In the Black Market

Korea Times
Andrei Lankov

The North Korea of the 1960s or 1980s was not a society of complete equality. It had its rich and poor. But the affluent people were affluent either because the party-state bureaucracy chose them, such as government officials and a handful of the most prominent scholars and writers, as well as people who were allowed to work overseas and were paid in hard currency, or allowed them to be affluent. For example, this was the case with the repatriates from Japan. From the late 1980s, the situation changed. Some people began to make money not because they were paid and showered with privileges, but because they learned how to use market capitalism.

The markets began to grow explosively around 1990, and North Korean “black capitalism’’ was conceived around this time. The first really rich people began to appear, even though they had to hide their success both from the authorities and their fellow countrymen. And one had to use whatever advantages one had, as competition was tough. In the late 1990s, the North Koreans used to say “there are only three types of people in North Korea: those who starve, those who beg and those who trade.’’

These early capitalists came from backgrounds that gave them advantages over other people who also took up trade. Most of them were officials who had useful connections. In the 1990s, a person who could command a truck easily made a huge amount of money by moving merchandise around the country and exploiting the large differences in prices between the regions. Managers of state enterprises could sell the production of their factories on the market. This was technically stealing, of course, but it was in an increasingly corrupt society there was a fairly good chance of not getting caught. Retail personnel at all levels channeled the goods through the “back doors’’ of their shops, away from the disintegrating public distribution system. Military and security personnel also had advantages, since for decades they had lived in what can be described as a “state-within-the-state,’’ beyond even the most nominal control of outsiders. Finally, “hard currency earning’’ officials made a lot of money: they have been running quasi-market operations from the 1970s and had both the necessary expertise and resources. After 1990, they began to use these resources for their own ends.

In addition to officials, generals and police officers, there were other groups of people who found themselves in an advantageous position in those early days of North Korea’s capitalist revival. These included the repatriates from Japan whose relatives back in the “capitalist hell’’ have always been encouraged to transfer money to the North. The repatriates had money, and some of them retained vestigial experience of operating in a market economy. Another group included ethnic Chinese, some of whom were Chinese citizens, and Koreans who had close relatives in China. For decades, both of these groups have been engaged in small-time cross-border commerce, and after the collapse of state control, they greatly increased the scale of their operations.

Even some humbler professions found themselves in relatively good times. Drivers, for instance, could take money for moving passengers and merchandise _ especially, after the quiet breakdown of the travel restriction system around 1997. They also augmented this money by selling and buying goods themselves and became a major source of income for train conductors.

Fortunes were made in trade, not in manufacturing, which remained largely controlled by the state. Money lending also provided good profits. In the mid-1990s, private lenders charged their borrowers with a monthly interest of some 30-40 percent. The associated risks were high, too; these private lenders had virtually no protection against the state or criminals, or above all, bad debtors.

The growth of grassroots capitalism had another unexpected effect: the empowerment of women. Like their counterparts in most other Communist countries, the North Korean authorities expected every able-bodied male to be employed in some state enterprise. It was illegal for men to remain unemployed. However, for married women, the approach was different. All Communist countries grudgingly admitted that a woman has at least a theoretical right to remain a full-time housewife. In the North, the share of housewives was unusually high: no precise data is available but it appears that some 30-40 percent of married women of working age stayed at home.

When economic disaster struck, this arrangement had unintended consequences. The men kept going to their factories and offices, even if their wages were becoming meaningless. They were afraid of the still formidable state machine, they wanted to keep the status traditionally associated with proper jobs and they also needed the rations _ as long as the rations were forthcoming. Women, especially housewives, were free to pursue completely different economic strategies. They took up market commerce with great enthusiasm and soon comprised a majority of North Korean vendors. This also meant that the women’s earnings became the major source of income in many Korean families.

This did not mean that women became prominent at the highest reaches of the new capitalist market. To occupy the key positions and make really good money, one had to have connections, capital and connections. Most of the people who had all of these things were male, but at the lower levels of the new semi-legal capitalist class, women came to play a significant role.


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