other factories, including learning from them and teaching them,” he said. “Place your feet on the ground but look at the whole world, that’s the expression of the Supreme leader.”
He told journalists his workers are also rewarded for working longer hours through various benefits – something a member of the factory’s staff also said was true.
“The workers can get benefits if they work a lot, they get bonus,” he said.
Whether or not these bonuses come in cash or other remuneration, Kim continued, depends “on the demands of the workers.”
Despite this, it’s clear that profit-seeking is not something that can, at least openly, be discussed.
“I have to fully pay [profits] to the country, but I am not aware of what percentage others have to pay,” Kim said.
“We provide for our people,” he added. “This factory and raw materials were given by the country. It wouldn’t be a socialist society if DPRK people manufactured [entire] products for just ourselves.”
The country also continues to suffer from frequent power outages, with a visit by journalists on Tuesday to the International Friendship Exhibition at Myohyangsnan three hours from the capital briefly interrupted by a cut in supply.
One local source also complained of power issues in their high-rise Pyongyang apartment.
Advertising, too, remains in its nascent stages: Ms. Rye of the cosmetics factory told reporters that much of their promotional material was produced in-house.
Locals also said they were unlikely to learn about new restaurants in the city through publicity. Instead, they said, news of up-and-coming places to eat and drink go around largely through word of mouth.
Another theme North Korean authorities have been promoting over the last several days has been their country’s desire to improve relations with the South: a theme not-so-subtly seen in the conclusion to Sunday’s “Glorious Country” mass gymnastics event.
One young man, sporting an electric bicycle recently purchased from Pyongyang’s Pothonggang shopping district, said he expected the two Koreas to start economic cooperation soon.
“In terms of economic projects, I think various aspects of economic exchange will happen and I think it’s good,” he said, though he found it difficult to name any specific projects he saw beginning in the near future.
Silk factory manager Kim was less keen to talk about what a government minder called “the South Korean problem.”
“We are all Koreans,” he said. “There is no reason to confront each other.”
His counterpart at the Pyongyang Cosmetics Factory did, however, say that she saw cooperation as a possibility on the horizon.
“In his New Year’s speech, the Supreme Leader comrade Kim Jong Un made clear that we should do our best for the unity and welfare of the Korean people, and he’s doing a great job for the reunification of Korea,” Rye said.
“When those efforts bear fruit, I think that kind of cooperation might be possible.”
And with sources telling NK News earlier in the year that ongoing work at the Wonsan Kalma resort in the country’s west could be linked to inter-Korean tourism, one local said they would support southern visitors coming North.
“I warmly welcome them,” a young woman told NK News outside the Pyongyang metro, saying tourists would likely be drawn to her country due to its new self-declared status as a world power.
“They respect my country and think my country will be much more powerful in the future,” she added.
Reaction to April’s concert by a group of South Korean pop singers in Pyongyang was decidedly more ambiguous – unsurprising, given the show was not broadcast on state television, though news of it did appear in ruling party organ the Rodong Sinmun.
“She feels the compatriotic feelings of the Supreme Leader, who loves fellow countrymen,” she said when asked about that concert, as translated by the government-approved minder interpreting for NK News.
And what, then, should South Koreans learn from their fellow countrymen in the North?
“They should learn single-hearted unity of the Korean people, who rally around the supreme leader,” she replied. “And they should learn about our current citizens, who devote themselves for the development of the country.”
As always in North Korea, hints of small reforms are caveated with praise for the leadership and emphasis on the strength of the country’s system.
And while a certain ambiguity on sanctions messaging has emerged in Pyongyang, many things in the DPRK remain the same.
Despite the constant references from locals to the changes underway under Kim Jong Un, one silk factory worker found it hard to say what had changed since her youth.
“I cannot see a big difference.”
Featured image: NK News