Prisoners of the People: N. Korea’s guerrilla society has political implications (updated)

Over the last year, I’ve become convinced that if technology can break the electronic barriers between North Korea and the Outer Earth, it would be possible to keep the broken promises of the Sunshine Policy by bypassing Pyongyang and engaging directly with the North Korean people. Governments, churches, and NGOs could harness markets, smuggling networks, and private agriculture to help North Koreans feed the hungry, heal the sick, share information and ideas, begin to rebuild their broken civil society, and eventually, negotiate with the state for what is rightly theirs. 

A new civil society independent of the state, and increasingly at odds with the state’s political objectives, would co-opt, corrupt, and supplant the state’s control over the population, particularly if the state is demoralized, corrupt, weakened by sanctions, and unable to pay its security forces. If it all seems impossible, consider two cases in which that trend is well advanced in North Korean society now — financial services and health care. 

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Reuters writes that a guerrilla banking system has sprung up inside North Korea. For the most part, Reuters describes a system in which merchants who profit from state-sanctioned trade lend money to state-owned enterprises, mostly for the state’s benefit. This amounts to crony capitalism; it’s the least interesting of the three types of financial services that emerged in North Korea over the last decade.

The second type of service is loan sharking by the well-connected against the structurally impoverished. In some cases, the desperately poor agree to pay usurious interest rates to borrow food. You can imagine how some of these stories end. A month ago, for example, the Daily NK reported that a well-liked young woman stabbed a loan shark to death for pressuring her to make payments she couldn’t afford, and “will probably be executed via other means as soon as the court proceedings come to a close, perhaps with an instrument such as a rubber baton.”

The third, and least exploitative system is the one North Korean refugees currently use to send remittances to their families back home, although that system is risky for the smugglers and the recipients, who become vulnerable to extortion by the police. It’s also expensive — the refugees pay steep commissions from their hard-earned pay to send these pittances home.

The situation that has developed clearly fills a need in the marketplace, but ethically, it’s obviously far from ideal. If the technology existed to set up secure online banking through messenger apps, it would be possible to send remittances and humanitarian aid from South to North Korea with a minimum of risk and cost, and to extend microcredit to the poor in more regulated and ethical ways.

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But the report that fascinates me the most is one I read over the weekend — Eun Jeong Soh’s paper, “The Emergence of an Informal Health-Care Sector in North Korea,” published in the Asia-Pacific Journal, and based on extensive interviews with refugees, including health care workers, from North Korea. One of the more ambitious things I’ve advocated is supplementing, and largely replacing, North Korea’s broken public health system with a guerrilla health care system for those who can’t afford the bribes and fees that are a de facto cost of North Korea’s “free” health care. Soh’s paper suggests the extent to which something like that has already begun to happen spontaneously. Like most of North Koreans’ adaptations to the failure of the state, this new system was illegal, which meant that it necessarily relied on informal networks and a high degree of mutual trust.

At first, many of these home healers were quacks and unqualified traditional healers. Over time, more retired and off-duty doctors began moonlighting for trusted patients. The services they provide have improved in quality as the state hospitals increasingly do little more than use their equipment to diagnose ailments. Today, those who can afford it prefer to use private doctors, who refer patients to back-alley pharmacists to supply medicines. So well developed are the markets’ smuggling networks today that the quality and authenticity of the medicines sold by back-alley pharmacists is now as great a concern as their availability.

Up to this point, Soh’s paper mostly adds richness of detail, anecdote, evidence, and analysis to trends North Korea watchers already knew of, or might have reasonably extrapolated to the state of affairs she describes.

But the state still hovers over all of this. How do informal networks grow despite a state that wants to stamp them out, isolate citizens from each other, and maintain its monopoly over essential services? One way is for private doctors to form protective relationships with the security forces — “she provides him with free medical assistance and he protects her from any official repercussions that her activities might incur.” But Soh’s subjects also report that the state also holds back, fearing that if it cracks down, there will be discontent and unrest. It’s a long quote, but worth reading.

