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North Koreans fight a losing battle for the soil they till & the food they grow

With the greening of the trees each year in North Korea come annual predictions of famine due to weather conditions that, by some meteorological miracle, never cross the Demilitarized Zone and cause hunger in South Korea. This year, as with every year since 1999, the reality was not as bad as the dire predictions, but the situation is still bad: some of the Daily NK’s sources say that they’ve seen the bodies of people who (or so they believe) have starved to death. That wouldn’t be the first time that’s happened since the end of the Great Famine, and it’s also a sign that the causes of hunger in North Korea remain unchanged.

So unsurprisingly, yet again, Pyongyang isn’t feeding its people. But of all the obligations a state undertakes in its social contract with the governed, the one obligation you’d think Pyongyang would be able to deliver on would be security. But as this blog has documented, in North Korea, unfed soldiers roam the roads and rape women with impunity, and are sometimes ordered to pillage homes and farms by officers who aren’t feeding them. This year, Pyongyang will again loose its soldiers on the people.

Sources in North Korea are reporting that the authorities are preparing another push to collect rice for the armed forces this fall. However, in contrast to previous years, this time the order has been issued to the military itself. Ordinary citizens have in the past been assigned the task of gathering these provisions, but the responsibility this year has fallen on military conscripts.

“Military leadership handed down orders last month detailing the quotas required to be collected by the local 12th Corp. These orders include amounts covering every division and brigade in the entire 12th Corp, which must be collected and presented to division leaders in the coming season,” a source in Ryanggang Province informed Daily NK on October 18.

“It is quite absurd that military personnel have to collect these provisions themselves. And such orders were handed down in all provinces, covering all military divisions across the country.”

The source says that soldiers are complaining about the plan, especially given the government’s failure to distribute goods, even to the military in recent times.

“Is there any other country on Earth that does not feed its own military? I thought the army was supposed to be defending our country, but instead they’re turning us into an army of farmers,” one serviceman told the source. [Daily NK]

In the markets, the best thing that has happened to the North Korean people since the Japanese occupation army left, organized crime (often, in alliance with corrupt officials) is starting to monopolize trade and control prices. Now, with most North Koreans expecting a bad harvest, private sotoji farmers are taking the security of their crops into their own hands, unarmed.

Many farmers take security over their fields seriously even in good harvest seasons, but with this year’s poor yields, people are staying up all night to keep watch, as even a small amount lost to theft can leave a whole family in dire straits. The farmers and locals tend to watch the fields themselves. Although police officers also keep watch in some places, they are widely criticized as being so incompetent that “10 of them could not catch a single thief,” she said.

According to the source, the police are widely distrusted because they often only demand bribes from thieves that are caught in the act, which does little to address the problem. However, because citizens are patrolling the fields and catching thieves themselves, it has also been common for fights and other incidents to break out during confrontations.

Another source in Jagang Province spoke of a specific incident where “a fight broke out after citizens in the village of Wiwon caught a thief in the fields. However, after many locals began angrily condemning the thief for stealing their food, they also found themselves asking whether they would do the same in such circumstances.” [Daily NK]

Citizens, including the farmers who feed everyone else — and who will become increasingly important to the survival of the population as sanctions invariably have unintended impacts on non-sanctioned trade — can’t really look to the security forces for security: the security forces shake them down for bribes and intermittently enforce orders to clear, confiscate, and replant the plots they farm. Indeed, the abusive and corrupt security forces themselves are the single greatest threat to the security of the people. And consequently, the converse is increasingly true, as it justly should be in this unjust world.

The North Korean authorities have yet to identify any leads in the murder of a Preliminary Examination Officer outside his own home in Sunchon, South Pyongan Province. The officer worked for the Ministry of People’s Security’s Inspection Department.

A source in the area notified Daily NK on October 17 that the “authorities believe the state inspector was killed out of revenge, though they have yet to find the killer.”

According to the source, the 32-year-old agent was ambushed after returning home from work outside an apartment block in the Kangpo neighborhood of Sunchon. As the man parked his motorbike, he was struck in the back of the head and later died. The authorities are apparently wary of additional attacks targeting law enforcement officials.

MPS personnel responding to the scene of the crime immediately notified their superiors when they discovered that the victim was an MPS investigator. Attention soon turned to the likelihood that it was a revenge killing, carried out as payback for misconduct by the officer.

