North Korea’s cultural life

Tania Branigan visited Pyongyang for The Guardian and wrote a long article on North Korean culture.  Most of the information is familiar to long-time DPRK watchers, though there were a few nuggets of information I had not heard before.  I have posted these below:

But who knew that The Da Vinci Code was a hit in this strictly controlled city? That Céline Dion is a karaoke favourite? Or that the mass performances are not only a tribute to the leadership and motherland, but the way that many young people find partners?

Few foreigners see this city at all. Around 2,000 western tourists visited last year, plus perhaps 10 times as many Chinese visitors. The expatriate population, excluding Chinese and Russian diplomats, and including children, stands at 150.

There are certainly signs of change here: Air Koryo has new planes and three gleaming airport buses to ferry passengers from runway to terminal. Last week a vast new theatre opened, as did an apartment complex, although it may be destined for officials. The 105-storey Ryugyong hotel – more than two decades in construction – is finally glass-sheathed and due to open in 2012. That year will mark the 100th birthday of the country’s founder, Kim Il-sung. But it is hard to see how it can achieve its pledge to become “a great, powerful and prosperous nation” by then – even given the Stakhanovite industrial efforts lauded in its newspapers.

Pyongyang is lucky: no one is plump, but nor is there noticeable emaciation. Dr Andrei Lankov, associate professor at Kookmin University in Seoul, says the official income in Pyongyang is around 3,000 won a month, but many have ways of making money on the side and – unlike other North Koreans – its residents receive subsistence food rations. Most top those up at markets that are legal though never formally acknowledged (officials insist that “everything is public”). At the turn of the year, the government embarked on currency reforms to eradicate an increasingly independent group of “kiosk capitalists”. But wiping out hard-won savings caused highly unusual public discontent and even, reportedly, unrest.

You can read the full article here:
The cultural life of North Korea
The Guardian
Tania Branigan
10/15/2010

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