January 28, 2023

How a North Korean businessman’s high-rise dreams came crashing down

A defector’s memoir illuminates how private entrepreneurs, relying on bribery, drove a construction boom in Pyongyang

Pyongyang’s skyline is hardly the most memorable or impressive in comparison to those of the world’s major cities, yet a minor construction boom has rendered large parts of the North Korean capital almost beyond recognition from just a couple decades before, with massive high-rises replacing mud huts.

DPRK propaganda has presented this transformation as another triumph of the leader and party and as evidence of the socialist economy’s power. But in fact, partnerships between the state and emerging independent businesses is what made possible the capital’s construction boom from 2005 to 2017. While on paper state-owned enterprises and government agencies completed the work, in practice private entrepreneurs known as "donju," or “masters of money,” were the driving force.