North Korea Confidential: Private Markets, Fashion Trends, Prison Camps, Dissenters and Defectors
Tuttle, $19.95, 192 pages, ISBN 9780804844581
Taking in regular reports about North Korea’s bellicosity, bizarre leaders, and extremely isolated, eccentric population, it is easy to form an impression of the country that borders on parody. It can look like the last bastion of Soviet communism, left-wing social engineering mixed with Mafia morality, the sort of country that would be comical if it weren’t armed to the teeth.
Daniel Tudor and James Pearson, who between them have a wealth of academic qualifications and journalistic experience, can understand why people would dismiss North Korea as a basket case or laughingstock, but they argue that the real story is much more complex. They are not predicting radical political change in North Korea at any time soon, but they uncover reasons for hope as well.
It is difficult to remember that for several decades after the Korean War the two countries of the peninsula were fairly comparable in terms of economic standards. North Korea held itself out to the world, and to its people, as an example of the benefits of socialist planning and self-reliance—although the country’s leaders tended to skip over the point that both China and the USSR provided massive amounts of aid.
But in the 1970s South Korea began to leap ahead, especially after it transformed itself into a rambunctious democracy. The collapse of the Soviet Union was another blow to North Korea, although it continued to extract aid from China and, later, from the West. But the real turning point was the famine of the 1990s, an event created by failures of government policy as much as bad weather. What food there was went to the military and to Party members; there was a real chance that the rest of the population would starve. Many people did, and no one knows the real number.
Tudor and Pearson believe that the famine created space for market forces, and showed the North Korean people that they could not depend on the state. The black market had existed in the back alleys for a long time, and it was the only thing in the country that worked. Now it burst into the open. In particular, Chinese living in North Korea, long a disdained minority, became crucial because of their ability to cross the border. They began to accrue capital, which they used to expand their operations. Smuggling became, if not exactly legal, then at least legitimate.
For its part, the government at least had the sense to realize that shutting down unofficial trade, and the street-corner stalls that began to appear, would drive the economy over a cliff. This amounted to an admission that socialism had failed, but the government continued (and still does) to proclaim the triumph of the system and its own infallibility.
As the economy began to recover, the people at key positions in the government and Party apparatus started to realize that they could enrich themselves by granting, or threatening to withhold, necessary pieces of paper —or by simply changing the rules to give themselves a strategic advantage. This should not be surprising, since the 6,000 won a civil servant earns each month is equivalent to the cost of a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. Government employees can pay a fee to be excused from work to “engage in private business.”
This reveals something fundamental, something beyond North Korea: the market always wins. Eventually. Somehow, legally or illegally. The market instinct can be suppressed for a while, even for decades, but it seems to be hardwired into human DNA. Once the first serious cracks in a socialist structure appear, there is no way back. This is the story that Tudor and Pearson find: a slow but steadily increasing deterioration of state control, at least in the economic sphere.
Women have led the way in grass-roots capitalism, partly because men are allocated jobs in state-run offices or factories. Everything from food to SIM cards is available from stalls, and there is particularly strong trade in South Korean movies, music, and television shows on USB sticks. Cosmetics for women, usually from China, are readily available, and Tudor and Pearson take a look at the fashion for black jeans (blue jeans are seen as too American, a line that most North Koreans are not yet ready to cross). Some tailors have begun to specialize in copies of clothes worn by South Korean celebrities, as well as fakes of Western brands.
The trading city of Chongjin has turned into the fashion capital, specializing in receiving 100-kilogram bundles of mixed clothes from Japan. These are often second-hand, but they are highly prized, and women seem to be developing something like a distinct North Korean style. No one would call it sexy, but that it exists at all shows the degree to which people are pushing at the limits of what is officially acceptable.
Female entrepreneurs have also discovered another way to make money: renting out rooms in their houses to courting couples for a few hours at a time. It sounds almost quaint, although it is the sort of thing that gradually undermines the idea of government oversight of every aspect of people’s lives.
The government occasionally tries to stop all this, but you get the feeling that its interventions are increasingly half-hearted. Crackdowns are usually couched in terms of stopping foreign influence, but they often turn into organized bribe-seeking. Foreign currencies are preferred, of course. There is much the same story at the judicial level; not every decision can be bought, but many can be.
For those who run afoul of the system and cannot buy their way out, however, there are very harsh penalties. The government maintains an extensive network of gruesome prison camps, where conditions are appalling. It is not uncommon for prisoners to starve to death. In the case of political dissidents, family members are often jailed as well, apparently because the government believes that dissent is a sort of biological defect that runs in families. The political prisons are run by the State Security Department, which has no restrictions on its power. Prisoners of the SSD effectively cease to exist.
This peculiar mix of Stalinist punishment and acquiescence to market forces raises the question as to who is actually in charge. Tudor and Pearson acknowledge that it is hard to see what is really going on, but by piecing together public statements and accounts of defectors they reach the conclusion that there is no single individual in total control. Kim Jong-un is technically at the pinnacle, although in practice he requires the support of a range of relatives and longstanding allies. But the shadowy Organization and Guidance Department also holds critical cards in the power game, and there are people in the military and security agencies as well. It seems to be a labyrinthine, shifting coalition of interests, some commercial and some ideological. Most of the maneuvering takes place off-stage, although there are occasional public and destabilizing events, such as the execution of Jang Song-thaek, Kim’s uncle. (It is significant that there is no agreement as to who was responsible for it.)
There appears to be considerable support and affection for Kim at the public level, although this would probably not be enough to save him if he were seriously to alienate the elite groups. But the Kim family is good at this game, having long played a combination of divide and conquer, payoffs, promises, and bluffing. And the leaders of the regime are enjoying the benefits of corruption too much to contemplate suicidal military attacks on South Korea or even the United States, though they understand the tactical advantages of confected belligerence.
Tudor and Pearson examine the issue of political control closely, and argue that the government is a long way from collapse, despite financial and ideological bankruptcy. The bottom line is that the leaders of the party have accepted marketization as the price of economic survival. Equally, the rising class of traders and business manipulators show signs of wanting to join the power structure rather than bring it down.
Neither does there seem to be any interest in attacking the government from below. Most people appear to be willing to accept the political order as long as there is the possibility of slowly rising living standards. Yes, there is a contradiction between the regime’s socialist, xenophobic language and the reality that can be seen on any street, but that same contradiction exists in China, and has for several decades. This simply seems to be what happens with socialist regimes: At some point, everyone stops believing, and so the tension evaporates.
Tudor and Pearson discuss the options for the future of North Korea, and see the most likely outcome to be the continuing penetration of market forces into the economy, increasing trade, and slowly improving communications with the rest of the world. It might not be the dramatic end game some in the West want to see, but at least it offers a path forward.