In describing this informal hoarding system, she conveyed the sense of injustice she feels about what the system has become, even though, in times of personal need, she had herself acquired drugs directly from the hospital.

How is such shared moral outrage expressed and communicated to the bureaucrats charged with enforcing the regulations? Dissatisfaction can be expressed verbally as a way of confronting local officials directly. Interviewees argued that in order to survive in North Korea, one often has to take a firm line and defend one’s position logically in order to persuade officials of the merits of one’s case. While this might seem surprising given the state’s tight control over its citizens, the expression of complaints to local officials is facilitated by preexisting relationships between officials and complainants formed through family networks, neighborhood relations, friendships, a shared history as classmates, and so forth. Social relations in small regional cities in North Korea are close, shaped by cultural traditions, socialism, and communalism, and reinforced by the coping and survival strategies developed to weather times of hardship.

However, given the nature of a regime that does not accommodate dissent, the expression of dissatisfaction generally takes non-verbal forms. One term that cropped up frequently was “disaffection” (panbal). In the narratives recorded in this study, panbal refers to feelings as well as expressions of disaffection against the authorities (normally local officials charged with regulating anti-socialist activities), as well as with life in general. Although the authorities are well aware of such disaffection in the populace, Ms Hahn expressed her opinion that in reality the government lacked the power to impose its own regulations: “If the authorities regulate even those activities, there would be too much disruption” (Interview, S. Hahn, October 26, 2013). According to a former police officer, “a police officer will be unpopular if he takes unnecessary enforcement action” (Interview, M. Park, November 18, 2013). If complaints against local officials accumulate, they will damage their reputation with residents. In E. P. Thompson’s words, referring to the 18th-century English crowd, “the authorities were, in some measure, the prisoners of the people” (Thompson 1971, 88).

From the point of view of local officials, the existence of these informal coping networks and strategies are to be applauded, as alternative ways of providing health care may have the effect of allaying complaints by residents. Local officials also have private incentives to turn a blind eye to such informal activities. Normally, these private practices operate with the help of local police who accept bribes from practitioners. More importantly, police officers also draw on the services and expertise of informal health-care workers for their own families’ survival and wellbeing. As a result, local officials and residents have come to share similar views on these extra-judicial activities. Thus the convergence of preferences among providers, consumers, and regulators has contributed to the emergence of an active and evolving informal health-care sector in North Korea.

So it was that North Koreans who harbored no explicit political motives learned to resist and conspire against the state, and to defeat the prisoners’ dilemma it imposed on them.

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Update:

North Korean parents are catching “private education fever” as more and more of them are risking arrest as they venture outside the secretive state’s educational system in the hope that a private tutor will help their children get into a top university.

“The goal of these parents is to send their children overseas or to the best colleges in Pyongyang,” a North Korean who recently visited China told RFA’s Korea Service. “There have been slogans going around saying: ‘Let’s send them overseas!’ or ‘Let’s send them to Pyongyang!’”

In North Korea, where the state tightly controls education, hiring a private tutor is illegal, but more and more parents are taking the risk and paying the price

“Subjects like mathematics, physics or any other of the core studies cost 100 [Chinese] yuan (U.S. $15.00) per month in Pyongyang, whereas subjects that need specialized skills like computer programming cost between 200-500 yuan (U.S. $30-$75) per month,” said the source, who talked to RFA on condition of anonymity.

The fever doesn’t end with academics as so-called “extreme” North Korean parents, who want to raise “civilized” children, pay more so their kids can learn to play at least one instrument and take part in athletics, explained the source.

“Children of the privileged class in Pyongyang spend about 1000 yuan (U.S. $150) monthly for private education expenses,” the source said. [RFA]

To do this, the parents have to pay bribes to get their kids excused from regular school or labor mobilizations. The tutors are also at risk of arrest, so many are well-connected people who are relatively untouchable.