Despite sanctions and isolation, Pyongyang skyline grows

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Pyongyang skyline growing
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Despite sanctions and isolation, Pyongyang skyline grows
Morning fog blankets central Pyongyang, North Korea May 7, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
Solar panels are installed on residential buildings in central Pyongyang, North Korea May 7, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
Newly built buildings of Mirae Scientists Street are seen on the banks of Taedong River in central Pyongyang, North Korea May 7, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
The 105-storey Ryugyong Hotel, the highest building under construction in North Korea, is seen behind central Pyongyang, North Korea May 7, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
A construction crane is seen on the tall building as morning fog blankets Pyongyang, North Korea May 5, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
The 170-metre (558-feet) tall Juche Tower is reflected in Taedong River as morning fog blankets Pyongyang, North Korea May 5, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A view of the completed Mirae Scientists Street, in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang on October 21, 2015.REUTERS/KCNA ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. SOUTH KOREA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN SOUTH KOREA
The 105-storey Ryugyong Hotel, the highest building under construction in North Korea, is seen behind residential buildings in Pyongyang, North Korea, early October 9, 2015. North Korea is getting ready to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of its ruling Workers' Party of Korea on October 10. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj REUTERS/Damir Sagolj TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
The 170-metre (558-feet) tall Juche Tower is reflected in Taedong River as morning fog blankets Pyongyang, North Korea May 5, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
Military vehicles line up on banks of Taedong River before the start of a parade celebrating the 70th anniversary of the founding of its ruling Workers' Party of Korea, in Pyongyang, North Korea October 10, 2015. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
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PYONGYANG, May 5 (Reuters) - The Pyongyang skyline is rising - and not just with the trophy structures that represent the North Korean state. Despite its political and economic isolation, the capital is in the midst of a building boom.

In a comparison of photos taken by Reuters this week and on a visit to Pyongyang last October, several new high-rises of 20 or more stories have appeared in the capital, some appearing near completion.

SEE ALSO: 'Feel the love': Children dance for world's press before N.Korean congress

The construction, mostly of what look to be apartments, is despite tightened U.N. sanctions against isolated North Korea for pursuing nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.

It is further evidence of the rising role of a market economy that has yet to be fully recognized by the government but is changing the landscape and improving the lives of people, at least in some parts of a country that remains mostly poor.

More than a dozen workers secured by harnesses on suspended platforms could be seen this week applying tile to the rough-looking concrete exterior of a low-rise building, as the capital prepared for its first ruling party congress in 36 years.

Related: Inside a foreign press visit to a North Korean electric factory:

22 PHOTOS
North Korea factory workers, foreign press visit
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Despite sanctions and isolation, Pyongyang skyline grows
Officials accompanying foreign reporters stand near a rocket themed marry-go-around at kindergarden of a factory reporters visit on a government organised tour in central Pyongyang, North Korea May 9, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Workers are photographed during a government organised visit for foreign reporters to the Pyongyang 326 Electric Cable Factory in Pyongyang, North Korea May 6, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
Workers are photographed during a government organised visit for foreign reporters to the Pyongyang 326 Electric Cable Factory in Pyongyang, North Korea May 6, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
A man looks from behind large wheels with cables during a government organised visit for foreign reporters to the Pyongyang 326 Electric Cable Factory in Pyongyang, North Korea May 6, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
Workers are photographed during a government organised visit for foreign reporters to the Pyongyang 326 Electric Cable Factory in Pyongyang, North Korea May 6, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
Workers are photographed during a government organised visit for foreign reporters to the Pyongyang 326 Electric Cable Factory in Pyongyang, North Korea May 6, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
A propaganda poster is seen above officials and foreign reporters during a government organised visit to the Pyongyang 326 Electric Cable Factory in Pyongyang, North Korea May 6, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
Workers chat during a government organised visit for foreign reporters to the Pyongyang 326 Electric Cable Factory in Pyongyang, North Korea May 6, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A woman is having her hair done during a government organised visit for foreign reporters to the Pyongyang 326 Electric Cable Factory in Pyongyang, North Korea May 6, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A worker works on a machine during a government organised visit for foreign reporters to the Pyongyang 326 Electric Cable Factory in Pyongyang, North Korea May 6, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A worker stands behind a machine during a government organised visit for foreign reporters to the Pyongyang 326 Electric Cable Factory in Pyongyang, North Korea May 6, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
Officials and foreign reporters stand in front of a propaganda poster during a government organised visit to the Pyongyang 326 Electric Cable Factory in Pyongyang, North Korea May 6, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
A worker is photographed in front of propaganda poster during a government organised visit for foreign reporters to the Pyongyang 326 Electric Cable Factory in Pyongyang, North Korea May 6, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
A worker stands behind a machine during a government organised visit for foreign reporters to the Pyongyang 326 Electric Cable Factory in Pyongyang, North Korea May 6, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
Workers are filmed during a government organised visit for foreign reporters to the Pyongyang 326 Electric Cable Factory in Pyongyang, North Korea May 6, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
A government official stands behind a booth with a workers during a government organised visit for foreign reporters to the Pyongyang 326 Electric Cable Factory in Pyongyang, North Korea May 6, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
Government officials accompany foreign reporters on a government organised visit to the Pyongyang 326 Electric Cable Factory in Pyongyang, North Korea May 6, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
A woman is filmed having her hair done during a government organised visit for foreign reporters to the Pyongyang 326 Electric Cable Factory in Pyongyang, North Korea May 6, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
Workers are photographed during a government organised visit for foreign reporters to the Pyongyang 326 Electric Cable Factory in Pyongyang, North Korea May 6, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
A worker is photographed during a government organised visit for foreign reporters to the Pyongyang 326 Electric Cable Factory in Pyongyang, North Korea May 6, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
A worker sits in a booth as foreign reporters film on a government organised tour to the Pyongyang 326 Electric Cable Factory in Pyongyang, North Korea May 6, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
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North Korea has invited foreign journalists to cover the event, but government guides restrict their movements or whom they can speak with.

