Charles K. Armstrong: The View From Pyongyang

Roundup: Historians' Take

Charles K. Armstrong, a professor of history and the director of the Center for Korean Research at Columbia University, is the author of a forthcoming book on North Korea in the cold war era.

LIKE Havana, only more so, the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, is bereft of commercial billboards but covered with propaganda posters. In recent years, however, one company has been allowed to advertise its products: Pyonghwa Motors, a joint venture between the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s South Korea-based Unification Church and North Korea’s state-run Ryonbong General Corporation. A few signs promoting the company’s Whistle sedan can be seen in Pyongyang and surrounding areas. Essentially a Hyundai, the Whistle is an increasingly common sight on Pyongyang streets, along with a growing number of BMW, Lexus, Mercedes, Nissan and other luxury and nonluxury vehicles, many privately owned.

Once notable for the absence of traffic (not to mention a lack of streetlights), Pyongyang is a much busier and visibly more affluent city than it was just a few years ago. The source of this new wealth is something of a mystery, but presumably Chinese trade and investment account for a good part of it. With its residents dressed mostly in Western-style clothing and clutching mobile phones, Pyongyang today looks more like a tidy Chinese provincial city than the spartan capital of the world’s last Stalinist state. Under its new ruler, “Respected Leader” Kim Jong-un, North Korea is clearly on the move.

But moving where, exactly? Some analysts say that North Korea is on the verge of collapse; others say it is on the verge of serious economic reform. To judge from what I saw during a trip to North Korea in July, the reality is less momentous: a change in the face of the leadership and of the capital city, but not of policy. The status quo remains and is unlikely to change any time soon....

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