“This MPS officer was the most sadistic and brutal of them all. Anyone caught by him was usually beaten half to death, paralyzed, sent to a correctional labor camp, and almost always died within a few years after intense suffering,” the source said. [Daily NK]

Surely events like this must enter into the minds of the security forces’ officers as they go about their brutal work. More events like this would cause more of them to think twice — specifically about actions that impede the supply and distribution of food.

Lately, I’ve taken to citing the argument of Nobel prize-winning economist Angus Deaton, that foreign aid can have the effect of reinforcing the very state behavior that causes the hunger aid is meant to address. Marcus Noland is fond of citing the work of the Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, who argues that most modern famines are not the consequence of inadequate supply, but of grossly unequal distribution of that supply as a consequence of unequal entitlements. North Korea turns out to be a good case study for both of these arguments. Look no further than the U.N. aid agenciessilence — even falsehoods — attributing hunger to everything except Pyongyang’s gross waste of resources, and its onagain, offagain suppression of private farming and trade. No wonder hunger still stalks the people of North Korea despite decades of U.N. aid.

This blog has long presented evidence that North Korea’s government has more than adequate resources to feed its people with just a fraction of what it spends on weapons and luxuries for its morbidly obese tyrant. The reasons for hunger in North Korea are not material, they are political. And if the world won’t confront those political causes, the North Korean people must. To shift their country’s grossly unequal balance of entitlements away from the state, they will first have to confront its monopoly on violence. With a futility borne of desperation, they are. But without the means to communicate and arms with which to resist, they will do no more than shift that balance minimally at its margins.

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Daily NK: China not taking North Korean coal shipments

Last week, I posted about the conflicting reports about China’s compliance with the new sanctions on North Korea. Just after I posted that, I noticed that the Daily NK had also added a report of its own, suggesting that amid a regime mobilization to expand coal production, coal exports were being refused by Chinese ports.

“Recently, we’ve seen a full ban on our [North Korean] ships at the Port of Yingkou in Liaoning Province, where coal trade had been most active with China,” a source from Pyongyang told Daily NK in a telephone conversation on Tuesday. “We’ve also received notice that the Port of Rizhao in Shandong Province will also gradually restrict entry.”

An additional source in the capital corroborated this news.

“The news suddenly arrived as a unilateral announcement from China two days ago, leading to chaos at the commerce ministry,” the source explained. “Cadres have been unable to decide whether to turn around all of the other ships at sea, on top of the coal and iron ore vessels that are still awaiting orders after being refused port entry at Yingkou.” [Daily NK]

Contrary to the predictions of sanctions skeptics, the bad economic news is not causing people to rally to the regime.

This setback was reported to the Central Party, but trade officials have instead chosen to admonish others for not taking action in advance to mitigate the problem rather than consider potential solutions. There has also been indirect criticism of the nuclear test and long-range rocket launch, with questions as to why they need to “clean up a mess made by others,” he reported.

Some cadres are reportedly expressing their concerns over the financial implications of these events, exclaiming, “If we can’t export coal any more, we’re done for.” The question of who will be held responsible for the export blockage also has people on edge, with some reminded of Jang Song Thaek shouldering the blame for the country’s failed currency reform and the stalling of construction for the 100,000 homes project in Pyongyang.

The source added that coal workers are also troubled by the export block after having been excited about the prospect of receiving increased rations as a reward for the “70-day battle” production surge. “Cutting off ration supplies [received from China with remuneration for coal] will negatively affect workers and result in diminished output, and by extension impact power plants, the industrial sector, and other aspects of people’s lives. This may in turn ignite a good deal of anger within the public,” he speculated. [Daily NK]

The export ban will affect the operation of the mines in due course. Last year, mine workers weathered another slowdown in Chinese imports because most of the miners’ wives trade in the markets.There will also be many, varied, and complex effects on North Korea’s industrial capacity, some of them completely desirable, and others that may cause the U.S. and China to agree that a use of the “livelihood” loophole in UNSCR 2270 is appropriate.

There will be impacts on the power supply, which has long been spotty, even in Pyongyang where it is disproportionately allocated. No doubt, this will be a good year for the solar panel trade. One positive impact of the last decades of unreliable government services is that North Korea’s poor have learned to be resilient, resourceful, and independent of the state. That’s why, despite last year’s drought and dire predictions of a new famine, North Koreans managed to avert the worst, probably through private agriculture.

