For readers of Western media, the usual image of North Korea is that of a starving Stalinist state, a place where the people, clad in rags, march through colourless streets completely devoid of traffic.
Visitors to Pyongyang, though, are aware this is not the case. People the North Korea capital are relatively well dressed, and posh restaurants have begun springing up all over town in recent years, and traffic clearly exists.
One should not be surprised by these sights. The last 15 to 20 years have been a time of slow-motion disintegration of North Korea's National Stalinism. Once a near perfect specimen of Stalinist-Leninist state socialism, North Korea nowadays is a country of booming black markets and an increasingly blurring line between state and private economies ― essentially, a country of grassroots capitalism.
With capitalism, grassroots or not, you would expect also to have income inequality, and of course, the emergence of rich people. This is indeed that case in North Korea.
The new rich have various different groups. They consist of successful black market operators, corrupt officials, and even managers of state-owned enterprises who have figured out how to keep their factories operating while also enriching themselves in the process. Like rich people everywhere, members of North Korea's new bourgeoisie (heavily concentrated in Pyongyang) want to flaunt their success.
So how do North Korea's rich show off? First of all, they buy property. While technically it remains illegal to buy and sell housing in North Korea, since the late 1980s there has been a lively real estate market in the country. A good high-rise apartment in downtown Pyongyang would cost $50,000-$60,000 while the price of top properties significantly exceeds the $100,000 mark. This is an exorbitant figure in a country where the average monthly income does not exceed a few dozen dollars, but there are a number of people willing to pay the price.
Private cars are also not unknown in North Korea anymore, though their numbers are still small. In many cases people prefer to circumvent existing restrictions by registering their car with a government agency. This requires some kickbacks to the agency's management, but also makes the life of car owners far easier. Still, private cars in North Korea are roughly as common as private jets in the United States; the majority of affluent people still cannot afford cars, so they buy motorbikes instead!
There are also ways to show one's affluence inside one's house. An upper middle or upper class family in North Korea of today is supposed to have a large array of electronic gadgets, not all of which are actually useable in practice.
A good example is a fridge. It should be present in the kitchen of any successful North Korean businessperson or official. However, in most areas outside Pyongyang, fridges are useless because frequent and unpredictable blackouts virtually ensure that no food can be kept reliably frozen.
In some cases, people use rather unorthodox means to solve this problem. They bribe a government agency or military unit and connect their house to the industrial or military power grid, where blackouts are far less common.
However, this trick only works in the countryside and in most houses therefore, fridges are little more than an expensive status symbol. In one case that I know of personally, the fridge was used as the bookshelf of a book-loving son of the house owner.
Another such appliance is a TV, or rather TVs, since every successful North Korean is supposed to have at least two TVs. One TV set is a large and expensive colour TV while the other is typically much smaller and can therefore be used during power blackouts.
Nowadays, computers are surprisingly common as well – unconnected to the Internet, but still popular and useful.
Another luxury which is common for affluent families is a reliable water supply. For people who live in multi-story buildings, the unreliability of water supply has always been a major problem. The advent of the market economy has solved this problem for the rich. There are water sellers ― usually young, fit men ― who are willing to deliver buckets of water to any floor (for a good fee of course). Water is then kept in large water tanks, which have become a ubiquitous feature of North Korean homes.
This is the life of North Korea's rich. Not exactly Gangnam style, perhaps, but still far better than the lives that most of their compatriots have to live.
Professor Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. You can reach him at email@example.com.