The North Korean ‘Salaryman’

Korea Times
Andrei Lankov

“How much do they earn there, in the North?” “What are North Korean salaries now?” These questions come naturally, even if people are aware that in a socialist economy the formal size of one’s salary is less significant an indicator of wealth than it is in capitalism.
Under socialism, access to goods is at least as important as the amount of money in somebody’s possession. Since retail prices in the socialist economies tend to be subsidized, this means that many goods are not readily available in shops, but are distributed by the state bureaucracy instead. Thus, people who are deemed more deserving get such goods… goods that are not available to the “less valuable” people.

A party bureaucrat and a skilled worker often might have roughly similar salaries in a socialist economy, but their actual consumption levels may be vastly different. Apart from bureaucrats, another group of people who have privileged access to commodities are people employed in the retail system. They always can divert some goods from the public distribution system and use them either for their own consumption, or for barter with those who control other valuable commodities. Thus, the position of a sale clerk is seen as very prestigious occupation in the North.

The 2002 reforms (never called “reforms” in the North Korean press) dramatically changed the structure of wages and prices in the country. For a while it was not clear what the current price and wages levels were, but recent research by the World Food Program seems to answer a few questions. Now we know what was regarded as “normal” wages in 2004.

According to the survey, most types of low-paid workers earn between 1,700 and 2,500 won per month, with an average estimated at 2,100. Low-level professional jobs such as clerks and teachers at nursery and primary schools earn between 1,400 and 2,000 won per month. The average old age pension is just 900 won; women, in particular housewives, sometimes get pensions as low as 300_400 won.

The official exchange rate is 1,700 won per Euro (they to play down the significance of the imperialist dollar, so exchange rates are usually quoted in euros). However, throughout 2004, the actual exchange rate fluctuated between 1,600 and 2,200. This means that the average pension was something like 50 cents a month, with a nursery teacher earning as little as one dollar a month. This is not as bad as it sounds, since prices are also relatively cheap. But this is still pretty bad…

Most of the people who draw salaries live in the cities (some 70% of the North Koreans are inhabitants of urban areas), and rely on the public distribution system for their survival. The system, which almost ceased to function a few years ago, obviously has made a moderate comeback. Since all data in the secretive North is classified, nothing is known for sure, but it seems that in early 2005, the Public Distribution System was “the main source of cereals for the 70 per cent of the population living in urban areas” (such was an estimate by the FAO, a U.N. food agency).

Still, the official rations are hardly generous. According to the WFP, in early 2005 rations were cut to 250 grams per person per day _ 40 per cent of the internationally recommended minimum. People have to purchase food on the markets, and this food is expensive, with rice costing some 500 won a kilo.

According to the FAO report, “the income of cooperative farmers from the annual obligatory crop sales to the Government varies greatly from one farm to another, resulting in monthly incomes per person ranging from 500 won to 4000 won.” But farmers can also substantially increase their income by selling the produce from their kitchen gardens, and by hillside farming which is done on the steep slopes of the mountains. The latter activity has become common in the North over the past decade. It is formally forbidden but done nonetheless, and it seems that a large part of the hillside produce goes outside the public distribution system.

Unemployment is quite high, but it is hidden. Formally, everybody has a job, but a persistent shortage of raw materials, spare parts, machinery, and power supplies means that few factories actually operate at full capacity. In many cases people come to their factories and offices and sit there idly, spending just a couple of hours a day doing some meaningful work. They still have to come, since otherwise they could lose access to food rations, and this would make their situation impossible, probably even threatening their physical survival.

According to interviews with officials, and other information garnered, the WFP estimated that some 30 percent of the North Korean workers are either permanently or temporarily underemployed or unemployed.

As usual, women are more likely to become unemployed. But perhaps they do not mind. Why? Well, is it possible for a family to survive, even on two salaries, if the official income can merely buy eight kilos of rice to augment the distributed 200 grams? Of course, the answer is “no”, and even in the most difficult circumstances people need more than just rice. Hence, the survival strategy of most families depends heavily on the efforts of their women. While formally seen as “unemployed housewives”, women produce most of the income, ensuring the family’s survival. Indeed, the new-born North Korean capitalism has a female face. But that is another story…


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