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3 North Korea turns back the
clock By Andrei Lankov
Last Thursday in Seoul, the influential
opposition daily newspaper Chosun Ilbo published a
government document that outlined the plans for
South Korean aid to be shipped to North Korea in
the next financial year. In spite of the nuclear
test in October and a series of missile launches
last summer, the amount sent to Pyongyang this
year was record-breaking - nearly US$800 million.
If the document is to be believed, the target for
the next year is set at an even higher level of 1
trillion won (about $910 million).
generosity might appear strange, since technically
Koreas are still at war.
However, it has long been an open secret that this
is not the war the South wants to win, at least
any time soon. The Seoul politicians do not want
to provoke Pyongyang into dangerous confrontation,
and they would be unhappy to deal with the
consequences of a sudden collapse of Kim Jong-il's
dictatorship. Now South Korea wants a slow
transformation of the North, and is ready to
shower it with aid and unilateral concessions.
Many optimists in Seoul believe this
generosity will persuade Pyongyang leaders to
launch Chinese-style reforms. However, so far no
significant reforms have happened. On the
contrary, news emanating from the North since late
2004 seems to indicate that the government is now
working hard to turn the clock back, to revive the
system that existed until the early 1990s and then
collapsed under the manifold pressures of famine
and social disruption.
Signs of this
ongoing backlash are many. There were attempts to
revive the travel-permission system that forbids
all North Koreans to leave their native counties
without police permission. Occasional crackdowns
have taken place at the markets. There were some
attempts to re-establish control over the porous
border with China.
Finally, in October
2005 it was stated that North Korea would revive
the Public Distribution System, under which all
major food items were distributed by state.
Private trade in grain was prohibited, so nowadays
the only legitimate way to buy grain, by far the
most important source of calories in North
Koreans' diet, is by presenting food coupons in a
state-run shop. It is open to question to what
extent this ban is enforced. So far, reports from
northern provinces seem to indicate that private
dealing in grain still takes place, but on a
From early this month
people in northern provinces are allowed to trade
at the markets only as long as an aspiring vendor
can produce a certificate that states that he or
she is not a primary breadwinner of the household
but a dependant, normally eligible to some 250
grams of daily grain ration (the breadwinners are
given 534 grams daily). It is again assumed that
all able-bodied males should attend a "proper"
job, that is, to be employees of the government
sector and show up for work regularly.
the past few years the economic situation in North
Korea was improving - largely because of large
infusions of foreign aid. If so, why are the North
Korean leaders so bent on re-Stalinizing their
country, instead of emulating the Chinese reform
policy that has been so tremendously successful?
After all, the Mercedes-riding Chinese bureaucrats
of our days are much better off than their
predecessors used to be 30 years ago, and the
affluence of common Chinese in 2006 probably has
no parallels in the nation's long history.
The Chinese success story is well known to
Kim Jong-il and his close entourage, but Pyongyang
leaders choose not to emulate China. This is not
because they are narrow-minded or paranoid. The
Chinese-style transformation might indeed be too
risky for them, since the Pyongyang ruling elite
has to deal with a challenge unlike anything their
Chinese peers ever faced - the existence of
"another Korea", the free and prosperous South.
The Chinese commoners realize that they
have not much choice but to be patient and feel
thankful for a steady improvement of living
standards under the Communist Party dictatorship.
In North Korea the situation is different. If
North Koreans learn about the actual size of the
gap in living standards between them and their
cousins in the South, and if they become less
certain that any act of defiance will be punished
swiftly and brutally, what will prevent them from
emulating East Germans and rebelling against the
government and demanding immediate unification?
Of course, it is possible that North
Korean leaders will somehow manage to stay on top,
but the risks are too high, and Pyongyang's elite
do not want to gamble. If reforms undermine
stability and produce a revolution, the current
North Korean leaders will lose everything. Hence
their best bet is to keep the situation under
control and avoid all change.
early 2000s the major constraint in their policy
was the exceptional weakness of their own economy.
For all practical purposes, North Korea's industry
collapsed in 1990-95, and its Soviet-style
collective agriculture produces merely 65-80% of
the food necessary to keep the population alive.
Since the state had no resources to pay for
surveillance and control, officials were happy to
accept bribes and overlook numerous
However, in recent years
the situation changed. Pyongyang is receiving
sufficient aid from South Korea and China, two
countries that are most afraid of a North Korean
collapse. The nuclear program also probably makes
North Korean leaders more confident about their
ability to resist foreign pressure and, if
necessary, to squeeze more aid from foes and
friends (well, strictly speaking, they do not have
With this aid and new sense
of relative security, the North Korean regime can
prevent mass famine and restart some essential
parts of the old system, with the
food-distribution system being its cornerstone.
This is a step toward an ideal of Kim Jong-il and
his people, to a system where all able-bodied
Koreans go to a state-managed job and spend the
entire day there, being constantly watched and
indoctrinated by a small army of propagandists,
police informers, party officials, security
officers and the like.
contacts with the dangerous outside world would be
permitted, and no unauthorized social or
commercial activity would happen under such
system. Neither Kim nor his close associates are
fools; they know perfectly well that such a system
is not efficient, but they also know that only
under such system can their privileges and
security be guaranteed.
This is a sad
paradox: aid that is often presented as a
potential incentive for market-oriented reforms is
actually the major reason