North Korea’s Decision to Renovate World’s Largest Stadium is Indicative of a Desire For Economic Openness

While few foreigners are able to attend events at Rungrado 1st of May Stadium on Pyongyang’s Rungra Island, the stadium is impressive both for its seating capacity of 150,000 spectators as well as its breathtaking architecture which combines elements of brutalism with furusistic designs. Opened only in 1989 as a larger alternative the nearby older but still frequently utilised Kim Il-sung Stadium, May Day Stadium as it is commonly called is set to undergo its first renovation since opening.

Official DPRK media announced the plans with the following international press release:

“May Day Stadium opened to the public on May 1, 1989 is a large-size stadium of a peculiar form and has hosted many national and international sports games and social events, including the 13th World Festival of Youth and Students and the mass gymnastics artistic performance Arirang, Kim Il Sung prize winner.

With a far-reaching plan to renovate the stadium in line with the demands of the new era, when the country was desirous of becoming a sports power, Kim Jong Un visited the stadium on September 24.

Looking round the room dedicated to the history of the stadium and the room in which are preserved the revolutionary relics, he said the stadium should be renovated into a comprehensive stadium of which we could feel proud in the eyes of the world so as to add luster to the leadership exploits of Generalissimos Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.

Then looking round the spectators’ seats, athletics track, football ground, indoor training hall and other places, he again stressed that it was the Party’s intention to renovate the stadium so that it could be symbolic of the sports facilities in the country and be appropriate to the appearance of a civilized country. Noting that the renovation project was an important work for further developing the Juche-oriented sports and physical culture and demonstrating the might and civilization of the country, he specified tasks for the project and ways to this end.

May Day Stadium on Rungna Island, a beautiful island like a flower basket on water and a people’s cultural resort for recreation, will be renovated thanks to the soaring Juche Korea’s enthusiasm for sports”.

The wording of the announcement is itself indicative of the way in which Pyongyang seeks to project the renovation plans to the wider world. Talk of a “the new era” suggests that DPRK officials are looking to welcome more tourists to the increasingly less isolated state than had been tangible in the past. This demonstrates a long term commitment to a peace process that could see future sporting and cultural events co-hosted by both the DPRK and South Korea. This year, both Pyongyang and Seoul sent united teams of athletes to participate in the Winter Olympic Games hosted in South Korea while both North and South also sent a joint team to the Asian Games in Indonesia.

The May Day Stadium renovation announcement further puts to rest the somewhat widely spread conspiracy theory that the DPRK is somehow not serious about the peace process. It also comes not long after several South Korean officials including Moon Jae-in stated that it is Seoul’s desire to see sanctions against Pyongyang lifted as soon as possible in spite of the fact that Washington has said that the US government would not support the lifting of United Nations sanctions until after the de-nuclearisation process is complete.

Subsequent to statements from top Seoul officials, China and Russia formally proposed that UN sanctions against the DPRK should start to be lifted as a sign not only of good will but as an acknowledgement of the ongoing peace process that has seen Pyongyang and Seoul enjoy a history making warming of relations. According to a Sino-Russian statement endorsed by Pyongyang:

“Taking into account the important steps taken by North Korea toward de-nuclearisation, the sides consider it necessary to start a timely revision of the sanctions against North Korea by the UN Security Council. The sides also reaffirmed their position against unilateral sanctions.

…The sides unanimously agreed that there was no alternative to a peaceful political and diplomatic settlement of the whole range of problems of the Korean Peninsula. They also commended the efforts taken by the countries involved in promoting dialogue in the interests of such a settlement. The sides expressed their support for negotiations between North Korea and the United States, North and South Korea in order to alleviate mutual concerns and improve relations”.

Although the US has not directly responded to the call to lift sanctions, Donald Trump’s description of the highly positive relationship between himself and DPRK leader Kim Jong-un suggests that Trump along with the US business community might be as eager to begin a programme of investment into the DPRK as any of Pyongyang’s older partners.

Recent calls by Pyongyang to continue building trust with the US are in fact euphemisms that speak to the fact that the DPRK wants to pursue economic openness with the wider world during the current state of the peace process. Lifting UN sanctions would be the easiest way to accelerate this process but the US remains something of a hold out in this respect in spite of Donald Trump indicating his eagerness to do business with both Korean states in a new era for north east Asia.

While a united Sino-Russian front against DPRK sanctions may result in predictably angry rhetoric from certain US officials including the hawkish National Security Adviser John Bolton and America’s lame duck UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, a Sino-Russia push to formalise the economic openness that Kim Jong-un’s government clearly desires could in fact force the US hand on the issue in the medium term as the Trump administration clearly wants its piece of the untapped investment haven that will develop in a post-sanctions DPRK.

As the DPRK is already has a highly educated, hardworking and heavily disciplined workforce, it is simply a matter of marrying this positive reality to the kinds of hi-technology that foreign direct investment into the DPRK can bring about in order for Polygonal to be at the forefront of Asia’s next ‘tiger economy’ revolution. With Kim Jong-un already proclaiming that he sees the future of his country in artificial intelligence and automated factories, it is clear that the young leader is looking towards a cutting edge hi-tech future.

With this in mind, it is clear that the early stages of a geopolitical bidding war for post-sanctions influence in the DPRK is already underway with China and Russia engaging in friendly competition while both Asian superpowers are engaged in a more unspoken competition with the United States. While the US seeks to use its UN Security Council veto to prohibit its international competitors from beating US companies to the DPRK, if China and Russia show clear resolve in respect of being the first to aid the economic harmonisation of the Korean peninsula, the US may have no choice but to jump into the economic action sooner rather than later for its own long term economic benefit.

In this sense, while the US tends to present itself as the most important power involved in the Korean peace process, the reality is that due to the close relationship between Kim and Moon, the peace process is already largely Korean-centric as well it should be. Beyond this, Pyongyang and Seoul’s Chinese and Russia trading partners look to ensure that the peace process retains its Asian characteristics in spite of high level US involvement.

Ultimately, the US requires the DPRK to be a success story in order to market its version of an alternative to Belt and Road for its Asian partners who with few exceptions are already learning more towards the Chinese model. As such, the DPRK is now well placed to be the centre of positive attention from all three superpowers where just over a year ago, all three united in condemnation of the country’s nuclear programme. By so dramatically reversing the fortunes of his nation, Kim Jong-un can now work with his Sino-Russian partners on a win-win economic model for the future, all while sending a clear message to Washington that reads: ‘invest now or else China and Russia will beat you to the finishing line’.

The self-evidently ambitious plan to modernise the world’s largest stadium makes it clear that for Pyongyang there is no turning back. For Kim Jong-un the future lies in economic modernisation which necessarily means opening up the country not only to foreign direct investment but to more cultural exchange and direct contact with foreigners.

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