PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) — She dances beneath portraits of two smiling dictators, a modern young woman in a central Pyongyang plaza who twirls to music calling on North Koreans to die for their leader.
When she speaks, a torrent of reverence tumbles out for North Korea’s ruling family, as if phrases had been plucked at random from a government newspaper: “The revolution of the Great Leader” … “Laborers trust and venerate Marshal Kim Jong Un.” And as hundreds of students dance behind her in a choreographed display of loyalty, she is adamant about one thing: North Korea, she insists, has no generation gap.
“The spirit of the youth has remained the same as ever!” Ryu Hye Gyong says.
But look more closely — look beyond her words, beyond the propaganda posters on every street, and the radios playing hymns to the ruling family — and the unspoken reality is far more complicated.
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A 19-year-old university student with a confident handshake and carefully styled hair, Ryu lives in a city that today feels awash in change. There are rich people now in Pyongyang, chauffeured in Mercedes even as most citizens of the police state remain mired in poverty. There’s a supermarket selling disposable diapers. On sidewalks where everyone once dressed in drab Maoist conformity, there are young women in not-quite miniskirts and teenage boys with baseball caps cocked sideways, K-pop style.
In this profoundly isolated country, a generational divide is quietly growing.
Here, where rulers have long been worshipped as all-powerful providers, young people have grown to adulthood expecting nothing from the regime. Their lives, from professional aspirations to dating habits, are increasingly shaped by a growing market economy and a quietly thriving underground trade in smuggled TV shows and music. Political fervor is being pushed aside by something else: A fierce belief in the power of money.
Conversations with more than two dozen North Korean refugees, along with scholars, former government officials and activists, make it clear that young people are increasingly unmoored from the powerful ideology the government long ago placed at the center of every life.
“When Kim Jong Un speaks, young people don’t listen,” says Han Song Yi, 24, who left the North in 2014, dreaming of pop-music stardom in the South. “They just pretend to be listening.”