North Korea’s Social Change

Andrei Lankov has a great interview in The Browser where he discusses social change in the DPRK—from the time of Japanese colonialism through today:

B. Do you think there has been a big change since your first experiences in the mid 80’s?

AL.Huge. It is a completely different country nowadays. This is often under-appreciated. North Korean authorities are doing their best to keep the façade of a non-changing country. When Kim Jong Il became the new leader of the country he said: “don’t expect any change from me.” Change has happened nonetheless, whether the government has wanted it or not. The changes have been very profound and remarkable. Unlike China, it happened against the government’s wishes. Up to the present day, the state has sought to put the genie back in the bottle. They want a return to the situation that existed in the 70’s and 80’s – to a perfect Stalinist state. At same time they are also trying to hide these changes, especially from outside visitors. When you arrive at Pyongyang it looks completely unchanged. My first visit was in 1984, my most recent in 2005. Externally, in these 20 years, it has not changed. The city looks the same but society is now completely different. Under Kim Il Song’s rule until the early 1990’s, North Korea was a perfect Stalinist state. It was a strange mixture of Confucian traditionalism, nationalism and Stalinism. Economically it was very Stalinist, based on total state property; even small private economic activity was discouraged or banned. In the 1990’s the old economy collapsed. It had been inefficient and only survived so long as the Soviet Union and China were willing to provide North Korea with aid. When the aid flow abruptly ended the result was economic disaster. The economy collapsed, with the partial exception of the military sector. In order to survive, the populace had no choice but to rediscover capitalism. It was market economy from below. Until this point people lived on government rations, there was almost no free trade, nearly total rationing of everything. This system was introduced in the late 1950’s and became all encompassing in the 1960’s. Change occurred largely because the government was no longer able to provide rations. Since the early 1990s people were forced to find ways to generate other, independent, means of income. Booming markets began to grow, there was smuggling, farmers began to work on their private plots, low-level officials, sometimes out of compassion but more frequently in search of bribes, began to turn a blind eye on all of this “bad” activity. To all intents and purposes, North Korea is no longer a perfect Stalinist economy. It is more like a country in central Africa, but with a bad and cold climate.

The whole interview is worth reading because it give a concise history of the DPRK through the last 100 years.  You can find the full interview here.


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