Archive for the ‘Juche’ Category

2012 Joint Editorial

Tuesday, January 3rd, 2012

Some thought it was possible that Kim Jong-un might deliver a new year’s address (as Kim Il-sung always did), but instead the leadership has chosen to follow the practice of the Kim Jong-il era by issuing a “joint editorial” by Rodong Sinmun, Joson Inmingun, and Chongnyon Jonwi.

Since I am writing this post well after the joint editorial has already been published, numerous commentators have already weighed in: Choson Exchange, Daily NK, Washington Post, CNN, Business Week, Hankyoreh, IFES, Xinhua.

Below is the full text of the Joint New Year Editorial c/o North East Asia Matters. My hat off to anyone who actually reads the whole thing:



Aidan Foster-Carter on what’s wrong with the DPRK economy

Saturday, November 26th, 2011

Aidan Foster-Carter writes a compendium of problems facing the DPRK economy in 38 North.

Paraphrasing the ailments he cites: Socialism, militarism, royal economy, cult costs, potempkinism, leadership whims, rigidities, coordination problems, unwise leadership priorities.

Read the full story (which is full of fantastic anecdotes) below:
Whim Jong Il: North Korea’s Economic Irrationalities
38 North
Aidan Foster-Carter


ROK makes arrest in Hwang plot

Wednesday, October 20th, 2010

Only days after the South Korean government determined that Hwang Jang-yop died of natural causes they have announced the arrest of a North Korean defector who was planning to act against him. According to the Associated Press (via Washington Post):

Authorities in South Korea arrested a suspected North Korean agent for allegedly plotting to assassinate a high-profile defector who died of heart failure earlier this month, a prosecutor said Wednesday.

The alleged agent, Ri Dong Sam, was formally detained Tuesday on suspicion of plotting to kill Hwang Jang-yop, a former senior member of the North’s ruling Worker’ Party, the prosecutor said. Police said however that there was no connection between Hwang’s recent death and the charges against the agent.

The North Korean agent came to South Korea in August by posing as a North Korean defector and was caught during an interrogation process, the prosecutor said.

South Korean intelligence officials typically question defectors for several weeks before they are sent to a resettlement center.

He has admitted some of the charges, the prosecutor said. He declined to give any further details and spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to media on the continuing case.

The detention came after Hwang was found dead at his Seoul home on Oct. 10. Police said Wednesday that Hwang died from heart failure on Oct. 9, citing final autopsy results. Hwang’s body was buried at a national cemetery south of Seoul.

The 87-year-old Hwang, chief architect of North Korea’s guiding “juche” philosophy of self-reliance, was one of the country’s most powerful officials when he fled in 1997. He had tutored North Korea’s supreme leader, Kim Jong Il, on the ideology.

Hwang lived in Seoul under tight police security. He has written books and delivered speeches condemning Kim’s government as authoritarian.

North Korea had reportedly vowed revenge against Hwang, calling him “human scum” and a betrayer. Earlier this year, two North Korean army majors were each sentenced to 10 years in prison in Seoul in a separate plot to assassinate Hwang. North Korea has denied the plot.

Read the full story here:
SKorea accuses NKorean of plot to kill defector
Associated Press (via Washington Post)
Kwang Tae-kim


Rank on Myers and Demick

Sunday, April 11th, 2010

Michael Rank reviews two great books on the DPRK which were recently published.  The first is The Cleanest Race, How North Koreans See Themselves by B. R. Myers in the Asia Times:

North Korea, one of the poorest countries in Asia, is also the best defended with an army of over one million to protect a population of just 23 million. But it does not only depend on its army to fend off the outside world: it also relies on an extraordinary degree of secrecy to baffle its adversaries and throw them off-guard.

Most Western Pyongyang-watchers are forced to rely on the absurdly obfuscatory Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) and on reports of varying reliability in the English-language South Korean media to discern what is going on, which means that unless they know Korean, which they almost certainly don’t, they have almost no first-hand information of what the North Korean government is really up to.

