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    Korea
     Mar 11, 2011


Why the Kim regime will falter
By Andrei Lankov

Spring arrived, and the international media once again began to report that another famine was looming in North Korea. Such reports appear every year, and so far every such alarm has been eventually proven to be false.

When reading the alarmist reports, the present author, a native of the Soviet Union, cannot help but think about the Soviet media's habit of reporting that a crisis in the capitalist West was becoming ever-more profound. This "crisis" kept deepening, irrespective of the actual state of affairs in the developed West.

Messages about the "threat of hunger" apparently hanging over North Korea largely come from two groups. On the one hand, they

 
are disseminated by political activists who oppose the Kim family regime and want to underline the economic inefficiency of the North Korean government. On the other hand, similar messages are regularly sent by groups that are involved in providing humanitarian assistance to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) - in the current uneasy international situation alarmism helps to get more aid.

However, the actual situation is different. North Korea is a destitute place, to be sure, and in the past two to three months the food situation deteriorated, no doubt. Nonetheless, in recent years, the economic situation of the population has improved markedly.

Almost no economic statistics are available when it comes to North Korea: the authorities discontinued the publication of statistical data almost half a century ago, in the early 1960s. Almost everything one reads about the current state of the economy should be seen as a guesstimate, and hence should be approached with considerable caution. Nevertheless, experts agree that recent years have been a time of economic growth, albeit this growth has been slow and uneven.

The most oft-cited estimates of the economic situation in the DPRK are produced by the Bank of Korea. According to its analysts, the average annual gross domestic product (GDP) growth in the DPRK for the years 2000-2009 was 1.3% (though there were years when GDP declined).

This author frequently talks to North Korean refugees and their stories confirm this picture. The lives of North Koreans are tangibly better than 10 years ago - and keep improving slowly.

North Korea remains a poor country, though. Even rice, the staple food of East Asia, remains beyond the reach of the majority. The basic daily food of most North Koreans is boiled corn accompanied by pickled vegetables. Meat and fish appear on the table only occasionally, being a rare delicacy.

However, one thing is important: throughout the past seven or eight years, there has been little hunger in North Korea, even though malnourishment remains common. A meal of boiled corn is now regularly available to all but a very small minority of North Koreans. This is a far cry from the late 1990s, when between half million and one million people perished in a famine.

People have become much better dressed, largely due to the availability of cheap Chinese garments. Some durables, not so long ago inaccessible to the majority of the population, began to appear in North Korean houses after 2000. It seems that in the prosperous border towns of the northern provinces, which are the major target of the present author's research interest, about 80% of all households have television sets, and about 25% have DVD players.

Merely a few years ago, a fridge was a sign of luxury. It still remains a rare symbol of worldly success and is present only in the wealthiest houses, being the North Korean equivalent of a Porsche, but nonetheless, even fridges are becoming less uncommon.

The same can be said about computers - the penetration rate in the border towns seems to be 1-3%. A home computer is seen as a luxury, but it is nonetheless an affordable one for a small but growing number of families. The mobile phone market is booming: some 300,000 handsets are in use, largely in the capital, Pyongyang. Even private cars have begun to appear - something that was almost unthinkable until recently (admittedly, a private car in North Korea is roughly as rare as a private jet in the United States - and it carries a comparable weight as a status symbol).

All this is accompanied by an increase in income differentiation. There is no way to gauge the Gini coefficient (measure of the inequality in wealth) in North Korea, but it is obvious that income inequality is large and growing, not least because the major role in the new economy is played by the informal market sector.

North Korea's nouveau riche are entrepreneurs or corrupt officials who often do business by proxies, as well as people who have profitable connections with China (usually through family ties). It is in their houses which one finds refrigerators and computers, and it is them and their children who frequent expensive - by North Korean standards - restaurants in Pyongyang.

On the other hand, one should not describe the situation by applying the oft-repeated but primitive and often misleading cliche about "the poor are getting poorer, the rich are getting richer". Incomes of ordinary North Koreans, however modest, are growing as well and perhaps have approached the level at which they were around 1990, the time when the crisis struck. For the majority of our readers, this would appear to be a level of abject poverty, but as long as North Koreans remain ignorant about the outside world (as they are), they are likely to perceive it as acceptable.

One can only speculate the reasons behind this improvement. Different factors might be in play. First, in the past 10-15 years a new, essentially capitalist economy, grew in what once was a perfect example of a Stalinist state. Now it seems that a majority of families make a living in the private sector, and its growth might account for the general economic improvement. Second, it seems that the state-run sector (or what remains of it) also adapted and learned to work in new conditions. Third, the large role played by foreign (in recent years - only the Chinese) aid, which North Korean diplomats know how to squeeze.

However, these changes do not necessarily bode well for the regime's future. People who talk about the alleged deterioration of the economic situation in North Korea often are those who hope to see the regime collapse and assume that a food crisis might become the proverbial last straw to bring it about.

This is not really the case. People seldom rebel when their lives are desperate: they are too busy looking for food and basic necessities. Most revolutions happen in times of relative prosperity and are initiated by people who have time and energy to discuss social issues and to organize resistance. Another condition for a successful revolution is a widespread belief in some alternative that is allegedly better than present-day life.

There is little doubt that the North Korean elite welcome signs of economic growth, but paradoxically, this growth makes their situation less, not more, stable. North Koreans are now less stressed and have some time to think and talk - more so since the once formidable surveillance and indoctrination system was damaged during the crisis of the 1990s, perhaps beyond repair.

Since the economy is increasingly under the influence of China, the elite has become more aware about the outside world - in other words, they are beginning to realize how poor they actually are compared to their neighbors. They are learning that there is an alternative, and they have some time to discuss this.

Last but not least, the spread of new technologies is dangerous for the regime in the long run. In a sense, the North Korean power elite is unlucky: they run an anachronistic dictatorship whose survival depends on isolation, but they do it in an era in which new technology is largely about processing information, not materiel.

More or less every DVD player is used to watch foreign - even South Korean - movies that give more than a glimpse of overseas lifestyles, and this makes many old propaganda lies unsustainable. Computers, which come with USB ports, are even more potentially dangerous. Mobile phones enable people to communicate. They are afraid of eavesdropping, and with good reason, but it is doubtful whether the North Korean security police can handle an explosive growth in communications.

One might point at the recent Chinese experience as a testimony to an autocratic regime's ability to withstand such challenges and even benefit from new technology. After all, the Internet is a good environment for spreading and enhancing nationalism that is now the de-facto mainstream ideology of China. However, North Korea is no China, the existence of a rich and free South makes its situation dramatically different and inherently unstable.

So, the improvement of the economic situation in North Korea might actually shorten the life expectancy of the Kim family regime. At any rate, this is too early to see. But one thing is certain: the annual outbursts of alarmist reporting about the looming food crisis should be taken with a pinch of salt.

Andrei Lankov is an associate professor at Kookmin University in 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.

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North Koreans: Still hungry. Who cares? (Mar 3, '11)

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