PYONGYANG – North Korea, for the West, and especially the United States, is the absolute epitome of “the other”; the ultimate all-around, top-to-bottom, no-holds-barred antithesis to neo-liberalism and post-modern turbo-capitalism on show in the whole world.

Cuba embraces one with its tropical warmth; after all it is located in the “Western hemisphere,” according to the US State Department’s quirky terminology. And by listening to Spanish spoken with that beautiful musical accent, many a Westerner could almost feel at home. On the other hand, the predominant perception of North Korea is of the ultimate alien. Even South Koreans feel shocked when they eventually find out that North Koreans are normal people just like anybody else.

One does not need to be an anthropologist like Claude Levi-Strauss to know that when one refuses any possible empathy with the “other,” the easiest escape route is to demonize him: thus a long lineage including Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and nowadays Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Dear Leader Kim Jong-il.

When I was in Baghdad under Saddam in the lead-up towards the war of 2003, students would often ask me, “Do you think we look evil?” When it comes to average North Koreans, equally there’s nothing of the inscrutable, evil or cruel “other,” as dictated by the stereotype predominant in Anglo-American corporate media.

Meanwhile in northeast Asia …

Pyongyang in winter strikes the visitor as a silent meditation in shades of black, brown and gray – as striking, in fact, as the circumspect elegance of North Korean women.

It also entails guilty pleasures. No Internet. No mobile phone (customs retain them at Pyongyang airport). No tacky neon signs. No abhorrent junk food. No lowlife advertising. No unnatural beeps – only the sound of slow-moving trams and children playing. Plus those long quotations in white on red – from Marxist-Leninist slogans to the ubiquitous “The Great Leader Comrade Kim Il-sung will always be with us!”

The city is very clean – in a Singaporean way. It reminds one of Central Asia – some parts could be Almaty or Tashkent in their Soviet days. In terms of careful urban planning Pyongyang is light-years away from the usual developing word mess in Cairo, Jakarta or Chengdu. Some people would be excused to think they had landed in a Terry Gilliam-directed, frozen in time, surrealist fantasy – only it’s real.

The official narrative extols “dazzling neon signs in the evening streets” – but the fact is power shortages are commonplace. Pyongyang feels eerily dark in the early morning and also at night. On the other hand fountains and murals – in garish socialist realism colors – are indeed “arranged in harmony.”

Each neighborhood is entirely self-sufficient – with its own schools, kindergartens, nurseries, clinics, a people’s hospital, shops, rice cookeries. Some sort of private initiative goes on – street stalls mobbed by long lines selling sweet potatoes, vegetables, fruit, chestnuts or ice cream. Shops display their sparse, standard products in neatly arranged rows. This is indeed a garden city – nearly 60 square meters of green area per person, better than virtually any city in the developing world. And although it’s the industrial center of North Korea, there’s virtually no pollution.

All in all, that’s quite a feat for a city in the formerly derided Third World entirely rebuilt from rubble – courtesy of over 428,000 bombs dropped by the US during the early 1950s Korean War. Not by accident North Koreans always remind visitors that Washington claimed to have bombed North Korea back to the Stone Age. Well, it didn’t – and that’s an immense source of collective pride.

There’s poverty – yes, but its citizens act with extreme dignity, pretty much as in Cuba. In the countryside conditions are much harsher; but in Pyongyang at least there’s not a single beggar, homeless people or anyone starving in the streets (tell that to people in Detroit or New York). In North Korea if you have a home in a village or in a small city you have a small plot of land that you can cultivate; this means you don’t need to depend on government rations.

Even the US intelligence community has been forced over the years to admit North Korea’s accomplishments. Free housing. Free health care. Widespread preventive medicine. Loving care to children’s needs – starting with the 1950s war orphans. And at least before the horrible famine of the late 1990s – which may have led to the death, directly or indirectly, of at least half a million people – infant mortality and life expectancy rates were way above virtually all developing countries and matching even the most industrialized Western powers.

Most apartment blocks – relatively high-rise, Stalinist style, averaging three bedrooms for each apartment – may look decrepit and have not seen any renovation since the 1950s or 1960s. But new ones are being built – for party VIPs or heroes such as prized sportspeople. Overall, the architectural themes are not exclusively Stalinist or traditional Korean; wacky post-modern collages are everywhere, from medieval Korean and streamline modern to art deco and 1970s disco, not to mention the tallest building in town, a conical faux pyramid housing the new super-hotel with five revolving restaurants – built by Egyptians – which is supposed to be inaugurated in April 2012 for the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-sung.

