It's not all doom and gloom in Pyongyang
By Andrei Lankov
SEOUL - An acquaintance recently remarked, "Only bad news comes out of North
Korea." Well, this is not quite true.
The mainstream media are critical indeed, but this is not a full picture.
Across the globe there is a number of pro-Pyongyang news outlets that publish
news which presents North Korean life in a favorable light. Such outlets are
exceptional in the countries of the developed West, but much more common in
Asia and, especially, in South Korea, where the North Korean regime has some
devoted sympathizers, largely on the extreme left.
However, it is the mainstream media that determines our vision of North Korea,
and, according them, things can only go from bad to worse in that unfortunate
country. As a result, a very important
and common type of social change is almost completely overlooked - the change
of situation from disastrous to just bad. Such changes have nonetheless been
remarkably common in North Korea over the past decade.
A number of examples can be used to illustrate this obvious trend.
For example, the Heritage foundation and the Wall Street Journal recently
published a new edition of their annual index of economic freedom, according to
which North Korea has the world's least-free economy. One can hardly argue
about this - North Korea has for decades worked hard to take Stalinism to its
logical extremes, and slightly beyond that.
However, one gets perplexed when looking at the grades of unfreedom that are
given by the Heritage Foundation to the North through the 1995-2011 period.
According to the index, the level of economic unfreedom in North Korea was
essentially the same throughout the entire 1996-2005 period. Then, in 2005 it
deteriorated considerably and has continued a slow downward slide until now
This depiction is bound to raise the eyebrows of anyone who is familiar with
actual economic trends in North Korea. The graph is correct when it says that
the economy became more restrictive in 2005, when the government tried to
re-introduce the rationing and reconfirmed the ban on the private sale of grain
(such a ban had existed since 1957, but ceased to be enforced around 1990).
However, the 2005 measures were, essentially, a backlash, an attempt to reverse
the half-baked reforms of 2002 - and those reforms can be described only as
On balance, the 2002 reforms should not be overestimated. Nonetheless, the 2002
reforms legalized a significant part of the black economy, and also granted
managers of state-owned industrial enterprises a measure of managerial freedom
they had not had for many decades.
If this was not an increase in economic freedom, what was it? But the Heritage
Foundation graph does not give any hint of this change: the line that purports
to depict the level of economic freedom remains on the same low level in 2002.
This is more interesting because 1997-2002 was when actual economic freedom
increased dramatically. The old hyper-Stalinist laws remained technically
effective, but nobody bothered to enforce these restrictions. It is estimated
that in the early 2000s, the average North Korean family drew some 80% of its
income from various market activities.
This was technically illegal, but the authorities were ready to turn a blind
eye to the re-emergence of some form of a market economy, and in 2002 they even
grudgingly and partially legalized the already flourishing market economy.
However, these improvements - both de-facto and, in 2002-2005 de-jure - find no
expression in the flat line of the Heritage graph which, however, does not fail
to notice that after 2005 the situation again began to deteriorate due to a
government backlash against the private economy. The backlash was not
particularly successful, but it lasted until 2009, and this is correctly
reflected by the downward line at the graph.
However, then the graph begins seriously misleading again - and again,
seemingly due the same implicit assumption that in North Korea things can go
only from bad to worse. The graph depicts 2009 as a year when the level of
freedom went even lower - and this is a correct assumption, since in 2009 the
authorities undertook currency reform.
The reform's main, if not sole, purpose was to annihilate the private economy
that had survived the 2005-2009 backlashes surprisingly well. There is little
doubt that North Korean decision-makers really want, above all, to revive the
hyper-Stalinist economy that alone guarantees the regime’s long-term political
stability (or so they - and the present author - believe).
However, the 2009 bold attempt to go back to the Stalinist ways ended in
complete and pathetic failure - and the government, fearful of the chaos its
inept reform created, backpedaled immediately.
The failure of the 2009 currency reform was followed by another wave of
economic liberalization. In May 2010, the government lifted all restrictions
and bans on private retail trade that were introduced in the 2005-09 backlash.