B R Myers is a rare exception among Western North Korea experts: he has a first-rate grasp of Korean and has heroically spent countless hours reading North Korean newspapers, novels and political tracts in the North Korea Resource Center in the Reunification Ministry in Seoul. This has led him to come to some striking conclusions about the nature of the North Korean regime in a highly original book that anyone interested in what is going on above the 38th parallel simply has to read.

He makes a surprising but convincing case for claiming that the Kims, father and son, play the role of mother figures in North Korean ideology, forever clutching children and even soldiers to their ample bosoms, while the North Korean people are portrayed as a uniquely innocent child-race fondly indulged by the “Parent Leader”.

Myers sets out his main conclusions in a gripping preface in which he condemns North Korea-watchers of all persuasions and backgrounds for having

… tended toward interpretations of the country in which ideology plays next to no role. Conservatives generally explain the dictatorship’s behavior in terms of a cynical struggle to maintain power and privilege, while liberals prefer to regard the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] as a “rational actor”, a country behaving much as any tiny country would in the face of a hostile superpower. Such interest as either camp can bring to bear on so-called soft issues exhausts itself in futile attempts to make sense of Juche Thought, a sham doctrine with no bearing on Pyongyang’s policy-making.
Myers asks why “there is more talk of ideological matters in any issue of Arab Studies Journal than in a dozen issues of North Korean Review? The obvious if undiplomatic answer is that most Pyongyang watchers do not understand Korean well enough to read the relevant official texts.”

While he is highly dismissive of the North Korean ideology of juche (self-reliance), which he dismisses as a smokescreen to baffle foreigners – highly successfully, one might add – Myers insists that the personality cult in which the regime envelopes itself should be taken seriously. “The only institution in the country that did not miss a beat during the famine of the mid-1990s was the propaganda apparatus,” he notes.

Myers is scathing about those who regard the regime as essentially Stalinist or Confucian, and summarizes its worldview as follows: “The Korean people are too pure blooded, and therefore too virtuous, to survive in this evil world without a great parental leader.” This would place Pyongyang on the extreme right of the political spectrum rather than the far left, and Myers notes that “the similarity to the worldview of fascist Japan is striking”.

Mount Fuji was transmogrified into Mount Paektu while the cult of Kim Il-sung bears striking similarities to the Japanese emperor cult. “Like Kim,” Myers writes, “Hirohito appeared as the hermaphroditic parent of a child race whose virtues he embodied; was associated with white clothing, white horses, the snow-capped peak of the race’s sacred mountain, and other symbols of racial purity …” He explains this as partly the result of collaboration among the Korean elite during the Japanese occupation, and quotes a South Korean historian as saying these collaborators regarded themselves as “pro-Japanese [Korean] nationalists”.

Despite the deep influence of Japanese ideology on North Korean thinking, the Japanese are depicted as enemies with whom there can be no reconciliation, and much the same goes for Americans. The author notes that North Korean dictionaries and schoolbooks portray Americans in sub-human terms, as having “muzzles”, “snouts” and “paws”, and while the Korean War of the early 1950s occupies a central place in anti-American propaganda, there is little stress on the US Air Force’s extensive bombing campaign as this “is hard to reconcile with the myth of a protective Leader” and the regime focuses instead on village massacres and other more isolated outrages.

Myers argues that fanatical anti-Americanism is what helps to keep the regime in power, and that far from seeking a positive relationship with the US, “It negotiates with Washington not to defuse tension but to manage it, to keep it from tipping into all-out war or an equally perilous all-out peace”.

Myers must be the only non-Korean on Earth who has taken a serious look at North Korean fiction (he wrote a previous book on the subject), and this affords him some fascinating insights. He highlights the sharp contrast with Soviet Stalinist fiction, in which the Communist Party posed as an educating father, while

… the DPRK’s propaganda is notably averse to scenes of intellectual discipline. Because Koreans are born pure and selfless, they can and should heed their instincts. Often they are shown breaking out of intellectual constraints in a mad spree of violence against the foreign or land-owning enemy. Cadres are expected to nurture, not teach, and bookworms are negative characters. In short: where Stalinism put the intellect over the instincts, North Korean culture does the opposite.
This sharply written, beautifully designed book is richly illustrated with North Korean propaganda posters and photographs. I did not agree with everything the author says – I think he underestimates the influence of Confucianism in North Korea and also underplays the cruelty of the Japanese occupation of Korea – but this is a remarkably perceptive study that everyone with an interest in North Korea, and in the practice and theory of authoritarian regimes generally, should read.

