The number of gas stations in North Korea is rapidly increasing following a similar rise in automobiles in and around the showcase capital, a source who recently visited the Stalinist state said Tuesday.
Visitors to Pyongyang, which underwent massive renovations for the recent 100th birth anniversary of country founder Kim Il-sung, have noted a visible increase in cars, mostly Chinese, but also brands such as Mercedes, BMW and Volkswagen.
“Compared to some years ago, there has been a veritable boom in the use of cars. And, at the same time new gas stations have sprouted in Pyongyang, and even in the countryside,” the source said, asking not to be named.
North Korea watchers say that while much of the country remains in dire economic straits, consumption is rising in Pyongyang, where the North’s elite class resides, boasting wealth accrued from grassroots capitalism and increased trade with China.
The source, who has a record of accuracy on economic developments in the North, said while the stations appear to be owned by party organisations they are seen as good business opportunities for the operators.
Those filling up cars attached to the party must pay with a coupon but prices were cheaper for others paying with hard currency, which experts say Pyongyang is attempting to soak up. Gas is measured in kilograms there, not litres or gallons.
The source also noted the increased use of the license plate number “7-27″ that has become linked to new leader Kim Jong-un and refers to July 27, 1953, when the armistice to end the Korean War came into force.
Most cars are still formally attached to an army unit, the ruling party or a government institution, but are said to be increasingly used for private transportation. Other signs of increased spending have popped up in Pyongyang in the form of foreign-themed restaurants and cafes, as well as a department store hawking Chanel and Armani.
Other projects for the founder’s centennial include new high-rise apartment units in the Mansudae area of the capital and the opening of a hydroelectric plant long-touted as a symbol of modernity.
The makeover coincides with lifestyle changes among Pyongyang residents marked most distinctly by the rapidly-increasing use of cellphones after the regime introduced a 3G network in 2008.
Despite the upgrades in the capital, reports of starvation persists, raising concerns that the wealth disparity may be unsustainable for the fledgling Kim Jong-un regime. Some say the regime may feel pressured to provide luxury goods due to fierce competition among the elite.
The Daily NK, a North-focused website reported several deaths this week in the country’s southwestern rice belt. Good Friends, a Seoul-based aid group, said starvation was continuing to claim lives throughout South Hwanghae Province.
Following attempts to stymie the spread of markets, the North has begrudgingly allowed them as its planned system continues to struggle to feed the population. -By Kim Young-jin