Word of new bicycle lanes in Pyongang raised a lot more than just the pulses of the pedaling public. Around the world, news of the new pathways attracted comments ranging from the bemused to the snarky, with The Atlantic’s “CityLab” blog’s tongue-in-cheek headline — “Even North Korea is Building Bike Lanes” — seeming to say it all.
On one hand, the derision is understandable. Discussions of bike lanes are often accompanied by talk of gentrification, green tech and hipsters — none of which instantly come to mind when regarding the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
What does come to mind: A dismal human-rights record, crippling poverty, a historic drought, and increasing paranoia over third-generation autocrat deemed a buffoon by some, a murderer by others and both by many.
Fact is credit for the new lanes, at a time when ridership is on the rise as more citizens find that they can’t afford more than two wheels, as Reuters reports, must go to the national leadership, with the voracious Kim Jong-un wolfing down the lion’s share, what with his six official titles.
Critics might note that the lanes were a no-brainer for a city whose name translates to “flat lands,” as The Daily Mail points out, but the reality is that biking was banned for years in its central districts and that it was only after the restriction was lifted that problems began.
The bicyclists, still prohibited from riding on urban roadways, found themselves sharing an “unmarked strip of pavement” with pedestrians, a move doomed from the get-go. Collisions, congestion and the incessant public tinkling of thousands of bicycle bells drove many toward a uniquely Pyongyangian form of road rage as, according to Reuters, ridership zoomed nearly 50% in the last few years.
Hence the West’s snickering about those “snazzy new bike lanes.” Although riders now have their own protected thoroughfare and pedestrians have the pavement to themselves again, which should, in theory, decrease both injuries and traffic, the citizenry appears not all that enthused.
So is that because laws banning women from riding bikes are still on the books (though rarely enforced) or, per Reuters, because many in the capital — having bought the supreme leader’s near-daily boasts of North Korean supremacy — consider biking beneath them?
Or could it be that — in a nation fearing a potential drought-fueled famine — gushing over bike lanes is not what the public wants to hear oozing down from the president-for-life’s palatial residence? Many wonder just whom these lanes were truly built for. Indeed, Reuters cites a Beijing-based company that takes foreigners into North Korea and offers a bike tour among its excursions.
Some find this latest part of a bit-by-bit infrastructure rollout perplexing in a country struggling to feed its people.
Take the spanking-new, state-of-the-art international terminal at Pyongyang Sunan International Airport. Unveiled last month, writes The Los Angeles Times, it features such high-end amenities as a jewelry store and a coffee bar complete with chocolate-fondue fountains.
When Kim himself toured the terminal with his wife and entourage, he proclaimed it the culmination of a long-held wish of his late father, Kim Jong-il. Not accompanying the group was the terminal’s principal architect, who, critics fear, was ordered executed by Kim for failing to have the vaunted project ready to open on time.
Kim instead praised all the “soldier builders” who did the heavy lifting, extolling their efforts in constructing the terminal in “harmony with modern aesthetic taste and national character.”
Again, the question on many a citizen’s mind might be: Who is the intended beneficiary here? With North Koreans traveling only under severe restrictions, this new finery seems aimed at the tourist trade, a cornerstone of the Hermit Kingdom’s flickering economy. The tourists are mostly from China and Russia, but those nations are mired in thorny issues of their own: in Beijing, a most unwelcome recession; in Moscow, tensions with neighboring Ukraine.
So — since jetting off for some downtime in Pyongyang seems not on the agenda for the average Chinese or Russian — why a new airport terminal? And new bike lanes? And a ski resort opened last year? And new train tours promising visitors a “different view” of North Korea?
Could it be that, even as Kim vows revenge on the United States for alleged Korean War atrocities, he is seeking to make his country more attractive to Americans and their allies? Channel News Asia reports that, in chasing Western dollars, Kim realizes that he must greet these newcomers with a more cosmopolitan capital.
As Jeong Yong-tae, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification, a South Korean think tank, told Reuters:
I believe Kim Jong-un will seek an active open policy. By doing so, he first intends to turn Pyongyang into a city with international competitiveness and initiate economic growth with Pyongyang as the central focus.
If this appears far afield from bike lanes, well, welcome to the political entity that is North Korea, where nothing is quite as it seems and no one says quite what they mean. Truth be told, Kim’s task seems Sisyphean: to raise his homeland from an economic and public-relations abyss created by decades of political isolation and monetary dependence on two behemoths that themselves have teetered on the brink of economic disaster.
Even as Kim continues to give Pyongyang a much-needed makeover, his critics see little benefit trickling down to the average citizen. Channel News Asia states that some believe the real reason he’s grabbing for more tourism dollars is to continue to finance his lavish lifestyle.
And that’s if they think Kim has any chance whatsoever to succeed. After all, bicyclists in central Pyongyang every day pass a 105-story hotel that has been under construction since 1987 and that continues to loom as a reminder of what happened to some of his grandfather’s best-laid plans.