The Cleanest Race, How North Koreans See Themselves – And Why It Matters by B R Myers. Melville House, Brooklyn, NY, 2009. ISBN-10: 1933633913. (Buy on Amazon here)

Michael also reviewed Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy in the Guardian:

If Stalin’s Russia was, in Churchill’s words, “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”, North Korea is an impenetrable black hole. The government’s main mouthpiece, the Korean Central News Agency, has a firm policy of reporting almost no news. True, tourists can visit the showcase capital, Pyongyang, for a few days and enjoy some pleasant chat with their affable but carefully selected minders, but they will gain few insights into what makes the country tick and they will have no opportunity to speak to anyone who could be remotely regarded as an ordinary North Korean. As the British ambassador put it with devastating frankness last year, “We get no information from the government whatsoever”, and there are few sources of information in Pyongyang to turn to who are not government officials.

So to find out what North Koreans think about their government and society, one has no choice but to talk to defectors who have managed to escape to South Korea. Los Angeles Times journalist Barbara Demick interviewed about 100 defectors, but in this highly readable book she focuses on half a dozen, all from the north-eastern city of Chongjin , which is closed to foreigners. She decided to concentrate on Chongjin because it is likely to be more representative than Pyongyang, where, for all its drabness and endless power shortages, nobody is starving. The overwhelming impression one gains from the book is of a country mired in poverty and repression, but also of resilience and a will to survive.

North Korean children are taught to sing that “We have nothing to envy in the world”, and until recently people seem to have believed this as they had so little access to information about life outside their own country. But the famine of the 1990s, in which more than a million people might have died, inevitably resulted in a deep questioning and cynicism. “Your general [the demigod Kim Jong-il] has turned you all into idiots,” Oak-hee tells her mother after being released from jail for crossing the border into China.

Oak-hee had watched South Korean television, which made it clear that what they were told back home about exploitation and poverty in the capitalist south was all lies. By now, many officials no longer believe in the government propaganda either, and a prison director tells the women held for escaping to China, “Well, if you go to China again, next time don’t get caught.”

But despite such comments, the book does not argue that the regime is about to collapse, as many defectors and western commentators in the 1990s expected that it would.

One of the most poignant stories in the book is that of two young lovers who dare not tell each other that they are thinking of defecting. Mi-ran is from near the bottom of the North Korean social heap, while Jun-sang comes from a comparatively privileged family, with relatives in Japan. Eventually they meet up again in South Korea, but their relationship is over. Mi-ran is happily married to a southerner but is haunted by the fate of her sisters, who are either in a labour camp or dead, while Jun-sang, who attended an elite Pyongyang university, is facing an uncertain future and worries that he will never see his parents again.

Demick says defectors find it hard to settle in South Korea and are overwhelmed by the myriad choices facing them there, which “can be utterly paralysing for people who’ve had decisions made for them by the state their entire lives”. Surprisingly perhaps, “Many if not most, want to return to North Korea,” Demick claims, and are wracked by guilt over leaving family members there.

But defectors are, by definition, not typical: they are likely to be more disaffected, more resourceful and richer than the average citizen, so this book is hardly the definitive account of everyday life in North Korea. Yet the stories it recounts are moving and disturbing, and it surely tells us far more about real North Korean lives than a fleeting tourist visit to the Stalinist-kitsch theme park that is Pyongyang.

Order Nothing to Envy on Amazon here.

Read the full articles here:
Lifting the cloak on North Korean secrecy
Asia Times
Michael Rank

Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick
The Guardian
Michael Rank


Juche and North Korea’s Global Aspirations

Thursday, September 17th, 2009

NKIDP Working paper #1
Charles K. Armstrong

(Download the PDF here)

In his latest publication, Armstrong details the DPRK’s short-lived and ultimately unsuccessful efforts to establish a global presence in the 1970s. These efforts included attempts at economic engagement with advanced capitalist countries and a diplomatic offensive in the Third World.

