A street view of Pyongyang on September 6 (Photo: Global Times)
Any photo of Pyongyang highlighting leaders' portraits and slogans will earn you a good number of "likes" if you post on your social media. North Korea draws Chinese people's curiosity by reminding them of the old days.
But the stereotype is now changing. The Global Times reporter found changes are appearing in every corner of the country, during an eight-day reporting trip in Pyongyang in early September.
It is time to escape from fixed thinking when viewing this neighbor of China.
Not a millionaire
Several salespersons at Pyongyang's Ragwon Department Store were watching the news reporting on North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on the country's 70th anniversary of its founding. The television they were watching is a Panasonic 60-inch LCD TV, with an "uncertain price," a salesman told the Global Times.
The store is an elegant one in the city. Travel guide book publisher Lonely Planet depicts it as "a department store full of imported goods that's popular with the Pyongyang elite." Selling products like Panasonic televisions and Merries baby diapers, it may create an illusion for visitors that they are shopping in other big cities.
Even though the reporting trip was during North Korea's national holiday, the store was not crowded. On the shelves in the supermarket, there were bottles of water produced in November 2017. The Global Times reporter took several bottles of soft drinks, each labelled 140 North Korean Won, to the cashier's desk. After the cashier tapped on a calculator, she smiled and asked the reporter to give more. 5,000 won is not enough.
Almost every visitor may get confused about the exchange rate in North Korea. According to the official exchange rate, one US dollar can be exchanged for 100 KPW. This rate is used in restaurants and supermarkets that allow foreigners.
In fact, the so-called "official exchange rate" in North Korea is the price of the cancelled North Korean Foreign Exchange Certificates. In some markets which only allow domestic people, the exchange rate between the US dollar and North Korean Won is 1:8,000.Zheng Jiyong, director of Shanghai-based Fudan University's Center for Korean Studies, said there are "two prices" for products in North Korea. "One is in North Korean won, which domestic people use. The other price is for foreigners - you need to move the decimal point to the left twice, that's the price in US dollars."
This example overturns a saying which is popular in China, "Whoever brings a great amount of RMB to North Korea will become a tycoon." The food consumption prices in Pyongyang are almost the same as that in Beijing, even a little higher.
For electric appliances, it is the same. For instance, a Haier double-door refrigerator is sold at 137,500 won.
According to North Korea's Foreign Exchange Management Act, which was approved in 2004, foreign cash cannot be circulated in North Korea. Cash must be exchanged to North Korean won at appointed locations.
On November 30, 2009, North Korea's Central Bank carried out a reform of currency, emphasizing the prohibition of foreign currency circulation in the market. However, it is normal for stores that cater to foreigners to accept foreign currency these days.
Lü Chao, a researcher on North Korea at the Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences, said this is a progress. "It shows a growing demand for high-grade goods among North Korean people. Once the country's economy improves, trade with other countries will be easier."
In North Korea, it seems one is time traveling all the time.
On the streets of Pyongyang, you can see 1960s trucks along with the latest Land Rover. Citizens talk on mobile phones under the slogans and posters with leaders' portraits and quotes, and they are either in traditional costumes or professional business suits.
Even though the country might be known for conservative people, poverty and low levels of education, there are expensive restaurants and the city is extremely clean.
In Pyongyang's Kim Jong-suk Silk Mill, workers were passionate about completing "production tasks." A 54-year-old worker told the Global Times that she was never concerned about money. "We are not like those capitalist countries, in which people cannot live without money."
Nowadays, a vegetable farm in the Sadong district of Pyongyang is feeding the capital city with vegetables. The farm is a pilot model for agriculture reform in North Korea. In the new system, 70 percent of agricultural production is purchased by the government, and 30 percent is distributed to farmers, which has largely stimulated efficiency.
"In 2017 the average income was 800,000 to 900,000 won," said the head of the farm, surnamed Lee. "We don't have many places to spend money, because the medical care is free, school is free and even the housing is free. So we only use the money to buy some necessities."Global Times reporters were taken to a barbecue restaurant on the Mirae Scientists Street. The inside decorations were no worse than a medium-level restaurant in Beijing. Menu browsing and ordering were done on a tablet computer. However, dinner cost around 200 yuan ($29) per person, which might be the reason the restaurant was rarely visited by local people.
Without street lights and billboards, the Mirae Scientists Street was not as glamorous as it in the day time. However, the street represents the country's strong urge to modernize.
Reform and opening-up
Will North Korea become more open? People have been wondering since long before the situation on the peninsula took a positive turn.
Agriculture reform and small vendors on the street have all provoked curiosity. Especially after North Korea vowed an all-out effort toward "socialist economic construction" at the third plenary session of the 7th Central Committee of the Korean Workers' Party, people have wondered when the country will start a "reform and opening-up" program.
So far, North Korean officials never mention "reform and opening-up." As long as denuclearization on the peninsula cannot be resolved properly, economic construction will face barriers.
However, a North Korean guide accompanying this reporter said that the country is more open than before. "Previously, when reporters came, people on the street would escape. But this time, they are saying 'come over!' They are very willing to answer questions."
North Korea has become more relaxed and friendly than before.
The official newspaper Rodong Sinmun published on the day North Korean leader Kim Jong-un met US President Donald Trump was placed in the most significant position in the bookshop of the Yanggakdo Hotel. A guidebook on investing in North Korea is the most popular product here.
Anti-US books and posters are disappearing.
On September 9, in a mass gymnastics and artistic performance in Pyongyang, more than 10,000 actors formed a giant slogan of "Solidarity, cooperation, good neighborliness, friendship." Well-known Chinese and Russian folk songs were also played in the performance.
Even the security check before significant events has been shortened to three hours from five.
"It is obvious that some changes are taking place in North Korea," said Zheng, the Fudan University professor who has visited North Korea several times. "Some North Korean people we met, who had previously only talked about political issues, are now asking about Chinese companies and business or finance courses. As you can feel, North Korea is making preparations for economic construction."
Meanwhile, a wealth imbalance still exists in the country. Lü, the research fellow at the Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times that there is a big gap between Pyongyang and other small or medium cities. "But with the direction of economic construction, North Korea is on the way to the prosperity."