It won’t be possible to completely shield the North Korean people from the impact of sanctions, but it is our obligation to mitigate it as much as we can, while telling the North Korean people the real reason why they suffer. Sadly, some short-term hardship may be North Koreans’ only way to escape a future filled with starvation, oppression, and war. The only escape from that future is to break either the regime, or its will to resist change, peace, and openness.

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U.N. must confront the political causes of North Korea’s food crisis

In North Korea, the land of suspended disbelief, an almost unbroken twenty-year series of meteorological miracles has bounded droughts and floods within the blighted land between the DMZ and the Yalu River each year, without having once caused a famine or food crisis in South Korea. For a few months this year, a serious drought threatened to be the worst-ever again, until rains came and eased conditions in most parts of the country.

North Koreans can still look forward to a hard year (see here and here), but not a disastrous one. For this, many North Koreans may owe their lives to the sotoji farmers, who spent the drought tending their crops and covering them with plastic sheeting to hold the soil’s moisture. Although sotoji farmers grow their crops in backyards, cleared plots in the hills, and marginal land the state did not bother to collectivize, they provide “as much as 60 percent of all food sold on the local market” in some areas. The state has fought them every step of the way, by confiscating plots, limiting their size, hiking land use fees, or planting trees on them.

Clearly, then, the causes of North Korea’s food crisis are not primarily meteorological. The same must be said of the solutions.

If anything good came of the drought, it is that it briefly revived the debate about aid policy, to which Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein makes an important contribution at The Diplomat. Silberstein takes aid agencies to task for enabling the regime’s avoidance of fundamental reforms that are essential to address the root causes of North Korea’s long-term nutritional crisis.

Sadly, in trying to counter North Korea’s suffering, the international community may ironically be contributing to its prolonging. The United Nations and other donors are enabling the North Korean regime to continue its disastrous policies when they act as cushions whenever the country runs out of food.

Foreign aid has been an integral part of North Korea’s food supply planning since the mid-1990s. This year is no exception, and the international community may have to allocate additional funds to North Korean food aid in order to prevent widespread malnutrition. But aid won’t change anything in the long run. North Korea will continue to be highly vulnerable to simple weather changes, unless its most basic economic policies are completely overhauled. [Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein, The Diplomat]

He also raises an obvious question that aid agencies consistently avoid — that North Korea could import enough food to close its food gap, yet chooses not to.

The North Korean regime often emphasizes that the country consists mostly of mountainous regions not suitable for farming. That is clearly true, but the logical response to such a challenge would be to seek to import agricultural goods and export those that the country can produce in greater abundance to a cheaper price than others. Instead, the regime continues to uphold economic and political self-reliance as its overarching goal.

The first duty of a government is to either provide for its people or let them provide for themselves. States that fail this most basic obligation forfeit their sovereign right to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on flat screen TVs, jewelry, and expensive liquor; to spend hundreds of millions of dollars building ski resorts and water parks; and to spend a billion-and-change on missiles each year. All of these expenditures ($644M, $300M, $1.3B, respectively) dwarf what aid agencies are asking foreign donors to give to food aid programs ($111M). Even without subtracting out the aid agencies’ substantial overhead costs, this means that North Korea has more than enough cash on hand to feed its own people.

Silberstein concludes:

Like most disasters often termed as “natural,” the consequences of North Korea’s drought are first and foremost failures of policy, not of nature. By agreeing to supply North Korea’s shortfall in food production, year after year, even as the regime refuses to make any fundamental changes to the system that keeps on failing, the international community acts as an enabler for the regime’s continuing mismanagement. Humanitarian aid is given with the best of intentions, but in the long run, by helping the North Korean regime avoid necessary policy choices, it may be harming rather than helping the North Korean population.

When two decades* of international aid fail to pull an industrialized society in a temperate zone out of a state of widespread, multi-generational, chronic malnutrition, aid agencies incur an obligation to identify and confront the real causes of hunger in North Korea. In North Korea, that begins with talking about an undeniable and criminally culpable misallocation of resources, but does not end there. The fact that North Korean spies have infiltrated the World Food Program (and UNESCO, for good measure) may not be the only reason why aid agencies haven’t met this duty, but until they do, donors will continue to stay away in droves.

