North Korea dragged back to the
past By Andrei Lankov
SEOUL - When people talk about North Korea
these days, they tend to focus on the never-ending
saga of the six-party talks and the country's
supposed de-nuclearization. Domestic changes in
the North, often ignored or overlooked, should
attract more attention.
These changes are
considerable and should not encourage those
optimists who spent years predicting that given
favorable circumstances the North Korean regime
would mend its ways and follow the beneficial
development line of China and Vietnam. Alas, the
recent trend is clear: the North Korean regime is maintaining
counter-offensive against market forces.
Merely five years ago things looked
differently. The decade that followed Kim
Il-sung's death in 1994 was the time of
unprecedented social disruption and economic
disaster culminating in the Great Famine of
1996-99, with its 1 million dead. The old
Stalinist economy of steel mills and coal mines
collapsed once the Soviets discontinued the aid
that alone kept it afloat in earlier decades.
All meaningful economic activity moved to
the booming private markets. The food rationing
system, once unique in its thoroughness and
ubiquity, collapsed, and populace survived through
market activities as well as the "second", or
non-official, economy. The explosive growth of
official corruption meant that many old
restrictions, including a ban on unauthorized
domestic travel, were not enforced any more.
Border control collapsed and a few hundred
thousand refugees fled to China. In other words,
the old Stalinist system imploded, and a new
grassroots capitalism took over.
regime, however, did not approve the changes -
obviously on assumption that these trends would
eventually undermine the government's control.
Authorities staged occasional crackdowns on market
activities, though those crackdowns seldom had any
lasting impact: people had to survive somehow, and
officials were only too willing to ignore the
deviations if they were paid sufficient bribes.
By 2002 it seemed as if the government
itself decided to bow to the pressure. In July
that year, the Industrial Management Improvement
Measures (never called "reforms", since the word
has always been a term of abuse in Pyongyang's
official vocabulary) decriminalized much market
activity and introduced some changes in the
industrial management system - very moderate and
somewhat akin to the half-hearted Soviet "reforms"
of the 1960s and 1970s.
The 2002 measures
were widely hailed overseas as a sign of welcome
changes: many Pyongyang sympathizers, especially
from among the South Korean Left, still believe
that only pressure from the "US imperialists"
prevents Kim Jong-il and his entourage from
embracing Chinese-style reforms. In fact, the 2002
measures were not that revolutionary: with few
exceptions, the government simply gave belated
approval to activities that had been going on for
years and which the regime could not eradicate
(even though it had tried a number of times).
Nonetheless, this was clearly a sign of
government's willingness to accept what it could
However, around 2004 observers
began to notice signs of policy reversal: the
regime began to crack down on the new, dangerously
liberal, activities of its subjects. By 2005, it
became clear: the government wanted to turn the
clock back, restoring the system that existed
before the collapse of the 1990s. In other words,
Kim Jong-il's government spent the recent three of
four years attempting to re-Stalinize the country.
This policy might be ruinous economically,
but politically it makes perfect sense. It seems
that North Korean leaders believe that their
system cannot survive major liberalization. They
might be correct in their pessimism. The country
faces a choice that is unknown to China or
Vietnam, two model nations of the post-Communist
reform. It is the existence of South Korea that
creates the major difference.
or Vietnam, North Korea borders a rich and free
country that speaks the same language and shares
the same culture. The people of China and Vietnam,
though well aware of the West's affluence, do not
see it as directly relevant to their problems: the
United States and Japan surely are rich, but they
are also foreign so their experiences are not
directly relevant. But for the North Koreans, the
comparison with South Korea hurts. Even according
conservative estimates, per capita gross national
income in the South is 17 times the level it is in
the North; to put things in comparison, just
before the Germany's unification, per capita GNI
in West Germany was roughly double that in East
Were North Korea to reform, the
disparities with South Korea would become only
starker to its population. This might produce a
grave political crisis, so the North Korean
government seemingly believes that in order to
stay in control it should avoid any tampering with
the system. Maintaining the information blockade
is of special importance, since access to the
overseas information might easily show the North
Koreans both the backwardness of their country and
the ineptitude of their government.
same time, from around 2002 the amount of foreign
aid began to increase. The South Korean
government, following the so-called Sunshine
policy, began to provide generous and essentially
unmonitored aid to Pyongyang. China did this as
well. Both countries cited humanitarian concerns,
even though it seems that the major driving force
was the desire to avoid a dramatic and perhaps
violent collapse of the North Korean state.
Whatever the reasons, North Korea's
leaders came to assume that their neighbors' aid
would save the country from the worst of famine.
They also assumed that this aid, being delivered
more or less unconditionally, could be quietly
diverted for distribution among the politically
valuable parts of the population - such as the
military or the police, and this would further
increase regime's internal security.
backward movement began. In October 2005,
Pyongyang stated that the Public Distribution
System would be fully re-started, and it outlawed
the sale of grain on the market (the ban has not
been thoroughly enforced, thanks to endemic police
corruption). Soon afterwards, came regulations
prohibited males from trading at markets: the
activities should be left only to the women or
handicapped. The message was clear: able-bodied
people should now go back to where they belong, to
the factories of the old-style Stalinist economy.
There have been crackdowns on mobiles
phones, and the border control was stepped up.
