PYONGYANG, North Korea — The sprawling site, which buzzes in the shadow of a giant bronze statue of North Korea founder Kim Il Sung, looks at first like a high-security military installation.
Scores of soldiers march through a zone sealed off by green mesh fencing and checkpoints. A crew of about 1,000 soldiers and 2,000 police officers works around the clock, along with thousands more civilians in street clothes and hard hats, spurred on by billboards that rate their performance.
But they are not building tanks here at the foot of Mansu Hill, or weapons, except perhaps for a propaganda war. They are building 3,000 new apartments, a department store, schools and a theater, in the hope of selling a modern version of Pyongyang to the people of North Korea – albeit one that most will never get to see.
North Korea has long been known for its military-first policy, which in effect translated into a military-only policy with little room left for investment anywhere else. But now, without abandoning its focus on what it calls defense and the world calls defiance, it also appears to be trying to revive a dying economy and rebuild on the home front.
The stated aim of the reconstruction sweeping Pyongyang is to put North Korea on the path of being a "strong and prosperous nation" in time for the 100th anniversary of the birth of founder and president Kim Il Sung on April 15. But the campaign also serves another political purpose: It sets up Kim Jong Un as the new leader of a great people, just as a construction frenzy heralded his father's ascension before him.
"They had hoped, and will sell it to their people, that they've achieved something by the time this anniversary comes around," said Hazel Smith, a professor of humanitarianism and security at Britain's Cranfield University who lived in North Korea for a few years. "This is to show their own people they are not poor and underdeveloped. ... Construction is the cheapest thing you can do and show visible results if you're an economy that hasn't got much money."
Thirty years ago, when Kim Il Sung was grooming his son Kim Jong Il to succeed him, he launched an urban makeover of Pyongyang, the capital city. The iconic landmarks built during that succession campaign included the Mansudae Assembly Hall, the May Day Stadium where the Arirang Mass Games are held, and the ornate Grand People's Study House overlooking the vast plaza where the nation's biggest parades and rallies are staged.
But upon taking power after his father's death in 1994, Kim Jong Il focused resources on the nation's defense, beefing up the army and pumping money into nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. Projects like the 105-story Ryugyong Hotel, a pyramid-shaped behemoth once envisioned as the world's tallest building, stalled as funds for construction dried up.
In turn, the succession of his son Kim Jong Un has again brought a wave of construction, but this time the blueprints call for new homes, shopping centers, restaurants and playgrounds. They fit into a distinct policy shift designed to suggest that the younger Kim's leadership will improve the economy and the quality of life.
In truth, much of the country is likely to remain poor. Pyongyang, the capital city, houses only 3.25 million of North Korea's 24 million people, with residency viewed as a privilege reserved for the political elite.
Outsiders, even North Koreans, must obtain permission to visit the capital, and checkpoints are guarded by armed soldiers. What North Koreans know about their own capital city is mostly what they see on the evening news, which remains the main source of entertainment and propaganda for those lucky enough to have a TV and a steady supply of electricity.
However, Pyongyang still serves as the biggest billboard for the government's messages both to the outside world and to its own people. Just about every prominent building and statue in North Korea is located in Pyongyang, said Brian Myers, a professor at Dongseo University in South Korea and expert on North Korean propaganda.
"It really is the apex of all propaganda and political life," he said. "The fact that the buildings are so monumental, they are very good at eliciting pride in the state."
The new stress on the economy started three years ago, after Kim Jong Il fell ill and his coterie of advisers began preparing for a leadership change. Officials laid out plans to resuscitate the economy and, in the process, perhaps establish some domestic stability before the transition to a new Kim.
Food was key: North Korea, with little arable land and outdated farming practices, has struggled for years to feed its people. New plans called for modernizing farming and light industry, and outfitting select farms and factories with computers and high-tech machinery from Europe.
Another focus was construction. Last April, North Korea's parliament approved setting aside 15.8 percent of the state budget for defense, the same percentage as the previous year. But in a significant change, the allocation for construction increased by 15 percent to nearly $6 billion. State media did not publish a total figure for the yearly budget.
Units were tacked onto apartment buildings, while the Grand Theater, Kaeson amusement park, Kim Il Sung University and other landmarks were renovated. Solar-powered street lamps landed on streets downtown, and glass dividers went up around subway entrances. The facades along Chang Gwang Street, Pyongyang's "Restaurant Row," were spruced up.
Plans were drawn up for a riverside skating rink, swimming pools, a 50,000-square-meter theater and even a 1,000-seat "dolphinarium" with water piped in from the west coast. And last spring, the rundown, ramshackle cottages that lined the road leading to Kim Il Sung's statue on Mansu Hill were razed to make way for the apartments, a department store and a park stocked with trees imported from Italy, France and Germany, officials said.
The field chief at the construction site waved off the suggestion that the relatively palatial, 500-square-foot apartments with flush toilets and running water – a luxury, even in Pyongyang – would go to the party or military elite.
"The people who lived here after the (Korean) war will continue to be our residents here," Nam In Paek said. "Seventy percent are workers, 30 percent are officers. No high-ranking officials."
Last autumn, soldiers were brought in from the provinces and housed in tents along the Taedong River to finish laying foundations before North Korea's famously brutal winter. In December, when Kim Jong Il died of a heart attack, life in North Korea came to a standstill for official mourning – except at construction sites, where workers went right back to work in sub-zero weather. For months, the drone of hammering filled the air, night and day, amid an all-out push to create what state media call "a socialist fairyland."
It isn't just the buildings that serve the propaganda goals of the world's most closed nation – it is also the process of building itself.
Construction workers are called "soldier builders," a phrase reminiscent of the shock brigades enlisted to rebuild Pyongyang from rubble after the Korean War of the 1950s, and to renovate the capital in the late 1960s. The brigades were organized as military battalions and their members dubbed "warriors," according to a dictionary of North Korean terms compiled by the Yonhap news agency in South Korea.
It is this era during Kim Il Sung's rule, often portrayed as a glorious time in North Korea's modern history, that its leaders today are trying to evoke. Hand-painted posters at the construction site call on student volunteers to bring back the spirit of the 1960s, and awards in the name of Kim Il Sung have been bestowed on security officers assigned to construction.
University students, who are dubbed "youth heroes" on posters, devoted their summer break to construction, and some kept at it well into the fall and winter – willingly, officials say.
One man in a Mao suit holding a shovel like a rifle sauntered past billboards painted with slogans such as "Dripping with the sweat of loyalty!" Another hauled a cement block in his bare hands – aside from a few Chinese excavators and a Japanese bulldozer, hardly any machinery is available. A handful of workers crouched idly by the side of Chang Jon Street, smoking, despite the signs exhorting them to build "Higher! Faster!"
The success of the construction campaign remains to be seen. North Korea no longer has access to subsidized Soviet oil, technology and materials, and there is concern among analysts that the buildings constructed by hand may crumble in a few years. It is also unclear whether the construction will be done in time for the April festivities.
But in the meantime, there is a crack in the propaganda, at least for now.
The main airport terminal was gutted for renovations months ago, and the huge smiling portrait of Kim Il Sung that typically greets visitors is still missing from the rooftop.
Follow Jean Lee, AP's bureau chief for Pyongyang and Seoul, at twitter.com/newsjean.
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