Silberstein devotes much of his article to the state of agricultural reform in North Korea, which he views as “nothing more than tweaking the edges of a failed system.” Even this may give Pyongyang too much credit, as the regime’s unsteady policies make every gain uncertain. Last month, for example, I wrote that the regime’s tolerance of markets was one clear bright spot in the economic picture. Since then, it has banned men under 60 from trading. To angry North Korean traders who are protesting to security forces, brawling with them, or jumping off buildings in angry desperation, the state’s liberalization hasn’t gone far enough. To them, when the state fails to provide, it is their right to provide for themselves:

Not only that, on the same day, an additional source in the same province reported a recent riot targeting MPS agents at Chongjin’s Sunam Market. The skirmish ignited when an agent arbitrarily targeted a male merchant in his 60s for the old middle-school textbooks mixed in with the secondhand books he was hawking at his stall.

When the books were confiscated he shouted, “What does the state give us? We don’t get rations or wages. If I got even one of those two things I wouldn’t be here doing this!” according to the source.

Moreover, “Passersby and merchants alike near the scene quickly stepped up to take the old man’s side, wasting no time in berating the MPS officials by shouting, ‘What’s wrong with what he said? Of course we’ve taken to market life–we’re hungry! We have to make ends meet! Why would be put ourselves through arduous work like this if we could be full and rich like you. Those who are full can’t grasp the hunger of others,” he explained.

Others at the scene chimed in, shouting, “Not even being able sell things without worrying–that’s too suffocating a reality,” according to the source, who added that this micro incident is directly reflective of a macro issue of citizens’ frustration regarding the authorities.

The agent, visibly overwhelmed by the outcries, tried to defend himself, shouting, “It’s not my fault that the state is not giving you rations. Go take your complaints to the district office,” according to the source, who said that he fled directly thereafter, during which citizens yelled after him, “ You’re all the same–living off the money of those struggling to get by!”

He added, “The MPS agent took off in a flash before the altercation could escalate further. Still, the tension hung heavy in the air long after his departure and a lot of the residents on the scene said that it helped them get [suppressed feelings] off their chests.” [Daily NK]

Today, street stalls are springing up everywhere, but what about tomorrow? Further complicating this picture is the fact that it can be difficult to determine, based on unconfirmed and isolated reports, whether reported incidents suggest a top-down policy change or bottom-up corruption. What matters in the end is what’s inflicted on the traders in the markets, and on the consumers who rely on them.

On the contrary, North Korea is not only refusing to change its economic structures to make them more resilient to events like the current drought. The state also continues to suppress those economic mechanisms that could help counter the effects of natural disasters. Even though private legal markets are now part of the formal economy to a large extent, imports and exports are still heavily restricted and largely rely on the willingness of border guards to accept bribes.

While Kim Jong-un has implemented measures that carry the shape of economic liberalization with one hand, his other hand has been used to tighten controls on border trade and smuggling. The government would only need to cease some of its control of the markets to alleviate the food shortages that will likely follow the current drought, a virtually costless measure. So far, it has done nothing of this sort. [Silberstein]

The regime now confronts a political paradox — small relaxations of control only beget demands for greater relaxations of control. As more people enter the market system and deepen their investments in it, their demands also become more aggressive. For North Korea’s poor, the market system is the new normal, even a new right. Year by year, that right becomes more unalienable. Unlike the generation that preceded them, most of North Korea’s untermenschen do not sit listlessly at the verge of starvation; they are merely poor, on the wrong side of a widening gap between rich and poor, and increasingly angry about it. Far better for the regime, then, to simply accept the inevitable change that it seems less able to resist each year.

North Korea needs fundamental, structural policy reforms at every stage of its nutritional cycle. First, it must prioritize providing food and medical care for its people, instead of luxury items and weapons. Second, it must fundamentally liberalize its markets and let its people provide for themselves. Third, North Korea needs real land reform — not sharecropping, or any other marginal reforms that people in Washington love to predict, and people in Chongjin never see and no longer believe in. To end North Korea’s food crisis, Pyongyang must give the land back to the tillers, let the market provide food to those who can provide for themselves, and build a functioning social welfare system for those who cannot.

