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.
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…