Kim Jong Un’s penthouses are mostly for the unfortunate few

For people in many countries, living in a penthouse is the dream. In North Korea? Not really.

Leader Kim Jong Un continues to build glamorous exterior high-rise apartment buildings in the capital, Pyongyang, with the latest being an 80-storey skyscraper completed this week.

But defectors and other North Koreans say unreliable elevators and electricity, poor water supplies and labor concerns mean that historically few people have wanted to live near the top of these structures.

“In North Korea, the poor live in penthouses rather than the rich, because elevators often don’t work properly and they can’t pump water due to low pressure,” said Jung Si-woo, a 31-year-old man who defected. to neighboring South Korea in 2017.

In the North, he lived on the third floor of a 13-story building with no elevator, while a friend who lived on the 28th floor of a 40-story building had never used the elevator because it did not work, Jung said.

Asked about the new 80-story skyscraper opening this week, Jung said he thought Kim was just showing off.

“It’s to show how much their building skills have improved, rather than considering residents’ preferences,” the college student said.

North Korea allocates housing, with the buying and selling of houses or apartments being technically illegal in the socialist state.

But experts say the practice has become commonplace, practiced mostly by those who benefited from the spread of private markets under Kim. He is committed to improving construction quality and building tens of thousands of new apartments.

Its economy has been hammered by self-imposed border closures against Covid-19, natural disasters and international sanctions for its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, which the United States says divert limited resources from meeting the needs of the population.

On Wednesday, state media said the first 10,000 new apartments had been completed in Pyongyang, out of a target of 50,000, and touted the speed of their completion, including the 80-story skyscraper.

Workers “guarantee the quality of construction” and new apartments and other buildings for use in education, public health and social care services would further contribute to making the capital a city “first for people,” the official KCNA news agency said.

On Thursday, state media showed Kim inaugurating another housing cluster, this time for members of the elite, including a famous TV presenter.

People walk past high-rise condominium buildings in Pyongyang earlier this week.Kyodo via AP Images

These were low-rise buildings, each only a few stories tall.

The power supply has improved dramatically under Kim, creating new nightlife opportunities, but North Korea still struggles with shortages and sometimes shoddy infrastructure.

Many have turned to individual solar panels for periods without electricity. This has resulted in a rash of small consumer electronics, but cannot power equipment such as elevators and water supply.

Lee Sang-yong, editor of the Daily NK, a Seoul-based website that reports on North Korea, said his sources had reported that apartments for ordinary people were not ready to live.

The windows had only frames and the water taps, although installed, did not work, but the recently completed luxury houses are equipped with furniture and utensils.

To ensure new high-rise apartments are popular, North Korea will need to further improve electricity and water supplies and overcome concerns about construction quality, he added.

Jung said that when he lived in Pyongyang, most elevators operated only twice a day, during peak hours from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m., and at the same time in the evening.

Low water pressure often forced people living on higher floors to haul water upstairs from ground level or install their own special pumps, he added.

During the government’s last major international media tour, in 2018, elevators were working at the 47-story Yanggakdo International Hotel, but there was no electricity on dozens of floors where northern staff were staying. -Korean.

At the time, two North Korean officials admitted to Reuters that the upper levels of the skyscrapers of one of Kim’s recently opened pet building projects on Mirae Scientists Street had few takers, in because of concerns about elevators.

“Nobody wants to risk having to climb for an hour,” said one.

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