North Korean Reform Watch 7

BURIED WITHIN THIS DAILY NK REPORT about the rumored merger of multiple regime-owned businesses was this dire statement: “At the time of writing, the price of rice has reached an outlandish 6700 won/kg even in Pyongyang itself, while also arriving at 7000 won in Onsung County and 6500 won in Hyesan, putting those people without foreign currency in a very difficult situation.” It’s remarkable how similar the Pyongyang price is to the prices in Onsung and Hyesan, two of North Korea’s least-favored areas, which are blessed only by their proximity to the Chinese border. There could be several reasons for this: (1) shoppers in Pyongyang might get gouged because they have more money; (2) the regime may not have enough stolen food aid and “patriotic rice” to supplement the Pyongyang food supply; (3) this could reflect class divisions within Pyongyang itself, meaning that people who shop at down-scale Pyongyang markets (as opposed to what the AP shows us) are faring almost as badly as country folk; (4) the regime’s efforts to crack down on cross-border food smuggling and internal market trading have failed. Obviously, these explanations aren’t mutually exclusive.


NOLAND ON CHANGES IN THE NK ECONOMY: Don’t miss this twopart interview with Marcus Noland, who talks about the history of reform efforts in North Korea, and the possibility that new currency and price controls may offset any potential gains won by letting collectives keep more of what they grow. As I’ve mentioned before,the seizure of more private plots could also do a lot of harm.


MORE ON NORTH KOREA’S great gold sell-off. If this story is true, North Korea is depleting the reserves it uses to survive hard times, then the sanctions are having an effect despite the Chinese.


CAMP 22 UPDATE: Why would the warden of a political prison camp, one of the most privileged men in that part of North Korea, defect? According to this Daily NK report, even members of the National Security Agency and the Ministry of Public Security are unable to draw sufficient rations. If true, that’s remarkably consequential and almost too dramatic to believe, because they could be signs of regime collapse within the core of the security forces. This report, on a website I’ve never heard of before, also says that internal control in the northeast is weakening (anyone know anything about New Focus International?).


NOT EXACTLY CAMELOT: “Many citizens are criticizing Kim Jong Un and his wife because they don’t care about their citizens dying from hunger but participate in events and watch splendid performances.” I suspect that the collective picture of North Koreans’ views of Kim Jong Un, if it could be surveyed accurately, would be complex, and highly varied according to songbun and region. My best guess is that the majority outside Pyongyang privately hate him, and that the majority inside Pyongyang privately resent him, but want to be him. (Envy and resentment are natural companions.) There are probably a few who hold out hope that he’ll be a reformer, but in a society that strenuously discourages the very idea of reform, there probably aren’t many who really believe this.


  1. Hi – I was reading and noticed that you linked to New Focus International. The website is quite new but already well known in SKorea. The primary content is sourced by Jang Jin-sung who used to work in the DPRK Ministry of Unification and was a state poet to Kim Jong-il before he defected to SKorea in 2004.

  2. Re: New Focus International, there’s a UK link in that (some of) their English-language translators are residing there.

    Unlike most websites that need to wait years for recognition/vituperative responses, it took almost no time at all before DPRK government lashed out at this one’s move into English. On September 7, KCNA said the site was “first-rate shock brigade of the puppet regime,” or something like that.

    Further regarding North Korea and the UK, there’s an event on Friday, October 5 that may interest your readers: it’s a screening and discussion of “Nothing to Envy,” a film about defectors that I imagine is in some way connected with Barbara Demick’s book of the same name. Although it’s both invitation-only and full, the project looks quite interesting and good people are involved.

    If DPRK is true to form, something like this August 2012 response to the recent film festival in Toronto will hold true, in which the KCNA described “Yoduk” as “a very undesirable musical.” Do you suppose a single musical had the power to shut down Camp 22?

    Thanks for the ongoing writing (and the related cogitating on the DC Metro); it’s appreciated.

  3. Will try to be at the event, will you be attending Adam?
    And I’m flattered at the suggestion that there’s a team of translators: it’s me, a dictionary and a laptop out in an Oxfordshire cottage. 🙂
    There, I’ve made the excuse for not uploading more regularly!

  4. New Focus International translator has a new behind-the-scenes reflective essay here:

    Also, nice to see your discussion of that excellent long-form journalism piece by Mike Deri Smith re: the appropriate personal response to the North Korean human rights dilemma/crisis/opportunity. The Commandments were brilliant! It was so interesting to see how, for Smith, attendance at a single event with both committed and curious people appeared to be galvanizing. It’s a good reason for the usual suspects to keep doing events, keep speaking, and keep writing. Sokeel Park also gets a nice shout-out.

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