Class Warfare NK Economics

And now, a brief Marxist-style criticism of North Korea’s class struggle and internal contradictions (Updated)

Yonhap reports that North Korea has cut its grain imports from China by more than in half in the first quarter of this year “due to an increase in the country’s grain production last year.” A fall in market prices for corn corroborates that there is a greater supply of corn than usual; ordinarily, spring is the leanest time of year for poor North Koreans.

Despite Pyongyang’s decision to buy and import less grain, the World Food Program, which recently found that 84% of North Korean households have borderline or poor food consumption, continues to ask foreign donors to contribute $200 million to a program intended to feed the people Kim Jong Un won’t. (Humanitarian aid accounted for 95% of U.S. exports to North Korea, which also rose sharply last year.) So, either the WFP is overestimating hunger and should reevaluate its aid programs, or Pyongyang is accepting — and gaming — international aid to allow it to fund other priorities (an allegation that has been made before by others, here). It’s also possible that both alternatives are true.

Just in case you’re tempted to say that the drop in food imports means China is cracking down on North Korea, trade statistics released earlier this month by the Korea International Trade Association show that “North Korea exported 16.5 million tons of anthracite [coal] to China in 2013 … a year-on-year increase of 39.7%. Those exports earned Pyongyang “approximately US$ 1.373bn, a 15.5% increase over 2012.” Yonhap also reports, however, that starting in January, Pyongyang “significantly stepped up checks on its coal exports to China,” a development that’s said to be related to the purge of Jang Song Taek, who was accused of selling off North Korea’s resources too cheaply. We’ll soon see if second-quarter figures show any decrease, or whether this is just ChiCom disinformation.

Partially as a result of this, North Korea’s GDP grew by nearly 5% last year, according to the Hyundai Research Institute. Some of that money was invested in the “railroads, metal, and power generation sectors” — and yes, North Korea still has the world’s highest military spending as a percentage of GDP. The beneficiaries of this wealth do not include North Korea’s health care system, whose failure The Guardian tries to hang on sanctions, either out of bias or ignorance about the bigger picture. The data, taken with other data suggesting that North Korea recently began showing a current account surplus, hardly suggest that Pyongyang is feeling a cash squeeze. It’s just setting its own priorities, as usual.

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Who is feeling a cash squeeze, aside from the poor who can’t afford to buy food? The Outer Party elites in Pyongyang. After several months of strict enforcement, the regime has finally relaxed that order confiscating their foreign currency. According to the Daily NK, plenty of people who were terrorized by the purge of Jang Song Thaek handed over their savings out of fear that much more than their savings was at stake:

High-rise apartment buildings, streets lined with stores selling expensive products and high-end restaurants are cropping up in Pyongyang since North Korean leader Kim Jong-un focused state spending on the capital. But that modernizing drive has come at a heavy cost to the provinces, which are languishing in backwardness and poverty. 

“In December of 2011, after he just came to power, Kim Jong-un issued an order to populate Pyongyang by the end of 2012 with the cream of North Korean society in terms of political and ideological beliefs,” a source recalls. [Daily NK]

From a nominally egalitarian and Marxist perspective, Pyongyang’s confiscatory impulse is almost understandable, or at least easy to rationalize. Pyongyang residents aren’t keeping those high-end stores in business on the salaries of civil servants.

[See, AP? This reporter told us about the minders, and that this was
not a typical North Korean shopping experience. It isn’t so hard!]

In the provinces, by contrast, food rations have stopped, and officials there have to squeeze and extort the proles to survive, and prosper:

Central Party cadres dispatched to October 18th Cooperative Farm in Baekam County, Yangkang Province are drawing the ire of local residents as they prove enduringly corrupt, Daily NK has learned.

A source located in the region reported on the 22nd, “It’s the lean spring period and food is quite scarce, but these three cadres sent from Section 4 of the Central Party Agriculture Department still eat pork almost everyday. People are really unhappy. There are these kids of people who might get meat just once or twice a year out there in front of their lodgings just to smell it cooking.”

Cadres were first dispatched to the farm in 2008 to oversee the potato harvest, the source explained. In addition to having their own housekeeper, they regularly order the manager of their accommodation to purchase piglets, which they then raise.

“At a time when more and more people in the Okcheon Unit are running out of rice, the cadres can continue to live in their own world. People attack them, pointing out that ‘workers starve while the ones ordering them around are living well. They can eat till their stomachs stick out,” the source went on.

“Just last month a man in the unit starved to death,” she continued. “People say that he couldn’t harvest last autumn, so his wife went to get frozen potatoes out of the ground and tried to make a living by making food out of their skins. He passed away while his wife was left behind to try and sell what she had made.”

“When [cadres] go to Pyongyang they take a ton of potato starch with them, and tens of farmers are mobilized for the indignity of loading the freight,” she alleged. “They don’t care; they just say, ‘When going back, you shouldn’t go empty handed. If you want to get help with things like farming equipment, there’s no choice; you have to give something before you can get anything.’” [Daily NK]

The regime can confiscate away some of the more ostentatious trappings of this widening class divide, but that widening class divide is one of the distinguishing characteristics of Kim Jong Un’s North Korea, and a case of Kim leading by example. Class barriers are now so strong that it has become difficult to marry across them. According to the reports, the confiscation is concentrated around Pyongyang, where there are few low-songbun people to see that divide. The regime’s more likely motive is probably just to rake hard currency in from the Outer Party to the Inner Party.

