As a vibrant market economy arises from an underdeveloped one, it does not lift all boats as a rising tide would. Some get very rich fast, and some stay very poor. Such periods of rapid development are politically risky times, as uneducated masses are drawn away from their hardscrabble farm lives and packed into factory dormitories, slums, and shanty towns in the cities. Those places become hothouses of envy and radicalism that can bring down the political systems in which wealth and poverty coexist uneasily. It’s no coincidence that Marxist ideas rose as societies industrialized, and waned as most of the world entered a post-industrial phase. Marxism is an ideology built around an emotion — envy. To survive the political turbulence of industrialization, a strong state must have the means and the will to suppress lawlessness, but it must also inspire enough faith in The System that the masses harbor real hope that their lives will continue to improve under it.
On the surface, the coexistence of wealth and poverty in North Korea can resemble what we see in developing societies. But in what sense can it be said that North Korea, a place where the government wraps an iron fist around most commerce and predetermines the potential of its citizens before they’re even born, is “developing?” Are we really seeing the rise of a capitalist class in Pyongyang, or is the same old elite-class hoarding just becoming more ostentatious? The great irony of North Korea is that its most destabilizing force today is the same kind of class envy that propelled most of the Marxist revolutions of the last century. Two excellent news stories this week contrast the superficial trappings of wealth in Pyongyang with an exacerbation of poverty and continued starvation everywhere else. While the elite in Pyongyang have never had it so good, children continue to starve and die in the markets of other North Korean cities.
Food prices have spiked, the result of drought and North Korea’s defiant launching of a rocket in April that shut down new offers of food aid from the United States. Development organizations also blame speculators who have hoarded staples in anticipation of reforms that have yet to materialize. The price of rice has doubled since early summer, and chronic shortages of fuel, electricity and raw materials continue to idle most factories, leaving millions unemployed.
“People were hopeful that Kim Jong-un would make our lives better, but so far they are disappointed,” said a 50-year-old named Mrs. Park, who like Mrs. Kim spoke on the condition that only her last name be used, fearing retribution when she returned home.
A member of the ruling Workers’ Party from a major city, Mrs. Park said that to feed her family, she sells cornmeal cakes from a market stall, but she complained of sluggish sales and famished children who snatch her wares from beneath a protective swatch of fabric. More than once this year, she said she walked by the lifeless bodies of those who were too weak to steal.
“I would have given them food if I had any,” she said, looking away with shame. [N.Y. Times, Andrew Jacobs]
This is some of the best journalism the Times has produced about North Korea in my memory. I hope we’ll see more of Mr. Jacobs’s work. Another giant, Barbara Demick, writes:
Women wearing fancy shoes, miniskirts and trousers, fashions popularized by the chic wife of North Korea’s not-yet 30-year-old leader. Brand new high-rise apartment buildings, which she’s heard have washing machines and refrigerators. People walking down the street yammering into cellphones stuck to their ears.
All things that, for now, at least, seem beyond the reach of the 52-year-old Kim, who, although she counts herself among the privileged as a resident of the North Korean capital, can barely afford to eat rice.
“Of course, they’re showing off with their cellphones. Who wouldn’t?” she snapped.
“There is more construction, more people building things, more to buy in Pyongyang. But day to day, our life is actually harder,” said Kim, who like many North Koreans working outside the country uses a pseudonym.
“Maybe 1 out of 10,000 North Koreans can afford to eat white rice every day like the people in China,” said a 58-year-old man from Suncheon, 30 miles north of Pyongyang, who has been working in a brick factory in China.
At North Korea’s state-owned factories, wages are so low (often less than $1 per month) that people will pay for the privilege of not showing up to work. They use their time instead to collect firewood or edible greens or to trade something on the market.
As for the vaunted North Korean military, rank-and-file soldiers have so little to eat that their parents have to send money and food for them to survive. Cornfields have to be guarded 24 hours a day to prevent thievery, with many of the culprits being hungry soldiers. [L.A. Times, Barbara Demick]
Both articles are absolute must-reads. Also not to be missed, and on the same theme: this piece in The Atlantic, and this one by Laura Ling, although five points shall be deducted from Slitheren for all references to “Kangnam Style.”
Separately, other reports are claiming that North Korea’s food situation is as bad as it’s been at any time since the Great Famine. I’m a committed agnostic about any statement that claims to represent the true food situation in North Korea, given the restrictions on access to reliable data and the substantial variations that probably exist from region to region. It’s clear, however, that North Koreans don’t think their lives have improved during the centenary of Kim Il Sung’s birth or since the coronation of Kim Jong Un. The perception of declining living standards is bad news for any ruling regime, but it’s fatal when it’s so easily contrasted to the rising and conspicuous wealth of a privileged few. As a consequence, class envy in North Korea is almost certainly both deep and wide, and it’s turning North Korea into a Brechtian dystopia where the masses live by the laws of Erst kommt das Fressen and Der Mensch lebt durch den Kopf.
Hat tips to several readers.
UPDATE: But then, the Kim Dynasty has become less Marxist with each generation, and more an expression of Emmanuel Goldstein’s oligarchical collectivism (I’m not the first one to be astonished by how much Goldstein’s criticism of Oceania sounds exactly like North Korea, but don’t take my word for it). That’s why it shouldn’t surprise us that even the
statues portraits of Marx and Lenin have been removed from Kim Il Sung Square.