In fact, the North Korean economy nowadays is roughly as free (or rather
unfree) as it used to be immediately after the 2002 reforms. But there is no
hint of this roller coaster changes in the slowly descending line of the
Heritage Foundation Index.
The same is applicable to the economic situation. Every year, we get reports
about a looming famine in North Korea - and this year is no exception. A quick
look through headlines of major newspapers can clarify that such reports
surface with predictable regularity every year.
In March 2008, the International Herald Tribune ran a headline "Food shortage
looms in North Korea". In March 2009, the Washington Post headline said "At the
Heart of North Korea's Troubles, an Intractable Hunger Crisis". One year later,
in March 2010, the Times of London warned: "Catastrophe in North Korea; China
must pressure Pyongyang to allow food aid to millions threatened by famine." In
March 2011, The New York Times wrote: "North Korea: 6 Million Are Hungry." The
predictions of gloom come every year, but famine does not.
Actually, from around 2002-2003, we have seen a steady but clear improvement in
North Korea’s economic situation. North Koreans are still malnourished, and
likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. Nonetheless, they are not
starving any more - at least not in significant numbers.
However, opponents of the regime cannot admit that people are not starving or
report about (however marginal) improvement of the food situation, since, as I
have said, from their viewpoint nothing can possibly improve in North Korea. At
the same time, supporters of the regime will not admit that the North Korean
people are still malnourished, and the regime itself is active in presenting
exaggerated evidence of a looming famine (or perhaps, even fabricating such
evidence when necessary) - as this will help it get more free food from the
outside, and this is what Pyongyang needs.
One can see the same trends everywhere. For example, human-rights
non-governmental organizations keep telling us about a further deterioration in
the human-rights situation in the North. However, the evidence tells a
different story. Human rights are still by far the world's worst, but they are
better than 20 or 30 years ago.
Just one example of this under-reported improvement will probably suffice.
Until the mid-1990s, the entire family of a political criminal - that is, all
people who were registered at the same address as he or she, were by default
shipped to a concentration camp. Some 10 or 15 years ago, this approach ceased
to be universal, so families of many political criminals - including some
prominent activists based in Seoul - remained free.
There is little doubt that families are harassed, and even distant relatives of
dissenters are denied good jobs and/or the right to reside in Pyongyang and
major cities. Nonetheless, there is a great difference between inability to
live in a major city and incarceration in what might indeed be the world's
worst prison camp system.
However, this change is seldom reported. Human-rights advocacy groups obviously
cannot bring themselves admit that something can get better under the Kim
family regime. Probably, they think that such admission would make the
situation look less urgent and thus would help the Kim family regime in some
indirect way. These worries might be even well-founded - but the result is the
tendency to ignore a particular type of "politically incorrect" news.
Paradoxically, regime sympathizers - whose presence is especially noticeable
among the South Korean left - are equally reluctant to attract any attention to
these minor improvements. It is understandable, since we are talking about
changes from the awful to the very bad, and Pyongyang champions cannot bring
themselves to admit how brutal and inefficient the regime actually is.
For example, if pro-Pyongyang media outlets report that the "family
responsibility" principle does not apply in many cases, they would have to
admit that in the supposed "paradise" of national purity and/or anti-globalist
determination in North Korea, not only dissenters, but their families as well
were shipped to concentration camps until quite recently. No member of South
Korea's radical nationalist left could bring him or herself to admit this fact.
One cannot imagine a pro-North Korean leftist blogger in Seoul triumphantly
writing something like this: "In the past, if somebody watched a South Korean
melodrama, he would be arrested, beaten unconscious and then sent to prison for
life together with his entire family. Nowadays, things are so better: only his
teeth - not ribs! - are likely to be broken during an investigation, and then
he or she will spend in prison merely a couple years, and his family are now
allowed to keep their freedom. What an improvement!"
The sad irony is that this change is actually an improvement, but neither side
of the political debate is going to report it. This is confirmation to the old
truism: political passions make people oblivious to the obvious. However,
propaganda is a poor substitute for honest and objective analysis - even when
such propaganda is produced by people who believe it themselves.
Andrei Lankov is an associate professor at Kookmin University in Seoul,
and adjunct research fellow at the Research School of Pacific 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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