PYONGYANG: North Korea has been keen to show the world it is taking steps to build its economy, even keeping its advanced missile systems under wraps as it celebrated its 70th founding anniversary.
Foreign journalists were recently taken by the authorities on a tour of a cosmetics factory and farm, which were hailed as examples of the state’s modernisation drive - in spite of international sanctions.
From lotion to soap and other skincare products, more than 300 types of cosmetics are said to be produced at the factory in Pyongyang.
The process is automated and done by machines.
What caught our eye is a section of the sample shop, displaying 138 cosmetic products from brands across the world.
We were told that these products were sent back in 2015, by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, so that the factory would be able to make comparisons and improve their own products.
On a screen, the products were compared based on their effectiveness, user experience and safety; the factory's products shown to be superior in certain areas.
A tour of this factory was one of the items on the itinerary of foreign journalists invited to cover North Korea's 70th founding anniversary - undoubtedly the most technologically advanced plant that Pyongyang has to show and a statement of its leader’s economic ambitions.
"If they don’t develop economically, the society is going to suffer more and that may even happen to the extent that it may destabilise the control the North Korean regime has over its people," said Dr Graham Ong-Webb, Research Fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
"Even in the most authoritarian and totalitarian systems, there’s still a need to deliver economic dividends.
"If the people are going to suffer indefinitely, they may very well choose to revolt and overturn the government, no matter how oppressive the government is. So, North Korea is facing a set of ongoing challenges it has to square off."
The US-based International Council of Korean Studies said that under Kim Jong Un’s leadership, North Korea was increasingly more tolerant of the co-existence of the state-planned and informal market system.
Despite unprecedented international sanctions, it is placing even greater emphasis on economic developments.
“With the modernisation, it is not to increase exports. We are doing modernisation in order to achieve our people’s well-being, in order to make our people look more beautiful and brighter and to provide our people with enough products," said Ms Lee Seon Hee who is the chief engineer of the cosmetics factory.
Journalists were also taken to a farm on the outskirts of Pyongyang, where we were shown solar panels used for electricity, as well as a kindergarten for workers’ children.
The authorities emphasised the place was a model for other farms in the country; and has been visited by the North Korean leader.
Kim Jong Un inherited an economy starkly different from conditions in the 1990s when his father, Kim Jong Il, took power.
The country then was in crisis, the result of severe famine when up to two million people were estimated to have died.
By the time Kim Jong Un succeeded his father in 2011, the economy had largely recovered.
The system also went through a series of internal adjustments that eventually led to a greater tolerance of an informal market system alongside state enterprises and government ministries.
“The most challenging part is when we are behind compared to our competitors. This farm was visited by the great leader, so we feel that we must produce more than others," said Ms Ri Hye Young who has been working at the farm for the last 14 years.
"We benefit greatly from working here," she added.
But as with most places the foreign media visited, the tours were closely supervised.
The farm was seemingly empty except for the few farmers we were allowed to interview.
When we asked where the other farmers were, we were told they were at work.
“There is a front they want to portray to the rest of the world, to tell the international community they are standing firmly on their feet, that they are a resilient people and they are actually doing better than we give them credit for. That the economy is not about to tumble and the people are prospering, so they show that front," said Dr Ong-Webb.
"Then there’s the other front for the people who know North Korea, who are on the ground, that there is a very harsh reality at play where people are really feeling the consequences right now of the global sanctions."
While North Korea’s resilience in the face of severe international sanctions has defied expectations, the reality remains that it is still an underdeveloped nation.
But analysts say a stronger desire to upgrade and prosper may be something that could persuade the country to eventually meet the demands of the international community.
Catch Days in Pyongyang, Thursday Oct 11, 9.30pm SIN/HK on Channel NewsAsia.