Large yellow cranes could be seen jutting from the tops of taller, unfinished blocks. Red flags mark top floors.

The skyline is also getting brighter.

Thanks to a surge in private solar panel use and cheap, locally-made LED bulbs, once-dim apartment windows glow, although they are still all-but drowned out by the brightly lit statues and portraits dedicated to the ruling Kim family.

The cash behind the construction comes from North Korea's version of public-private partnership.

Local investors known as "donju," or "masters of money," who have earned wealth in North Korea's growing market economy, invest jointly with the state in apartment construction.

Apartment blocks in North Korea are often assigned by profession, with groups such as teachers, workers, or scientists and their families under the same roof. But a growing private trade in property and more private investors means that, as elsewhere, the best locations go to the highest bidder.

"From the perspective of the state, it's good - they can tell their people that their living standards have improved," said Lim Eul-chul, a North Korea expert at Kyungnam University in South Korea.

"Meanwhile, individual capitalists can get their apartment units after construction."

N. Korea: Realities of Life Hidden

"ENERGETIC LEADERSHIP"

The market economy appears to be growing, based on the rising number of cars on Pyongyang streets and consumer goods in shops, despite increasing isolation and the U.N. sanctions that were tightened in March following the country's fourth nuclear test in January.

At the first congress of the ruling Workers' Party since 1980, which is set to kick off on Friday, leader Kim Jong Un is expected to formally adopt his "Byongjin" policy of simultaneous pursuit of nuclear weapons and economic growth.

"Under the energetic leadership of Marshal Kim Jong Un, there's been a lot more construction in Pyongyang," said Kang Song Hui, a Pyongyang resident and guide at a children's center, invoking the leader's name as is customary when speaking to foreign journalists.

Many of the workers in the building boom are from North Korea's million-man army, with "soldier-builders" mobilized for construction and spending more time with shovels than Kalashnikovs.

They work with little modern machinery, and deadly collapses have been known to occur. In May 2014, state media reported on a rare public apology from the authorities after an apartment building collapsed, possibly killing hundreds.

A similar collapse was reported by South Korean media last month, although that has not been independently confirmed.

Bright red Chinese-made dump trucks could be seen this week ferrying rubble between building sites.

North Korean state media often touts showpiece construction projects, such as the new terminal at Pyongyang's airport or model housing sites.

The new apartment blocks rising in Pyongyang appear more grounded in economic reality than the gargantuan Ryugyong hotel, which looms over Pyongyang and has never been completed.

The 105-story pyramid-shaped structure was a barren shell for years until Egypt's Orascom was persuaded to pay for a shiny glass coating as part of a 2008 deal to set up a mobile phone network in the country.

The hotel has yet to open.

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