Donor nations must recognize that the change North Korea needs is a fundamental transition to a market-based system, including land redistribution, and make clear that the world is ready to help the North Korean government implement that change by providing seed, fertilizer, environmentally safe pesticides, and training to farmers. Until then, they should unite to block the offshore funds that Pyongyang is wasting, and make those funds available for humanitarian purposes only.

~   ~   ~

* Originally said “a decade.”

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Markets, food, and trade: steps forward, leaps backward (Pts. 1, 2 & 3)

~   Part 1   ~

Do you still remember March, when the “May 30 measures” were the next wave of “drastic” perestroika that would change North Korea? Those measures were supposed to “give[] autonomy management of all institutions, companies, and stores,” including “control over production distribution and trade from the state to factories and businesses,” and thus awaken “the inner potential of the country.” But today, Andrei Lankov, who has been one of the most forward-leaning predictors of economic reform in recent years, tells us that the regime is backing away from the reform proposal:

The ‘May 30th Measures’ envisioned that the new system would be expanded to include all North Korean enterprises, but this is not what has happened. Reports emanating from North Korea in the last two months leave little doubt that the expected transformation has at best been postponed, at worst, cancelled entirely. Right now, only a minority of North Korean industrial enterprises have been allowed to implement the new model.

What happened? Frankly, it is unlikely we will receive a definite answer to this question any time soon. Of course, it is quite possible that Kim Jong Un suddenly changed his mind and decided to stop reformist activities that he found to be politically dangerous and ideologically suspicious. It is also possible that the reforms faced determined opposition from conservative members of the bureaucracy and military. Last, but not least, it is also possible that North Korean leaders have come to understand the problems that such reforms would face without prior and proper changes to the financial system.

Whatever the reasons, it is clear that the North Korean government has decided to slow down the reform process. At the same time, there has as yet been no reversal. [Andrei Lankov]

I’m still not convinced that either the reforms or the retreat are real, but I won’t let that stop me from suggesting two more alternative theories. For example, Lankov cites the example of the Musan Iron Mine, which was paying its workers 300,000 to 400,000 won per month, “exorbitant wages by North Korean standards.” But in the case of Musan, power shortages and the squeeze on exports to China have led to reports of mass layoffs. The regime may have decided that it couldn’t afford either the higher wages or the risk of creating a pool of angry, unemployed workers. Or, the entire program may have been disinformation all along, meant to mollify workers at a time when state-run industry is demoralized, and when workers seeking steady pay vastly prefer scarce jobs at foreign currency-earning enterprises.

Either way, reform rumors often seem to cause more excitement on Massachusetts Avenue and the Yonsei campus than in Chongjin or Hamheung:

“A lot of top officials in North Korea are not sure which direction Kim Jong Un is taking them in,” says Park. “He doesn’t know how to be a leader. He doesn’t know politics, economy, culture or diplomacy.”

Initial plans for a more open market economy modeled on China was soon dumped, says Park, once it became clear opening up could jeopardize Kim’s iron grip on power.

“People are struggling to survive and are trading on the black market so the official economy is barely functioning.” Park adds “a lot of people are trading foreign currency and running small businesses but the power of the state to control that money is weakening.” [CNN]

One can observe this same gap in expectations with the so-called “6.28 measures,” which would let farmers keep a greater share of what they grow. The 6.28 measures also generated much optimism here, in Lankov especially, but failed to materialize in 2012, 2013, and 2014. North Koreans have heard these promises enough to stop believing them. From their perspective, “nothing has changed.” In Ryanggang Province last year, their shares of the harvest were actually about half of what the state promised. They’ve lost faith in the state, its collectives, and its excuses:

“As the state fails year after year to distribute a fare share to the workers, motivation among collective farmers continues to decline,” he explained, adding that the high hopes the bunjo system once instilled in people have largely fizzled out, only to be replaced with more misgivings.

