Markets on the rise in North Korea

Andrei Lankov is a bottomless pit of information:

Until around 1990 markets and private trade played a moderate role in North Korean society. Most people were content with what they were officially allocated through the public distribution system, and did not want to look for other opportunities. The government also did its best to suppress the capitalist spirit. The rations were not too generous, but they were sufficient for survival.

The collapse of the USSR brought a sudden end to the flow of the Soviet aid.  But men still felt bound to their jobs by their obligations and rations (distributed through work places). Being used to the stability of the previous decades, the North Koreans saw the situation as a temporary crisis that soon would be overcome, somehow. No doubt, they reasoned, one day everything will go back to the “normal” (that is, Stalinist) state of affairs. So men are better off in keeping their jobs, that way they will be able to continue their careers after the eventual “normalization” of the situation. The ubiquitous “organizational life” also played its role: a North Korean adult is required to attend endless indoctrination sessions and meetings, and these requirements are harsher for males.

Women had enjoyed much more freedom. By the standard of Communist countries North Korea has always had an unusually high percentage of housewives among married women. While in most other Communist countries married women were required and pressed to continue work after marriage, in North Korea the government did not really mind when married women quit their jobs to become full-time housewives.

Thus, when the economic crisis began, women were the first to take up market activities of all kinds. In some cases they began selling household items they could do without, or selling homemade food. Eventually, these activities developed into larger businesses. While men went to their plants (which by the mid-1990s had usually ceased operation) women plunged into the market activity.

This tendency was especially pronounced among low- and middle-income families. The elite received rations even through the famine years of 1996-1999, so women of North Korea’s “top 5 percent” usually continued with their old lifestyle. Nonetheless, some of them began to use their ability to get goods cheaply. Quite often wives of high-level cadres are involved in the resale of merchandise first purchased from their husbands’ factories at the cheap official prices. But for them this was a way to move from being well-off to being rich. The lesser folks had to do something just to stay alive.

Indeed, the change in gender roles during the famine years is only a part of the gradual changes in the Korean family, and these changes are surprisingly similar in the North and South. But that is another story…


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