Pyongyang Downsized

North Korea has halved the size of the Pyongyang administrative area and handed some southern parts over to a provincial government, the Unification Ministry said on Monday.

With the areas incorporated into North Hwanghae Province, the capital has shrunk to about half its size of 2,630 sq. km and lost some 500,000 of its 3 million population.

Nampo has been turned into a special city. Administrative areas increased from 11 to 12, with Pyongyang under the direct control of the central government, two special cities (Rajin-Songbong and Nampo) and nine provinces, according to the ministry.

"North Korea probably had economic difficulties maintaining the special privileges of Pyongyang residents," a government source said. The North's rationing system has almost completely collapsed elsewhere, but the 3 million residents of Pyongyang and its 1.19 million troops still receive food rations. The remaining 20 million are believed to depend on open-air markets for food, a senior government official said recently.

This airbrushed nighttime view of downtown Pyongyang released Friday by the [North] Korean Central News Agency seems to paradoxically highlight the city's economic difficulties. /Xinhua-Newsis

- Food Shortage

North Korea watchers like Cho Young-ki of Korea University believe there is a close relationship between the food shortage and the reduction of Pyongyang. According to the South Korean government, North Korea needs 5 million tons of food annually but is short by more than a million tons a year.

In the past it made up for that shortfall with aid from South Korea and the U.S., but since the launch of the Lee Myung-bak administration aid shipments of around 400,000 tons of food have stopped, and the U.S. has also sent no food since 2008 citing a lack of transparency in distribution.

A high-ranking government official said, "Until last year North Korea overcame the food shortage by tapping into some of its rice reserves, but even this appears difficult this year." North Korea is under pressure to live up to a target to become a "powerful and prosperous nation" by 2012.

At present, the vast majority of North Koreans get their food from open-air markets, but Pyongyang residents rely on rations. "The downsizing of Pyongyang is evidence that North Korea is unable to feed the 2.6-3 million residents of the city," a North Korean defector said.

- Administrative Change

Some experts believe Pyongyang was downsized to allow more effective management of the sprawling city, whose area is four times the size of Seoul's 606 sq. km. "It looks like residents on the outskirts of Pyongyang, who are not considered part of the core class, have been dumped," said a source familiar with North Korean affairs. A defector from Pyongyang said, "The four areas that have been separated from Pyongyang are virtually farm areas and Kim Jong-il has nothing to lose from cutting them out."

- Capital Elite

Pyongyang residents enjoy various perks. According to North Korean defectors, a person with a residence permit in Pyongyang is free to travel throughout neighboring regions while residents elsewhere need travel permits to visit Pyongyang. Only broadcasts of the North's Korean Central Television can be watched outside Pyongyang, but in the capital, residents can see three channels.

Pyongyang residents also get more electricity. A government source said, "Pyongyang residents continued to receive food rations even at the height of the famine in the late 1990s" when more than a million people starved to death.

englishnews@chosun.com / Feb. 15, 2011 12:22 KST