What’s striking for the foreign visitor is the overall perception of egalitarianism – simply unthinkable in the West, even though it’s more than obvious this is also in many aspects a class society where the elite lives far better than the toiling masses, being able to fly or take the train to China constantly and buy a full array of mod cons or drive the sparse Mercedes or Audis in town through nearly empty boulevards policed by ultra-smart traffic ladies in their blue uniforms and electric batons.

But socialism – as a rule – rules. Daily life essentials are cheap; meat is expensive; and anything resembling luxury is overpriced.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said last December that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) was expected to suffer a food shortage of more than 1 million tons this year. The UN sanctions are hurting an array of military-owned trading companies; this means less foreign exchange in circulation. And to top it off last December the DPRK appreciated its currency, the North Korean won (KPW), by over 20%. It’s not exactly working. Prices shot up. Real people are hurting.

The banknotes though look fabulous – destined to become collector’s items in the West. The official exchange rate is one euro for 140 won. The five won bill displays an irrigation dam. The 2,000 won bill displays the now mythical log cabin where the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il himself was born in 1942. For foreigners virtually all transactions are still conducted in euros or yuan. But in some shops the sales assistant first writes a receipt with the price in won of what is being bought; the buyer has to exchange his euros or yuan in another desk; and then come back to the sales assistant and pay for the purchase.

So the whole process is still, shall we say, “experimental”. It’s still too early to tell whether this DPRK currency reform will work; to what degree it is linked to the very touchy Kim Jong-il succession issue; and whether it is part of a broader reform strategy in which Pyongyang will receive a great deal of help from the leadership in Beijing.

There’s wide controversy over salaries. 200 euros a month is considered a very good salary. The norm is more like 50 euros a month. A trip to a supermarket/department store – not exactly a Harrods or Neiman Marcus – puts some prices in perspective. A bag of oranges costs only 392 won. A kilo of meat, not very good quality, is a steeper 840 won. There are instant noodles from China for only 224 won; compare it with De Cecco Italian spaghetti for 630 won. A made-in-China fake iPod sells for 70 euros – out of reach for most people. Not to mention the only flat screen TV available, a paltry Toshiba selling for a massive 210,000 won.

Enter CNC

The DPRK was never supposed to be in dire straits. In the 1950s and 1960s the North – with its solid investment in heavy industry, helped by the Soviet bloc – was blowing the South out of the park in terms of economic development. The US Central Intelligence Agency admitted that in 1978 the per capita gross national product of North and South was roughly equal – with the North producing more steel, three times the number of machine tools, and better productivity in agriculture. But a little over a decade afterwards, by the fall of the Soviet Union, the South was already way ahead.

The South Korean hybrid model is not that different from China’s. And unlike the North Korean model it is a magnet for Southeast Asia; Vietnam, Cambodia and Indonesia are copying some of its features. No wonder: South Korea operated an economic miracle in one generation and turned into a fully industrialized nation with an average annual per capita income of over $20,000.

Now the DPRK seems to be ready to operate its own “great revolutionary upsurge” and update its aging industrial infrastructure and old technologies. Inevitably once again this had to be an offspring of the juche – self-reliance – idea.

The name of the game is CNC – Computer Numerical Control – machine tools that have revolutionized the design process and said to be developed in the DPRK and already exported, for example, to China. Top exponents are the Korea Ryonha Machine Tool Corporation and the Taean Heavy Machine Complex. CNC billboards are all over Pyongyang. Inevitably CNC has its own dedicated patriotic song (no music video yet). Here are the lyrics, as translated by Andray Abrahamian, a doctoral candidate at the University of Ulsan in South Korea:

If you set your heart on anything
We follow the program making the Songun era machine technology’s pride; our style CNC technology


CNC – Juche industry’s power!
CNC – an example of self-strength and reliance!
Following the General’s leading path
Breakthrough the cutting edge

Arirang! Arirang! The people’s pride is high
Let’s build a science-technology great power
Happiness rolls over us like a wave

So the narrative of building a “socialist paradise” is now being supplanted by the narrative of developing and producing state-of-the-art technology to, as the Pyongyang Times indelibly put it, “improve the people’s living standard on the word level”. This is how the DPRK is mobilizing its people to “open the gate to a thriving nation in 2012”. South Korea, watch out.

Next: The last frontier of the Cold War