According to Armstrong, the ultimate failure of North Korea’s pursuit of what later came to be termed “globalization,” can be attributed to the contradiction between the stated policy of juche, or self-reliance, and the “necessary requirements for engagement in the international system, particularly the global economy.”


North Korea between collapse and reform

Friday, December 19th, 2008

Asian Survey Vol. 39, No. 2 (Mar. – Apr., 1999), pp. 287-309
Kongdan Oh and Ralph Hassig

Download PDF here or download from here

The refusal of North Korea’s letters to institute serious economic reforms has frustrated those who study the country and those who seek to alleviate the suffering of the North Korean people.  Two French medical aid organizations have withdrawn from the country complaining that the Pyongyang government interfered with their work.  This is but one sign of a growing donor fatigue.  The muddling through plan that the Kim regime has adopted involves soliciting foreign aid, bargaining with its military and nuclear products, making minimal unofficial changes in the domestic economy, and waiting for the international environment to become more favorable—perhaps even expecting a resurgance of international communism.  Equally important, Kim and his ruling cohorts are willing to sacrifice the economic health of their nation for the security of their regime, just as other dictators, both communist and non-communist have done.  The painful difference in North Korea’s case is that it is half of a divided nation, posing an immediate humanitarian dilemma for the millions of Koreans in the Southern half of the penninsula whose families are suffering in the north.  For this reason more than any other, the future of North Korea cannot be ignored.  


Idolization Ever Increasing

Friday, December 5th, 2008

Daily NK
Park Hyun Min

The North Korean authorities have been expanding the construction of facilities that laud and idolize Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il throughout North Korea, in order to unite the people in spite of the severe economic crisis.

Up until the end of the 1990s, North Korea had been focusing on creating “revolutionary memorial halls” or ‘historic sites,’ or erecting statues in order to idolize the Kim family.

The main structure of idolatry, above all, is the Kim Il Sung statue. Among all the statues, the one in front of the Museum of Korean Revolution on the top of Mansudae hill in Pyongyang, erected in April 1972 to celebrate Kim Il Sung’s 60th birthday, is best-known. It is 23 meters (75.5 feet) high, including a 3 meter pedestal. The statue was once covered with gold, but it was removed.

Similar, less grandiose statues are located in all 70 major cities of North Korea. In total, there are 140,000 structures designed to idolize the Kim regime.

Especially after the death of Kim Il Sung, and the succession of Kim Jong Il three years later, in 1997, many mosaic murals were created throughout North Korea with the father and the son as the theme, and many of the revolutionary monuments were erected.

Mosaic murals mainly feature Kim Il Sung, the father with Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Il’s mother, Kim Jung Sook, made with glass or tiles of natural rocks baked at 1,200.

According to reports from the North Korean state-run media since 2000, one mural was made in 2000, four in 2002, then the number increased to 19 in 2003, 49 in 2004, and a sharp increase to 70 in 2005. Then in 2006, 55 murals were made while 67 were made last year. 88 murals have been made this year alone.

Furthermore, the size of the mosaic murals is growing. On average, the length and height of a mural is 5–10 meters. However, bigger murals with dimensions of 30 meters by 20 meters have been under construction.

The most well-known murals are located on Tongil (Unification) Street in Raknang district and on Kwangbok Street in Mankyungdae district in Pyongyang. The one on Kwangbok Street was made to celebrate Kim Sung Il’s 95th birthday in April, 2008, and goes by the name of “My great country, my nation, live forever.” The height and length of the murals are respectively 42 meters and 25 meters.

The other mural that was completed on Tongil Street the day before that was 33.7 meters long and 22 meters high.

Chosun Sinbo reported with great fanfare, “These murals are the biggest mosaic murals in the nation.”

Revolutionary monuments or historic memorials at places where Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il are known to have been, are being made constantly.

North Korea put up 31 revolutionary memorial slabs last year in places such as Pyongyang Music School or Pyongyang Shoe Factory, and 37 so far this year, in places like Suncheon First Middle School and Kangkye Pig Factory. Last year, revolutionary monuments were erected in five places, including the public building of the People’s Safety Agency in North Hamkyung Province and so far four monuments have been erected in places like Pyongyang 3.26 cable factory.

