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.
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.
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).
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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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