He went on to say that the state’s failures have given way to a population that “no longer believes in state policies,” and is fully aware that the state “simply hides behind excuses of ‘aid to the military, shortfalls of production targets, and purchasing seeds for the next harvest'” to explain away its broken promises. “We’re not going to be fooled again this year,” the source noted. [Daily NK]

As Marcus Noland and Stephan Haggard have argued, what foreigners are tempted to describe as “reform” in North Korea often amounts to state policies catching up to what citizens have already established as a fact of life, legally or otherwise. Even if the 6.28 measures are real, unanswered questions about how they will be implemented will determine how much of a difference they will really make in the availability and production of food. Perhaps 2015 will be the year when the regime finally implements the 6.28 measures, but the reform North Korean farmers really want — and the change they’re making a fact of life now — is private, individual, for-profit agriculture, sometimes called sotoji farming.

~   Part 2   ~

For obvious reasons, no one knows for certain how much of North Korea’s food is grown on sotoji plots, but Lankov has estimated “as much as 60 percent of all food sold on the local market” in some areas. U.N. food and crop estimates say little about private agriculture, but it’s probably one important part of the reason why the state’s border crackdowns haven’t caused a return of famine. The practice is common enough that “[p]eople in farming areas are busy cultivating small individual plots during this season, constantly moving around hilly areas and the banks of the river from dawn to dusk,” and complicating efforts to catch border-crossers. Because the state has monopolized the best land for the collectives, sotoji farmers have cleared plots in the mountains. This, along with the clearing of trees for firewood, has contributed to the North’s deforestation problem.

The regime’s response to sotoji farming has been similar to its treatment of the markets a decade ago — tolerate but squeeze. In previous years, it has confiscated plots, or limited their size to 30, and later, 100 square meters in the immediate vicinity of the grower’s home. This year, the regime is trying to tax the plots to death, raising land use fees by 50% and requiring farmers to pay in produce. Many farmers can’t afford this higher rate and call the decision “absurd” when the regime still can’t provide survival rations. The regime has responded with threats of outright confiscation. In some areas, officials have prohibited the clearing of trees, or ordered residents to plant trees on existing farm plots:

Another source reported that people have expressed frustration about the fact that food security is seen as less of a priority than reforestation. “If trees are planted on hillside plots or strips of land near the roads, there will be less for people to eat. If the state doesn’t guarantee food, people will just move elsewhere and keep cultivating whatever land they can, decimating other forest areas,” he concluded. [Daily NK]

So far, squeezing the sotoji has not caused hardship for most of the people. Food prices were largely stable and well below their usual seasonal levels during the lean season in March and April. The reports credited various reasons for the improved food supply, including aid from Russia, trade with China, and paradoxically, “a program of encouraging people to cultivate smaller plots of land” within the collectives. (Note well: when I argue that the regime itself could and should ease the food crisis through land reform and imports rather than asking foreign donors to fill the void, this is what I mean.)

Meanwhile, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that most North Korean still suffer from food shortages, and one in six North Korean kids still suffers from chronic malnutrition. Worse, North Korea is facing a serious drought that could worsen the food crisis next year. Pyongyang could close its food gap easily with a small reallocation and redistribution of the resources it squanders on its military and its oligarchy.

But not all of the news is bad. One area where there is clear evidence of improvement is the jangmadang, or markets. The Daily NK reports that the regime has eased up on market trading, including by dispensing with a widely disobeyed prohibition on women under 50 selling in the markets. This has created significant opportunities for those who make their living by selling on the people’s economy. As a result, the number of market stalls in North Korean cities has increased rapidly in the last three years. One incentive for this is that the “stall fees” officials collect from merchants are increasingly lucrative, which enlists local officials in the growth of the market system. For now, business is good, and vendors pay high prices (RMB 4,500) to officials for market stalls. In addition to this, there has been a proliferation of small fast-food restaurants and coffee shops in the provincial towns.

There are still limits, of course: vendors caught selling South Korean goods risk losing their stalls. But there is evidence that this is a nationwide trend, suggesting a top-down decision to relax the rules. Can it last? A review of the history tells us that markets have waxed and waned as the regime vacillated between cracking down and easing up. North Korean women share this concern:

[M]ost women are perplexed, if cautiously elated, by the leniency shown by a system that has wielded such stringent power and regulation over them for so long. “The shift in sanctions feels like hell has frozen over,” many have remarked, adding that they “finally have the opportunity to make ends meet.” Still, many are wary, noting that “you never know when the authorities will abruptly declare a new policy or revert to stringent clampdowns.” [Daily NK]

~   Part 3   ~

There is also good news on the transportation front. Well-connected merchants called donju have gone into the business of moving goods and people, pressing government-owned trains, trams, and boats into commercial service by renting them from the Ministry of Railways and Fisheries, or by importing old trucks and buses from China and kicking up a cut to officials in exchange for permission to operate. (The donju were also buying electricity from corrupt state officials, paying illegal “electricity taxes” in exchange for a more reliable power supply — up to 10 hours a day for 20 days.) Donju are also starting taxi services in the cities.