Jane Portal, the author of “Art under Control in North Korea” visited North Korea twice and assessed this idolatry as the world’s most intense, saying that Stalin and Mao Zedong’s idolatry cannot be compared with Kim Il Sung’s hunger for praise.

Additionally, North Korea is focusing on boosting people’s loyalty and revolutionary consciousness through collective visits to these historic sites, and by excavating or renovating them.

Chosun (North Korea) Central Broadcasting (the state-controlled radio station) last month hinted at the strengthened idolization process, saying that “Plans to revive historic sites in North Hamkyung province and the efforts of party members and laborers working on these projects are processing well.”


Pyongyang changes official narrative on South

Monday, December 1st, 2008

In a recent Korea Times article, Andrei Lankov (citing Brian Myers) highlights how the DPRK has changed the narrative of its raison d’être in response to the growing realization among its people that South Korea is not the poor, exploited US colony the propaganda portrays it to be. 

Quoting from the article:

Until some time a decade ago, the North Korean populace was expected and required to believe in a very simple world picture.

The North, led by the glorious dynasty of omniscient and benevolent rulers, was the best society on the face of the Earth, much envied and glorified by the less fortunate peoples of other countries.

The rest of the world was inferior, though people in the socialist countries admittedly fared better than the helpless inhabitants of the capitalist hell.

But worst of all was South Korea, the colony of the U.S. imperialists who exploited it with unparalleled brutality.

However, around 2000 the North Korean watchers (well, actually a handful of them with the time and ability to read the official press systematically) began to notice a new image of the South emerge.

Brian Myers, the ever observant reader of North Korean press and fiction first noticed the signs of this quiet transformation when it was only beginning.

Soon it became clear that he was right. A new propaganda line was being born. Interestingly, this time the new line was introduced not through newspapers, but in a more subtle way, through works of fiction, which also have to be approved by the supreme ideological authorities.

The new South Korea which emerged in these writings wasn’t so poor. Actually, it was not poor at all. The characters in recent North Korean novels, which deal with the imaginary life of the South, enjoy a lifestyle far superior to that of the average North Korean. They drive cars, dine out easily and live in expensive houses.

As Myers pointed out, the North Korean authors have poor ideas of how expensive Seoul real estate has become, so they sometimes overestimate South Korean’s income levels. In one novel, a young South Korean journalist buys a house in a very expensive neighborhood after merely a few years of work.

Does this mean that the new image of the South is positive? Of course not! South Korean society might be rich, the propaganda operators say, but it is still inferior to the North.

The South Koreans had to pay a terrible price for their success: they were deprived of their precious national identity.

The cultural uniqueness and racial purity of the great Korean nation has become endangered. Mixed marriages are mentioned frequently and in a way that makes readers believe they are between the same lusty Americans and young Korean women.

However, the propaganda insists, the South Koreans themselves are not happy about this situation. They dream about liberation and purification, and their hopes are pinned on Pyongyang and, above all, the Dear Leader himself. In recent years, North Korean propaganda has insisted that Kim Jong -il is worshipped in the South. Similar statements were made earlier as well.

According to this new logic, the North is a torchbearer, a proud protector of nationhood and racial purity. South Korean prosperity is tainted and hence should not be envied.

The North must fight for the ultimate salvation of the South, and such salvation can be achieved only through unification under the North Korean auspices, so all South Koreans will be able to enjoy the loving care of the Dear Leader. Only American troops and a handful of national traitors prevent this dream from coming true.

Lankov (and Myers) speculate that the North Korean government changed the narrative in response to unauthorized information permeating the country.  In a related note, the overt propaganda in many North Korean films has also been reduced in recent decades.

Most importantly, Lankov reminds us that nationalism is not a viable long-term political strategy—even in North Korea.  North Korean Juche was supposed to liberate the Korean people and deliver on material progress, but it has not succeeded.  From top to bottom, many North Koreans already know this.


Intellectuals and Marxism in North Korea

Monday, November 17th, 2008

An interesting quote from the Daily NK:

Until the late 1960s Das Capital, the selected works of Engels and books and publications related to the dialectical materialism and metaphysics were set on my father’s bookshelf.

