Andrei Lankov highlights in a recent Asia Times article some observations (qualitative data) that indicates the DPRK has seen significant growth in recent years. He is careful to qualify his observations with caveats that the level of growth in the country as a whole (as opposed to Pyongyang) remain more difficult to determine.
More expensive shops stocking luxury goods are becoming more numerous as well. Gone are the days when a bottle of cheap Chinese shampoo was seen as a great luxury; one can easily now buy Chanel in a Pyongyang boutique; and, of course, department stores offer a discount to those who spend more than one million won on a shopping spree. One million won is roughly equivalent to US$250 – not a fortune by the Western standards but still a significant amount of money in a country where the average monthly income is close $25.
The abundance of mobile phones is much talked about. Indeed, North Korea’s mobile network, launched as recently as late 2008, has more than one million subscribers. It is often overlooked that the old good landline phones also proliferated in the recent decade. A phone at home ceased to be seen as a sign of luxury and privilege, as was the case for decades. Rather, it has become the norm – at least, in Pyongyang and other large cities.
The capital remains badly lit in night, but compared with the norm of some five or 10 years ago, the situation has improved much. The electricity supply has become far more reliable, and in late hours most of the houses have lights switched on.
Of course, this affluence is relative and should not be overestimated: many people in Pyongyang still see a slice pork or meat soup as a rare delicacy. The new posh restaurants and expensive shops are frequented by the emerging moneyed elite, which includes both officials and black/grey market operators (in some cases one would have great difficulty to distinguish between these two groups). In a sense, Pyongyang’s prosperity also reflects the steadily growing divide between the rich and poor that has become a typical feature of North Korea of the past two decades.
Nonetheless, those foreign observers who have spent decades in and out of Pyongyang are almost unanimous in their appraisal of the current situation: Pyongyang residents have never had it so good. It seems that life in Pyongyang has not merely returned to pre-crisis 1980s standards but has surpassed it.
And how can we explain these developments? Lankov offers three theories:
The first seems to be the growth of private economic activity. Estimates vary, but most experts agree that the average North Korean family gets well over half its income from a variety of private economic activities.
The second reason is the gradual adjustment of what is left of the state-controlled economy. Nowadays, North Korean industrial managers do not sit by helplessly when they cannot get spare parts or fuel from the state – as was often the case in the 1990s. Instead, they try to find what they need, often getting the necessary supplies from the private market.
The third reason is, of course, Chinese economic assistance and investment.
Read the full story here:
North Korea’s pools of prosperity