Glimpse of North Korea: Travels in the Empire of Kim Jong Un


The entire country is being reforested. In rural areas, where the freezing population has chopped down entire forests for firewood, trees are being planted on bare mountains to stop soil erosion and save the country's relatively meager agricultural land, which amounts to about 20 percent of its entire land area.

The cars that are suddenly appearing on Pyongyang's streets are also from China. The number of cars has "shot up" within the last year, says a staff member at an aid organization, who notes that now Pyongyang even sees the occasional traffic jam. The vehicles are brand-new, Chinese-made Volkswagen Passats, driving alongside 20-year-old Mercedes sedans. But many modern Japanese minibuses and SUVs are also coming across the Chinese border, despite international embargos.

Nevertheless, there are hardly any privately owned cars on the road. "People aren't quite used that yet," explains an official with the Foreign Ministry. What he really means is that the ownership of private cars is considered undesirable. Instead, the only cars on the streets are government vehicles with color-coded license plates: white with a red star for state and party cars, white without a star for ordinary officials, black for the military, blue for diplomats and international organizations, and red for foreigners without official status, like Chinese businesspeople.

The Ruling Gerontocracy

Despite the obvious divide between government officials and the people, there is no evidence of public opposition anywhere. "There is no civil society and there are no intellectual dissidents, and there is practically no literature. Where should resistance come from?" asks one foreign aid worker.

In this atmosphere, North Korea's new leader Kim Jong Un has been able to establish himself surprisingly quickly. Shortly before the festivities in honor of his grandfather, the plump young man was named first secretary of the Workers' Party of Korea, commander-in-chief of the army and, most importantly, first chairman of the National Defense Commission. In North Korea, it isn't the party that is the center of power in the communist power structure, but rather this peculiar commission, which is thought to consist of a dozen very old men from the army and the party.

Western experts believe that Kim, with the help of his mentor, Ri Yong Ho, the 69-year-old chief of the general staff of the North's Korean People's Army, has managed to overcome the reservations of the old guard. Choe Ryong Hae, promoted into the presidium of the party politburo and made director of the army's political office in April, now plays a key role. The 62-year-old military man is a youngster alongside the rest of the ruling gerontocracy. Kim Yong Nam, the official head of state, is 84, the premier is 81, the speaker of the parliament is 81, the second general chief of staff is 82, and so on.

During the birthday celebration, the geriatric old guard watched the military parade from the parapet of the national library. Down below on Kim Il Sung Square, some 100,000 appointed revelers provided a colorful, choreographed backdrop to the ancient Soviet weapons systems being paraded through the square. The new strongman, Choe Ryong Hae, appeared demonstratively at the side of the young leader, in the first spot to his right, replacing others who had sat there before. "That was the accolade," says one Western diplomat.

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