Now that many North Koreans have burned the savings that the regime suddenly declared worthless this month, the Chosun Ilbo reports that public outrage has forced Kim Jong Il to raise the exchange limit to 500,000 won. The decision coincides with the first report of a significant outbreak of anti-regime violence, followed by a brutal reaction:
The announcements came after rioting by market traders in the Hamhung region was reported on Dec. 5-6 amid sympathy from ordinary people, sources said. The riot by was apparently of such proportion that 12 “masterminds” were summarily executed, with authorities on heightened alert for mass defections, suspending issuance of border passes and reinforcing border guards. [Chosun Ilbo]
The Chosun Ilbo doesn’t tell us much about its sources for this grim news, which comes eerily close to what I’d predicted when the Great Confiscation was first announced. These are not the first summary executions that have been reported in the last two weeks, and it’s almost a sure thing that other North Koreans who raised their voices in protest died in front of firing squads or disappeared quietly into the night.
This is an extraordinary event. For the first time in recent North Korean history, popular resistance has forced the regime to reverse an edict. Also for the first time, ajummas in the markets, traders, and ordinary people dare to speak openly of their hatred for this regime:
Mr. Kim (62), who ekes out an existence working in the Hyesan jangmadang, complained to The Daily NK, “I dragged my worn out body to the market every day for seven years. I am resentful and feel victimized that the money I made with my blood and sweat has vaporized into nothing overnight.
Another inside source told The Daily NK in a phone conversation, “My sister had been selling rice in the market and had saved 500,000 won to procure some additional rice, but she lost all of her capital in the currency reform.
In North Korea, the upper-classes who have a significant income tend to keep their savings in Chinese Yuan or the dollar due to continuing inflation and their experience of losing money during the 1992 currency reform, so they have not been seriously affected this time around. At the other end of the scale, farmers and the lower-classes have not been heavily impacted by the reforms either, due to the fact that they had limited savings anyway.
However, the middle-classes who work the stalls in the permanent markets were the ones who held a large quantity of North Korean currency in cash. The reforms hit this group like a whirlwind.
In many instances, people have been making appeals and hiding the political nature of their grievances. However, some have resorted to suicide, burning old currency and criticizing the authorities. [Daily NK]
No doubt, it’s easier to survive a North Korean winter with $200 in your pocket than $40, if you still have another 400 won to exchange. No doubt, the hardships of many will now be easier to bear, but the anger of the people will persist, because it was terror and mutual isolation — and not the absence of plenty of other grievances — that held the anger back. The most common form of protest appears to be destroying old currency, an act that necessarily requires the mutilation of the portraits of Kim Il Sung printed on the old notes:
An inside source reported that someone had dumped a knapsack full of 100 and 100 won bills of the old currency in the North Ham’s Chongjin Suseongchun River on the early morning of December 4. The Defense Ministry is searching for this offender to deal sharply with them. Although Chongjin city and the province’s Defense Ministry assembled a professional gruppa team to catch these offenders, as of this report they have not been caught.
In addition the defense ministries took on this view: “In order for the people to fully participate in this currency exchange their understanding must change so that they can be righted politically. Those who throw away or burn currency will be viewed especially harshly as the ministry is setting up an “immediate reporting system” for them. Offenders will also spend a month in a contingent alerted situation.
An inside informant shared insight that “Of course this is partly about punishing those who go against the currency reform, but more importantly is the fact that the face of Kim Il-Sung is printed on the old currency.
Currently even damaging photos of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il in newspapers or books by folding them is considered a governmentally illegal act. We can begin to see how much more difficult the lives of the North Korean citizens will be as antagonistic actions come in forms of severe punishment and searching for culprits. [Open News for North Korea]
The latest move will further complicate North Korea’s chaotic process of resetting wages, prices, and taxes, a process that goes on in tandem with a wave of “inspections” and confiscations of imported goods and cash from customs houses. The market continues to have the last word, however, as North Koreans have already shown considerable reluctance about accepting the new currency, and food prices have risen dramatically. Can the North Korean people escape the effects of so much economic disruption? Andrew Natsios fears the worst:
“This could start widespread starvation deaths in the hungry season, after the last harvest runs out,” said Andrew Natsios of Georgetown University, author of The Great North Korean Famine. “There are a number of alarming things happening at once, and people may not be able to cope.” [….]
“It’s the worst harvest since the mid 1990s,” said Natsios. “And all the estimates say there will be a doubling of food prices over the next year, including rice, which is North Korea’s staple food.”
There is also a cut-off of cross-border trade with China, which has its own food production problems. And South Korea has halted a program that supplied fertilizer to Pyongyang.
In Geneva on Monday, a North Korean diplomat denied Koreans are hungry and face imminent starvation.
“The issue of serious malnutrition is a thing of the past,” North Korean Ambassador Ri Tcheul told the UN Human Rights Council. “We will in the near future meet the domestic need for food on our own.” [Minneapolis Star-Tribune]
These reports do not give us a strong sense, to say the least, of the “exceptional centralized food distribution system and collective spirit” Christine Ahn has informed us about. It is as if the bindings of fear that held the remnants of North Korea’s society and economy together are suddenly unraveling. Factory workers aren’t even showing up for work anymore. Looking in through the fog from the outside, the blurry image that comes into view is a nation on pause, with all of its daily economic interactions frozen, as if waiting to see what dramatic event will upset all hope and expectations next.