I wonder to what extent this confiscation has driven elite money into North Korea’s housing market, which is said to have boomed right around the time the confiscation was announced (yes, it’s possible to buy land and houses in North Korea). A regime that’s sustained by money laundering must eventually produce some accomplished money-launders and tax evaders. Coinciding with this, state enterprises have begun leasing out unused land to those who can afford to lease it. If the result is more sotoji agriculture and higher food production, that would be a good thing for the people, even if that isn’t a consequence the regime had intended.

(The reverse appears to be ongoing in the border city of Sinuiju, where the regime, or perhaps corrupt regime officials, are said to be selling real estate to Chinese investors.)

Given the extent to which the elites have leveraged their status to enrich themselves through corruption and trade (legal and otherwise), one can infer that this mass confiscation raked in millions of dollars in hard currency. I hope that the cost will be paid, eventually, in lost loyalty by the elites to the regime. In the meantime, if she ever cared to do so, Hazel Smith could fill volumes with “critical” studies about the intensifying class struggle between North Korea’s Outer Party, Inner Party, Capitalist Class, and Proletariat. Here is the perfect laboratory for Marxist crisis theory, and all the critical studies journals are missing out.

Update: More related thoughts from the Daily NK, which entitles its story, “May 1st a Reminder of Class Divide,” and reports that some workers are more equal than others:

Now, May 1st serves as a clear reminder of North Korea’s widening class gap amid the increasing prominence of the market economy. 

A former worker at a foreign currency earning enterprise based in Songnim, North Hwanghae Province explained to Daily NK, “A class system between workers began to form a few years ago. How one celebrates the May 1st holiday depends on their membership in either the lower or upper class, and mistrust has formed between the two.”

“State factory workers spend the day cultivating their vegetable gardens or just keeping busy at home. But workers at individually-run trading companies attend sports games put on by their employer. They even get high-end gifts like televisions and bicycles,” the defector said.

Moreover, “Even if they don’t win the game the employees still get a new set of underclothes, and this makes the state workers quite envious.  Now even children belong to a class based solely on the occupation of their parents.”

A former manager of a commercial enterprise management office in North Pyongan Province added, “The state workers really have a rough time in comparison.  Many of them can’t even get one bottle of alcohol.”

The story reports that factory workers, once glorified as pioneers of the workers’ paradise, no longer bring home income or rations, and are looked at as incompetent providers in their own homes. That must be a source of deep resentment in the factory towns int he provinces.

Speaking of those high-end gifts, we have fresh information about their origin:

North Korea increased imports of vehicles and alcoholic beverages from Hong Kong in 2013, despite an overall drop in bilateral trade, a South Korean report showed Thursday.

The trade representative office for Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency (KOTRA) in Hong Kong said Pyongyang spent US$4.36 million to buy vehicles, up 27.5 percent from the year before, a large number of them with over 3-liter engine and seating capacity for more than 10 people.

Cars were the second-largest single product imported by North Korea from Hong Kong after electronic components, the office said.

“The cars were made in other countries and shipped through Hong Kong,” it said.

North Korean imports of alcoholic beverages shot up 51.3 percent last year from 2012, with whiskey and vodka making up the bulk of products shipped. Though liquor products only accounted for 1.4 percent of goods shipped from the former British colony to Pyongyang, its annual growth rate surpassed that of all others last year.

This trend continued into 2014, with North Korea’s purchase of alcoholic beverages soaring 758.8 percent in January and February vis-a-vis the previous year, according to the KOTRA office.

The latest report showed that two-way trade dropped 57.2 percent on-year to $26.99 million, with Hong Kong’s exports falling 53.7 percent. It said no crude oil, grain and fertilizers were shipped to the North. [Yonhap]

Most of these items are what U.N. Security Council sanctions resolutions refer to as “luxury items,” and ban North Korea from importing. This is just more evidence of China’s disregard for and non-enforcement of those resolutions. If the Obama Administration is serious about enforcement, it would identify the companies in Hong Kong involved in this trade, leak the names of their banks, and identify a few good targets for a first round of sanctions that would block them out of the dollar system.

And not for nothing, but the U.N. Development Program, whose work in North Korea was the subject of a major diversion scandal a few years ago, is now allocating another $2 million “for projects to help ease energy and food shortages in North Korea.” Lest any apparatchik lack for gas for his new Benz.

If ever a country screamed for class warfare, North Korea is that country.


  1. Loved the Monty Python clip. But the reality is Marxist thought is on the rise around the world, especially in the US. We’re going to have to re-learn some hard lessons all over again.


  2. They’ve outlived the catastrophes of their own making. North Korea is doomed to succeed, where the definition of success is managing to provide the absolute minimum level of bread and circuses a fascist caste-feudalocracy requires not to disintegrate. The recent drop off in oil supplies by China might be more acknowledgment of NK’s improved disposable income situation than disapprobation with the petroleum stick. On the upside, one avenue of hope might be the newly fed’s interest in joining Fukuyama’s global middle class revolution set. Don’t laugh. You never know. The Financial Times explains: “With their basic needs mostly satisfied, [the new middle class] begin to look more widely … these aims amount to a call for the development of fully functioning democracies, with the rule of law, financial transparency and respect for minority rights.” Unfortunately, North Korea is well aware of this and will pull out the imminent nuclear war threat at the first sign in its people of anything other than meat soup and loyalty. But, if for no other reason than we have failed to change things during the very bad times, the good times might actually provide us with openings to shine a little disorder. 



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