Two perspectives of one North Korean Potemkin village

Night time Potemkin village
Night time at the Sino-DPRK border area. / Image: Kang Dong Wan, Professor, Donga University

A North Korean Potemkin Village 

People view North Korea in two different ways. For example, take a look at the picture above. You can see flashing neon signs all over the buildings. Even the sign “Long Live Our Socialist System!” is well-lit. After looking at the picture, some people will proudly talk about the country’s beautiful night view and say that North Korea’s electricity situation is not that bad.

There’s another photo, however, that tells a different story about North Korea. It’s actually a picture of the exact same place, but was instead taken during the daytime. The scene we are shown here looks completely different than the picture taken at night. The buildings that were at the center of all those dazzling lights in the first photo were government buildings, such as a local Workers’ Party of Korea’s office building, along with a large billboard. The darkness essentially covers all ordinary people’s houses; there’s not a single light from their dwellings to be seen.

Day time at the Sino-DPRK border area. / Image: Kang Dong-wan, Professor, Dong-a University

Now, let’s look at the same area but during a different time period. The pictures below were taken recently on August 29, 2019. The pictures contain the exact same buildings during the day and night time. 

Day and night
Day and night at the Sino-North Korean border region / Image: Kang Dong-wan, Professor, Dong-a University
Day and night
Day and night at the Sino-North Korean border region / Image: Kang Dong-wan, Professor, Dong-a University

What these photos have in common is that only government buildings are lit up to highlight propaganda slogans. The Potemkin village in these photos is called the “March 5 Youth Mine,” which is touted as an example of a socialist paradise in North Korea. 

“Korean speed” 

Kim Il-Sung ordered development of this village during an on-the-spot visit on March 5, 1968. His son and heir, Kim Jong Il, called it the village a “People’s paradise born during the era of military-first policy and an ideal communist village.” During the Kim Jong Un era, the village has become the prime example of the virtues of so-called “Korean speed,” a saying immortalized in the slogan “Let’s lead the world with Korean speed.” 

The Rodong Sinmun has boasted, “How happy is it that the residents [of the March 5 Youth Mine] do not ever have to worry about rice, water, firewood and electricity and they have so much vegetables and fruits that they have a tough time getting rid of them.” Newly-built townhouses are the pride of the village, according to state media. However, I think its rather unbelievable that people would shout out “Long live our socialist system!” just because they don’t have to worry about simple things such as rice, water, firewood and electricity. 

Maybe we are only seeing what we want to see in North Korea. South Koreans now talk about the era of the so-called “Peace Economy.” But does emphasis on the “Peace Economy” mean we should ignore the major differences that exist between North and South Korea? Even when only tiny amounts of light are seen on the North Korean side of the Sino-North Korean border region, people exaggerate and say that it is proof that North Korea’s economy is improving and there’s more electricity to go around. Even after looking at the photos above, some people say that the electricity supply is good enough to light up a mountain village in North Korea and that the plant is operating at “Korean speed.” They focus simply on the Potemkin village as if it signifies that all North Korean industrial facilities are running smoothly. 

Invisible truths? 

I am also constantly worried about the possibility of presenting a skewed picture of North Korea as I take photos in the Sino-DPRK border area. I always remind myself that photographs reveal facts, but may not reveal truths. When I take pictures of the border region, I make a promise not to exaggerate or diminish what I see. I think that is the least that I can do as a North Korea scholar. This is why I try to visit the area at least once a month and carefully watch for changes.

It is hard to find homes and Potemkin villages like those in the “March 5 Youth Mine Village” along the 790 kilometer stretch of the Yalu River that separates China and North Korea. Most of the typical houses ones sees look like something from the set of an old movie: earthen houses with shingled roofs. 

When people try to understand the North Korean economy based on just one Potemkin village, doesn’t that suggest a very narrow perspective? The daily lives of North Koreans are, in fact, visible when peering across the Tumen and Yalu rivers. Are their troubles and hardship not really that visible? 

*Views expressed in Commentaries do not necessarily reflect those of Daily NK. Professor Kang’s previous column can be found here.

*Translated by Yongmin Lee

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