However, in 1968 or 1969 the authorities took away every book claiming, “Let’s establish Juche.” Since 1970, there was no house where books related to Marx and Engels remained. The only books with regard to an ideology were the analects and selected writings of Kim Il Sung.

The generations that learned Marxism are those who took lectures in universities from 1950 to early 1960s. Since 1967, there have been no lectures on Marxism and no professors who used the publications of Marx.

Since 1970, theories of philosophy or even dialectical materialism have been fabricated as Kim Il Sung’s analects, and theses of Marx and Engels have been revealed as Kim Il Sung’s ones, placing at the forefront the words, “According to the Supreme Leader, Kim Il Sung.”

Finally, later Kim Jong Il even got rid of such things. He made people study only the Juche Ideology as he took away the dialectic. Even the issue on productive forces and their relation to the means of production in the Marxist theory were dealt with in the Juche Ideology. They didn’t teach cadres the dialectical materialism in the Communist College.

The Party omitted the line, “the Chosun Workers’ Party struggles to practice Marxism-Leninism,” replacing it with “the Kim Il Sung Ideology,” at the 6th Party Convention in October, 1980.

Read the full article here:
North Korean Intellectuals Oppressed and Watched
Daily NK
Kim Seo Yeol


North Korea dragged back to the past

Tuesday, January 29th, 2008

In the article below, Dr. Lankov makes a compelling argument that the North Korean government is now attempting to to re-stalinize the economy because the system cannot survive liberal economic reforms.

Altough the trend seems depressing, optimists should take note that Pyongyang’s efforts to reassert control over the economy parallel a decline in belief in the official ideology.  With a deterioration of this ideology, people’s acquiescence to the DPRK’s political leaders declines, and power dynamics are all that hold the system together.  Efforts to control the general population are increasingly seen by the people as self-interested behavior on the part of their leaders, calling their legitimacy into question.

Additionally, efforts to reassert control over the economy are bound to fail because the system has already collapsed, their capital has been stripped, and there are insufficient funds to rescue the system.

In other words, efforts to re-stalinize the economy are bound to fail from both an economic and ideological perspective.

North Korea dragged back to the past
Asia Times

Andrei Lankov

When people talk about North Korea these days, they tend to focus on the never-ending saga of the six-party talks and the country’s supposed de-nuclearization. Domestic changes in the North, often ignored or overlooked, should attract more attention.

These changes are considerable and should not encourage those optimists who spent years predicting that given favorable circumstances the North Korean regime would mend its ways and follow the beneficial development line of China and Vietnam. Alas, the recent trend is clear: the North Korean regime is maintaining its counter-offensive against market forces.

Merely five years ago things looked differently. The decade that followed Kim Il-sung’s death in 1994 was the time of unprecedented social disruption and economic disaster culminating in the Great Famine of 1996-99, with its 1 million dead. The old Stalinist economy of steel mills and coal mines collapsed once the Soviets discontinued the aid that alone kept it afloat in earlier decades.

All meaningful economic activity moved to the booming private markets. The food rationing system, once unique in its thoroughness and ubiquity, collapsed, and populace survived through market activities as well as the “second”, or non-official, economy. The explosive growth of official corruption meant that many old restrictions, including a ban on unauthorized domestic travel, were not enforced any more. Border control collapsed and a few hundred thousand refugees fled to China. In other words, the old Stalinist system imploded, and a new grassroots capitalism took over.

The regime, however, did not approve the changes – obviously on assumption that these trends would eventually undermine the government’s control. Authorities staged occasional crackdowns on market activities, though those crackdowns seldom had any lasting impact: people had to survive somehow, and officials were only too willing to ignore the deviations if they were paid sufficient bribes.

By 2002 it seemed as if the government itself decided to bow to the pressure. In July that year, the Industrial Management Improvement Measures (never called “reforms”, since the word has always been a term of abuse in Pyongyang’s official vocabulary) decriminalized much market activity and introduced some changes in the industrial management system – very moderate and somewhat akin to the half-hearted Soviet “reforms” of the 1960s and 1970s.

