The political economy of Pyongyang’s new subway cars

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein 

The upgrades of Pyongyang seem to continue with no signs of slowing down. Kim Jong-un has made Pyongyang’s massive facelift into one of the hallmarks of his tenure. Not just theme parks have been given attention. Since a few years back, people have spoken of a “building boom” in Pyongyang. Many believe there is a political calculation behind it all: happy capital city elites, happy regime.

In the rest of the country, however, not much is happening. If the regime is betting on being able to keep elites happy by building them nicer things, it is certainly placing a lot of eggs in the same geographical basket. Upgrading Pyongyang might make North Korea look wealthier to visitors and the occasional reporter, but that doesn’t mean that the economy is really on a new track.

The latest in a long line of stark reminders of the vast differences between Pyongyang and the rest of the country is the report that the capital city is getting new subway cars. The iconic ones from East Berlin may come to be retired. Earlier this month, the state newspaper Rodong Sinmun reported that Kim had taken a test ride on a newly manufactured subway car, from Kaeson station (near Pyongyang’s Arch of Triumph) through four different stops.

Kim, of course, gave a few words of wisdom: he praised the performance of the car, approving both of the speed and the breaks. He went on to say that the new train car felt safe, and fulfilled all the demands of public transportation. With “our Juche capacity (주체적력량) and scientific technology, we can manufacture everything.”

These things may of course hold propaganda value. Pyongyang as the heart of the revolution has been a longstanding theme in the propaganda, and North Korea is hardly the only country in the world where the capital city holds a higher standard than other places. Still, one should not mistake new subway cars or other infrastructure upgrades for signs of profound economic improvement. While new subway cars are manufactured in Pyongyang, aid organizations have continued to warn of a food deficit.

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