There have been efforts to re-enforce the old
prohibition of unauthorized travel. In short,
using newly available resources, North Korea's
leaders do not rush to reform themselves, but
rather try to turn clock back, restoring the
social structure of the 1980s.
changes indicate that this policy continues. From
December only sufficiently old ladies are allowed
to trade: in order to sell goods at the market a
woman has to be at least 50 years old. This means
that young and middle-aged women are pushed back
to the government factories. Unlike earlier ban on
commercial activity on men, this might have grave
social consequences: since the revival of the
markets in the mid-1990s, women constituted the
vast number of vendors, and in most cases it was
their earnings that made a family's survival
possible while men still chose to attend the idle
factories and other official workplaces.
Other measures aim at reducing
opportunities for market trade. In December, the
amount of grain that can be moved by an individual
was limited to ten kilograms. To facilitate
control, some markets were ordered to close all
but one gate and make sure that fences are high
enough to prevent scaling.
Vendors do what
they can to counter these measures. One trick is
to use a sufficiently old woman as a figurehead
for a family business. The real work is done by a
younger woman, usually daughter or daughter-in-law
of the nominal vendor, but in case of a police
check the actual vendor can always argue that she
is merely helping her old mother. Another trick is
to trade outside the marketplace, on the streets.
This uncontrolled trade often attracts police
crackdowns, so vendors avoid times when they can
be seen by officials going to their offices.
This autumn in Pyongyang there was an
attempt, the first of this kind in years, to
prescribe maximum prices of items sold in markets.
Large price tables were displayed, and vendors
were forbidden to sell goods (largely fish) at an
"excessive price". It was also reported that new
regulations limit to 15 the number of items to be
sold at one stall.
The government does not
forget about other kinds of commercial activities.
In recent years, private inns, eateries, and even
bus companies began to appear in large numbers. In
many cases these companies are thinly disguised as
"government enterprises" or, more frequently, as
"joint ventures" (many North Korean entrepreneurs
have relatives in China and can easily persuade
them to pose as investors and sign necessary
Recently a number of such
businesses were closed down by police. People were
told that the roots of evil capitalism had to be
destroyed, so every North Korean can enjoy a happy
life working at a proper factory for the common
Yet even as the government pushes
people back to the state sector of the economy,
These new restrictions have little to do with
attempts to revive production. A majority of North
Korean factories have effectively died and in many
cases cannot be re-started without massive
investment - which is unlikely to arrive;
investors are not much interested in factories
where technology and equipment has sometimes
remained unchanged since the 1930s.
However, in North Korea the surveillance
and indoctrination system has always been centered
around work units. Society used to operate on the
assumption that every adult Korean male (and most
females as well) had a "proper" job with some
state-run facility. So, people are now sent back
not so much to the production lines than to
indoctrination sessions and the watchful eyes of
police informers, and away from subversive rumors
and dangerous temptations of the marketplace.
At the same time, border security has been
stepped up. This has led to a dramatic decline in
numbers of North Korean refugees crossing to China
(from some 200,000 in 2000 to merely 30,000-40,000
at present). The authorities have said they will
treat the border-crossers with greater severity,
reviving the harsh approach that was quietly
abandoned around 1996. In the 1970s and 1980s
under Kim Il-sung, any North Korean trying to
cross to China or who was extradited by the
Chinese police would be sent to prison for few
More recently, the majority of
caught border-crossers spent only few weeks in
detention. The government says such leniency will
soon end. Obviously, this combination of threats,
improved surveillance and tighter border control
has been effective.
The government is also
trying to restore its control of information.
Police recently raided and closed a number of
video shops and karaoke clubs. Authorities are
worried that these outlets can be used to
propagate foreign (especially South Korean) pop
culture. Selling, copying and watching South
Korean video tapes or DVDs remain a serious crime,
even though such "subversive materials" still can
be obtained easily.
It is clear that North
Korean leaders, seeking to resume control that
slipped from them in the 1990s and early 2000s,
are not concerned if the new measures damage the
economy or people's living standards when set
against the threat to their own political
domination and perhaps even their own physical
Manifold obstacles nevertheless
stand in the way of a revival of North Korean
First, large investment is
needed to restart the economy and also - an
important if underestimated factor - a sufficient
number of true believers ready to make a sacrifice
for the ideal. When the North Korean regime was
developed in the 1940s and 1950s it had Soviet
grants, an economic base left from the days of
Japanese investment and a number of devoted
zealots. The regime now has none of these. Foreign
aid is barely enough to feed the population, and
the country's bureaucrats are extremely cynical
about the official ideology.
Korea society is much changed. Common people have
learned that they can survive without relying on
rations and giveaways from the government. It will
be a gross oversimplification to believe that all
North Koreans prefer the relative freedoms of
recent years to the grotesquely regimented but
stable and predictable existence of the bygone
era, but it seems that socially active people do
feel that way and do not want to go back. Endemic
corruption also constitutes a major obstacle:
officials will be willing to ignore all
regulations if they see a chance to enrich
It is telling that government
could not carry out its 2005 promise to fully
restart the public distribution (rationing)
system. Now full rations are given only to
residents of major cities while others receive
reduced rations that are below the survival level.
A related attempt to ban trade in grain at markets
also failed: both popular pressure and police
inclination to take bribes undermined the policy,
so that grain is still traded openly at markets.
Even so, whether the government will
succeed in re-Stalinizing society, its true intent
remains the revival of the old system. North
Korean leaders do not want reforms, assuming that
these reforms will undermine their power. They are
probably correct in this assumption.
Andrei Lankov is an associate
professor in Kookmin University, Seoul, and
adjunct research fellow at the Research School of
Pacifica and Asian Studies, Australian National
University. He graduated from Leningrad State
University with a PhD in Far Eastern history and
China, with emphasis on Korea. He has published
books and articles on Korea and North Asia.