The establishment of an alternative transport system would be good news. It would help break down the regime’s internal controls on the movements of people and information. More efficient transportation of goods would also erode the inequalities between regions (particularly between Pyongyang and other places).

But as North Korea watchers have learned, for every few small steps forward, there is eventually a Great Leap Backward. So can it last? To answer that question, we have to know whether the positive changes are happening because of Pyongyang, or in spite of it. If the latter is more true than the former, it may be that the regime is concentrating on enforcing border and information control at the expense of other internal controls. It certainly isn’t talking about reform and opening, and if there’s general agreement among Korea watchers about anything, it’s that the regime regime remains firmly opposed political reform or change. Pyongyang is clearly determined to seal up the cracks in the information blockade by restricting cross-border travel and snuffing out cross-border communications. That crackdown is backed by the full power and resources of the state, and almost certainly comes from the very top. In April, the regime deployed even more inspection teams to the border, to catch both border-crossers and users of illegal cell phones.

This crackdown is stifling consumer trade. It is making it difficult for traders to cross the border with China, and to obtain merchandise from China. These restrictions have significantly reduced the volume of consumer imports. Traders are also worried about politicized prosecutions of cross-border traders as spies, and inspections designed to root out ”impure members hidden in society;” “narcotics, human trafficking, illegal phone calls, and defections;” and “vibes from capitalist delinquents and punks” entering from China. Throughout much of 2014, Rimjingang received reports of “a series of purges and firing squad executions of Party cadres” in Pyongyang. One official was executed for leaking word of the arrival of a South Korean aid shipment in Nampo. Another, a Chinese resident, was said to be executed for “spying, narcotic trafficking, selling of impure recordings.” According to one Rimjingang source in Pyongyang, the authorities announced the sentence by posting a notice at the Chinese resident association office, possibly “to set an example and to intimidate and warn Chinese residents who often travel to China.” Chinese traders report that they are only allowed to use their mobiles in designated areas — probably so that the state can monitor their conversations — and levies heavy fines on those caught using their phones anywhere else. It’s clear, then, that whatever the economic trends, the political trends are regressive and reactionary.

Can we make any sense at all of this contradictory information? It’s possible that there’s no real pattern here at all, just scattered pixels of uncoordinated and arbitrary decisions and indecisions by officials at every level and in every province. Indeed, some of the information is simply contradictory; some reports say fuel prices have eased, while other say they’re skyrocketed. Most of the positive developments in the preceding paragraphs may well have resulted from local or low-level official abstaining from enforcing the rules, possibly due to corruption or a profit motive. To some extent, a rebound in markets probably represents their recovery from The Great Confiscation five years ago. One must also wonder how long a revival the markets can last when the regime is making it harder to import food and consumer goods from China, and when it’s making it harder for people to grow much of the food that’s sold there. What use is an empty market? One of the best times for North Korea’s jangmadang was 2009, right before The Great Confiscation wiped out the savings of a nascent middle class who had gained a degree of wealth — and critically, financial independence — from the markets. If the state sees that the people are gaining financial independence, it may feel threatened.

I do see two constants in all of this. First, there is the desperation and inexhaustible resourcefulness of the North Korean people. Second, there is the Inner Party’s determination to contain them. There is also a third, dynamic trend — the Outer Party’s growing corruption, which allows the people’s economy to survive, and to fill new voids left behind by the state’s failure.

Every commentary about the economic transition of North Korea can only be a snapshot, or a most a few frames, of a moving picture. Whether you perceive that the small steps forward are outpacing the great leaps backward, or how, depends on when you take the snapshot, and which part of the frame you focus on. It also depends on whether you’re willing to accept reform rumors as true, and to assume they’ll ever come to anything. More often than not, however, behind each of the regime’s reform measures is a much more consequential, latent, market-driven trend that the regime is simply trying to catch up to.

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