The 2002 measures were widely hailed overseas as a sign of welcome changes: many Pyongyang sympathizers, especially from among the South Korean Left, still believe that only pressure from the “US imperialists” prevents Kim Jong-il and his entourage from embracing Chinese-style reforms. In fact, the 2002 measures were not that revolutionary: with few exceptions, the government simply gave belated approval to activities that had been going on for years and which the regime could not eradicate (even though it had tried a number of times). Nonetheless, this was clearly a sign of government’s willingness to accept what it could not redo.

However, around 2004 observers began to notice signs of policy reversal: the regime began to crack down on the new, dangerously liberal, activities of its subjects. By 2005, it became clear: the government wanted to turn the clock back, restoring the system that existed before the collapse of the 1990s. In other words, Kim Jong-il’s government spent the recent three of four years attempting to re-Stalinize the country.

This policy might be ruinous economically, but politically it makes perfect sense. It seems that North Korean leaders believe that their system cannot survive major liberalization. They might be correct in their pessimism. The country faces a choice that is unknown to China or Vietnam, two model nations of the post-Communist reform. It is the existence of South Korea that creates the major difference.

Unlike China or Vietnam, North Korea borders a rich and free country that speaks the same language and shares the same culture. The people of China and Vietnam, though well aware of the West’s affluence, do not see it as directly relevant to their problems: the United States and Japan surely are rich, but they are also foreign so their experiences are not directly relevant. But for the North Koreans, the comparison with South Korea hurts. Even according conservative estimates, per capita gross national income in the South is 17 times the level it is in the North; to put things in comparison, just before the Germany’s unification, per capita GNI in West Germany was roughly double that in East Germany.

Were North Korea to reform, the disparities with South Korea would become only starker to its population. This might produce a grave political crisis, so the North Korean government seemingly believes that in order to stay in control it should avoid any tampering with the system. Maintaining the information blockade is of special importance, since access to the overseas information might easily show the North Koreans both the backwardness of their country and the ineptitude of their government.

At the same time, from around 2002 the amount of foreign aid began to increase. The South Korean government, following the so-called Sunshine policy, began to provide generous and essentially unmonitored aid to Pyongyang. China did this as well. Both countries cited humanitarian concerns, even though it seems that the major driving force was the desire to avoid a dramatic and perhaps violent collapse of the North Korean state.

Whatever the reasons, North Korea’s leaders came to assume that their neighbors’ aid would save the country from the worst of famine. They also assumed that this aid, being delivered more or less unconditionally, could be quietly diverted for distribution among the politically valuable parts of the population – such as the military or the police, and this would further increase regime’s internal security.

So, backward movement began. In October 2005, Pyongyang stated that the Public Distribution System would be fully re-started, and it outlawed the sale of grain on the market (the ban has not been thoroughly enforced, thanks to endemic police corruption). Soon afterwards, came regulations prohibited males from trading at markets: the activities should be left only to the women or handicapped. The message was clear: able-bodied people should now go back to where they belong, to the factories of the old-style Stalinist economy.

There have been crackdowns on mobiles phones, and the border control was stepped up. There have been efforts to re-enforce the old prohibition of unauthorized travel. In short, using newly available resources, North Korea’s leaders do not rush to reform themselves, but rather try to turn clock back, restoring the social structure of the 1980s.

The recent changes indicate that this policy continues. From December only sufficiently old ladies are allowed to trade: in order to sell goods at the market a woman has to be at least 50 years old. This means that young and middle-aged women are pushed back to the government factories. Unlike earlier ban on commercial activity on men, this might have grave social consequences: since the revival of the markets in the mid-1990s, women constituted the vast number of vendors, and in most cases it was their earnings that made a family’s survival possible while men still chose to attend the idle factories and other official workplaces.

Other measures aim at reducing opportunities for market trade. In December, the amount of grain that can be moved by an individual was limited to ten kilograms. To facilitate control, some markets were ordered to close all but one gate and make sure that fences are high enough to prevent scaling.

Vendors do what they can to counter these measures. One trick is to use a sufficiently old woman as a figurehead for a family business. The real work is done by a younger woman, usually daughter or daughter-in-law of the nominal vendor, but in case of a police check the actual vendor can always argue that she is merely helping her old mother. Another trick is to trade outside the marketplace, on the streets. This uncontrolled trade often attracts police crackdowns, so vendors avoid times when they can be seen by officials going to their offices.

