North Korea’s Ajumma Rebellion

[Originally published at The New Ledger, Dec. 9, 2009]

A sort of tea party movement may be breaking out today in the least likely of all places.

The unseen pillars of Korean society are its ajummas. “Ajumma” — literally “aunt” — is one of those wonderfully untranslatable Korean words — more colorful than “hausfrau,” less derogatory than “fishwife,” and probably not too far from “yenta.” In South Korea, “ajumma” is an inglorious term most associate with gargantuan red sun visors, bright lipstick, baggy clothing, and an oblivious, pushy determination that draws the scorn and admiration of anyone who has ever been in an ajumma’s way. In “A Nation of Sheep,” Eugene Lederer observed ajummas fleeing south over the snow and ice in flimsy slippers, with all their valuables on their backs, and concluded that they had “no nerve endings.” I met one ajumma on Cheju Island who made her living by rising before the sun and carrying 40 pounds of snacks and drinks 180 feet up the side of this crater to sell to exhausted climbers a third her age (the woman was in her 70’s, so technically, she was really a halmoni).

There is steel under those garish colors, for the ajumma is also legendary for her determination to pay any price or bear any burden for her family. Today, South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo reports that North Korean ajummas are leading the popular resistance to Kim Jong Il’s Great Confiscation, a canceling and reissue of the national currency that wiped out the savings of millions of families and threatens to plunge North Korea back into famine just as winter begins. Then, North Koreas died passively by the millions. Collectively, the survival strategies of those who remained formed an underground market, operated largely by North Korea’s ajummas. And this time, the ajummas are fighting the suppression of their survival strategy by forming something of a North Korean tea party movement:

“The women are tough and defiant,” a source said, “and now they are angry. Markets are turning into places of protest against North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.” The women gather to accuse the authorities, defying threats of arrest. [Chosun Ilbo]

These developments extend a trend we’ve begun to see in the last year — ajummas as leading dissenters against the world’s scariest, most totalitarian regime (see here, here, and here).

AFP, picking up the Chosun Ilbo story, adds:

Open Radio for North Korea, a broadcaster and website that collects information from informants there, said two money-changers were executed on Friday in Pyongsong near Pyongyang for illegally exchanging currency. [AFP]

The regime tried to soothe its angry subjects by last-minute adjustments to the limits on the amount of their savings they were allowed to exchange. Today, it is promising them a pay raise by paying them their old wages in the new, lower denominations. That amounts to an immediate hundred-fold pay raise, but in currency that’s less trusted than ever, still chasing after too little food to go around — in other words, guaranteed hyperinflation. The only thing that would make matters even worse would be destroying the makeshift market distribution system that’s been keeping North Koreans alive for the last decade:

According to North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity (NKIS), a decree has been handed down saying that selling rice in the jangmadang [markets] has been banned and that any rice on sale will be confiscated.

The NKIS source explained, “New market management regulations have been received by local people’s committees, and instructions ordering a crackdown on the markets have been forwarded to the National Security Agency.”

Indeed, side effects of the market crackdown have already been reported. Good Friends, a Seoul-based NGO, has released a story claiming that, “In the Kangan-dong jangmadang in Sooncheon in South Pyongan Province, the rice price, which used to be around 16 won per kilogram (in new won), rose to 50 won on the 3rd.”

Furthermore, despite the fact that the authorities have already announced that the rice price would be pegged at the level it was immediately after the July 1st Economic Management Reform Measure in 2002, 45 won, by the 7th it had risen to more than 80 won. [Daily NK]

The irony of this is the initial speculation by some analysts that the Great Confiscation was designed to halt hyperinflation. In fact, the real purposes seem to have been fundamentally political — the enforcement of dependency by robbing citizens of their personal savings and suppressing the markets where they buy their food.

North Korea’s ajummas won’t bring down Kim Jong Il alone, but they are breaking new ground in transforming discontent into dissent, and bringing it out into the open. It’s hard to say whether this will lead to something like our own tax revolt centuries ago, but then, as now, it is pocketbook issues that have the greatest power to mobilize people to the extraordinary courage it must take to risk a fate like this.