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
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.