This autumn in Pyongyang there was an attempt, the first of this kind in years, to prescribe maximum prices of items sold in markets. Large price tables were displayed, and vendors were forbidden to sell goods (largely fish) at an “excessive price”. It was also reported that new regulations limit to 15 the number of items to be sold at one stall.

The government does not forget about other kinds of commercial activities. In recent years, private inns, eateries, and even bus companies began to appear in large numbers. In many cases these companies are thinly disguised as “government enterprises” or, more frequently, as “joint ventures” (many North Korean entrepreneurs have relatives in China and can easily persuade them to pose as investors and sign necessary papers).

Recently a number of such businesses were closed down by police. People were told that the roots of evil capitalism had to be destroyed, so every North Korean can enjoy a happy life working at a proper factory for the common good.

Yet even as the government pushes people back to the state sector of the economy, These new restrictions have little to do with attempts to revive production. A majority of North Korean factories have effectively died and in many cases cannot be re-started without massive investment – which is unlikely to arrive; investors are not much interested in factories where technology and equipment has sometimes remained unchanged since the 1930s.

However, in North Korea the surveillance and indoctrination system has always been centered around work units. Society used to operate on the assumption that every adult Korean male (and most females as well) had a “proper” job with some state-run facility. So, people are now sent back not so much to the production lines than to indoctrination sessions and the watchful eyes of police informers, and away from subversive rumors and dangerous temptations of the marketplace.

At the same time, border security has been stepped up. This has led to a dramatic decline in numbers of North Korean refugees crossing to China (from some 200,000 in 2000 to merely 30,000-40,000 at present). The authorities have said they will treat the border-crossers with greater severity, reviving the harsh approach that was quietly abandoned around 1996. In the 1970s and 1980s under Kim Il-sung, any North Korean trying to cross to China or who was extradited by the Chinese police would be sent to prison for few years.

More recently, the majority of caught border-crossers spent only few weeks in detention. The government says such leniency will soon end. Obviously, this combination of threats, improved surveillance and tighter border control has been effective.

The government is also trying to restore its control of information. Police recently raided and closed a number of video shops and karaoke clubs. Authorities are worried that these outlets can be used to propagate foreign (especially South Korean) pop culture. Selling, copying and watching South Korean video tapes or DVDs remain a serious crime, even though such “subversive materials” still can be obtained easily.

It is clear that North Korean leaders, seeking to resume control that slipped from them in the 1990s and early 2000s, are not concerned if the new measures damage the economy or people’s living standards when set against the threat to their own political domination and perhaps even their own physical survival.

Manifold obstacles nevertheless stand in the way of a revival of North Korean Stalinism.

First, large investment is needed to restart the economy and also – an important if underestimated factor – a sufficient number of true believers ready to make a sacrifice for the ideal. When the North Korean regime was developed in the 1940s and 1950s it had Soviet grants, an economic base left from the days of Japanese investment and a number of devoted zealots. The regime now has none of these. Foreign aid is barely enough to feed the population, and the country’s bureaucrats are extremely cynical about the official ideology.

Second, North Korea society is much changed. Common people have learned that they can survive without relying on rations and giveaways from the government. It will be a gross oversimplification to believe that all North Koreans prefer the relative freedoms of recent years to the grotesquely regimented but stable and predictable existence of the bygone era, but it seems that socially active people do feel that way and do not want to go back. Endemic corruption also constitutes a major obstacle: officials will be willing to ignore all regulations if they see a chance to enrich themselves.

It is telling that government could not carry out its 2005 promise to fully restart the public distribution (rationing) system. Now full rations are given only to residents of major cities while others receive reduced rations that are below the survival level. A related attempt to ban trade in grain at markets also failed: both popular pressure and police inclination to take bribes undermined the policy, so that grain is still traded openly at markets.

Even so, whether the government will succeed in re-Stalinizing society, its true intent remains the revival of the old system. North Korean leaders do not want reforms, assuming that these reforms will undermine their power. They are probably correct in this assumption.