A daily bulletin of news & opinion

24 February 2011

Nuclear armed, highly motivated and a potentially destabilising force in Northeast Asia, the North Korean People’s Army, or KPA, is one of the most feared fighting forces on the planet. Their latest mission, however, demands a decidely un-martial set of skills: they have been ordered to renovate Pyongyang.

South Korean media reports that the KPA has been assigned the duty as 2012 approaches. Kim Jong-il has set a public goal of building a “strong and prosperous” nation by that year, the centenary of the birth of his late father, “Eternal President” Kim Il-sung. 

But while nuclear-armed North Korea is militarily strong, prosperity has been elusive. The apparent solution is to merely create the appearance of prosperity.

Frequent visitors note that Pyongyang’s look has been improving in recent years, with a new theatre and clusters of modern apartments. “Most new buildings are constructed on major streets, designed to impress the rare visitor and uplift the spirits of Pyongyang citizens,” said Leonid Petrov, a North Korean Studies lecturer at Sydney University. “They want to pursue the image of a modern state, so they start with its showcase capital.”

With North Korea’s central philosophy being “Songeun” (“Military First”), the KPA’s be-medaled marshals, goose-stepping battalions and lethal commandos are commonly deployed on non-martial duties.

“The army is the major labour force the regime can mobilise any time; this is the usual case in a dictatorship,” said Choi Jin-wook of Seoul’s Korea Institute of National Unification. “For renovations to the capital of the revolution, the army is proudly taking on the job.”

But the KPA is not mere construction muscle. It boasts creativity too – or at least, inspires it: No tourist in Pyongyang can overlook soldiers’ central role in the arts. Dramatic paintings capture flag-waving spearheads crossing rivers in the teeth of Yankee fire, finely wrought embroideries depict crafty guerrillas hidden among reeds and what music lover could resist a CD boasting that karaoke classic, “Did the partisan hear the ear of corn cracking?”

Still, creativity may be uncalled for: much work thus far has been basic. Since 2004, clay-brick buildings have had painted plaster and concrete façades added, creating a “fashionable and modern” impression, Petrov noted. 

And progress has its drawbacks – such as the creeping extinction of a beloved city icon. With traffic lights having been installed to handle nascent rush-hour jams, the city’s once-famed traffic girls now only pirouette and direct in two or three landmark locations.


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