Why Pyongyang is using gleaming skyscrapers to show 'potential of socialist Korea'

They appeared at the far end of the empty streets: columns of thousands of people, all converging on a freshly paved stretch of road in central Pyongyang. This is the opening of Ryomyong Street — a major development project constructed in less than a year, and one meant to show North Korea's economic strength.

'That is scarier than the explosion of hundreds of nuclear bombs above the enemies' heads,' official says

Thousands of people appear on Ryomyong Street to mark the opening of a newly built residential complex in Pyongyang, North Korea on April 13, 2017. (Sasa Petricic/CBC)

They appeared at the far end of the empty streets: columns of thousands of people, all converging on a freshly paved stretch of road in central Pyongyang.

As the crowd met under a huge portrait of North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un, the choreography was perfect. But the people also seemed genuinely enthusiastic about their role in this message to Washington and most of the world.

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Before the crowd was a road lined with about 30 colourful, modern skyscrapers, built in record time, despite the tough economic sanctions championed by the U.S. and imposed by the United Nations.

The complex, home to about 30 gleaming skyscrapers, was constructed in less than a year — an accomplishment aimed at showing that North Korea still boasts some economic strength despite heavy international sanctions. (Sasa Petricic/CBC)

This is Ryomyong Street — or the street of the rising sun — a major development project in Pyongyang that was constructed in less than a year.

A number of foreign journalists are in North Korea this week, part of the run-up to Saturday's 105th anniversary of the birth of national founder Kim Il-sung — the country's most important holiday.

After being woken up at dawn by the government representative coordinating CBC's visit to Pyongyang, reporters spent the morning undergoing security checks and waiting for this grand ribbon-cutting ceremony.

"We did it," said one man, who, like everyone here, wears a portrait of Kim on his lapel. "I am very proud of the North Korean people and our leader Kim Jong-un, for being strong-willed, for standing up to Washington."

'Significant, great event'

The country's enemies have accused Pyongyang of using devious means to circumvent the sanctions that have been in place for more than a decade: mysterious shell-companies in China and tricks to fool the global banking system.

Of course, the sanctions weren't meant to stop the regime in Pyongyang from building residential towers.

They were aimed at preventing North Korea from developing nuclear weapons and missiles. And blocking it from carrying out Kim Jong-un's threat to bomb the United States.

North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un did not speak during Thursday's ribbon-cutting ceremony. But he sat on stage during the event, clapping intermittently. (Sasa Petricic/CBC)

This is a country that considers itself a target of American and South Korean plans for imminent invasion — despite assurances to the contrary.

And every challenge North Korea faces is seen as an epic battle these days.

"Truly, the construction of Ryomyong Street is a significant, great event," said Prime Minister Pak Pong-ju in a speech at Thursday's ribbon-cutting ceremony. "It shows the potential of socialist Korea. And that is scarier than the explosion of hundreds of nuclear bombs above the enemies' heads."

As he said this, Kim Jong-un smiled and clapped on the stage. The crowd cheered.

North Koreans cheer during the opening ceremony for the newly built residential complex on Ryomyong Street. Bobbing balloons, flapping flags and plastic flowers were common sights during Thursday's event. (Sasa Petricic/CBC)

Many here see development as the best answer to what they consider reckless moves by U.S. President Donald Trump, who has, most recently, ordered a naval strike group led by an aircraft carrier to take position in the area.

Trump has also refused to rule out a pre-emptive strike on North Korea.

"They [can] manoeuvre, if they want," said Kim Bun Hui, one of those cheering in the crowd today. "But we don't mind, we just move forward."

6th nuclear test could be coming

North Korea has also made its own threatening moves. It has continued to build and test missiles. And observers say it seems to be making preparations for its sixth underground nuclear explosion, possibly in a matter of days.

These tests have been getting progressively stronger, the most recent possibly being more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan during the Second World War.

North Korea still has work to do to make its nuclear devices small enough to fit onto a missile, experts say, but some have also been surprised by the quick progress the country has made so far.

A North Korean soldier looks out on a crowd of thousands during Thursday's celebration, which was described by the country's prime minister as a 'significant, great event.' (Sasa Petricic/CBC)

Pyongyang believes that only by possessing nuclear weapons would North Korea be safe from attacks like the one on Syria last week by the U.S.

Foreign Ministry sources here, quoted by the state news agency KCNA, said that Washington's "intolerable act of aggression … proves a million times over" that a North Korean weapons program is prudent.

North Koreans have paid a price for that. Despite the defiant tone, sanctions have made it much harder to get foreign-made products and parts. Few North Koreans can travel abroad.

And Kim Jong-un has been accused of systemically cracking down on his opponents, including those who blame his single-minded obsession with weapons development for keeping the country bankrupt.

Even Pyongyang's traditional ally, China, has been losing patience. Beijing says it has stopped coal imports from North Korea, depriving the country of much-needed income.

But for the thousands marvelling at Pyongyang's shiny new towers along Ryomyong Street, relishing the idea of making Washington back down, today's taste of defiance was sweet.


Saša Petricic

Senior Correspondent

Saša Petricic is a Senior Correspondent for CBC News, specializing in international coverage. He has spent the past decade reporting from abroad, most recently in Beijing as CBC's Asia Correspondent, focusing on China, Hong Kong, and North and South Korea. Before that, he covered the Middle East from Jerusalem through the Arab Spring and wars in Syria, Gaza and Libya. Over more than 30 years, he has filed stories from every continent.