North Koreans Are Changing

Korea Times
Andrei Lankov

North Korea of 2005 is on a crossroad. Its people are not sure where to go, and its government tries hard to stay in control. But things are changing, the 50-odd years of Juche-style Stalinism are over or almost over. The long decease is not over yet, but there are clear signs of recovery. It has a future. This future is unlikely to be easy, but the country began its slow move forward.

It was a perfect sunny October day here. It was my first visit in two decades. I stood on the city’s main street, not far away from Kim Il Sung University which I attended 20 years ago, and was looking around.

A small crowd near the Chinese Embassy wall attracted my attention. People were carefully studying something inside a large window on the wall: some finished and went away, only to be replaced by others. Of course, I came closer.

The people’s attention was attracted by the pictures which were put into the Chinese Embassy’s “information window”. The pictures were large and colorful, but otherwise absolutely unremarkable. The photos and captions were no different from the stuff the cultural attaches across the globe put on the walls of their embassies – the usual boring fare about growth of shrimp production, new computer classes and state-of-the-art chicken farms. However, in North Korea of 2005 such mundane matters would attract a crowd. Those pictures gave a glimpse of the overseas life.

This small episode was a sign of what was in the air in North Korea of 2005: people are eager to learn more about the outside world. They are less afraid to show their interest in what once was forbidden knowledge, and they are increasingly uncertain about the future.

At a superficial glance, it feels as if the entire city has remained frozen in time since the mid-1980s. On my first day, I walked some 5-7 km across the downtown, and had no reason to worry that I might loose my way. All old buildings were still there, and very few structures appeared over those two decades.

The North Korean capital is still the same city of somewhat dilapidated Soviet-style apartment projects (with traditional huts hidden inside the blocks), nearly absent traffic, uniformed police girls on the crossroads, and crowds dressed in the old good “Mao suits”.

As a matter of fact, “crowds” might be an exaggeration. The city felt empty, and at all probability it was half-empty in those days. As part of the regular mobilization program, most of its population was sent to the countryside to work at the fields or to join the “battle for harvest” as this rather mundane operation is known in North Korea.

Like other socialist economies, North Korea has serious troubles with agriculture, and the townsfolk is required to provide manpower for the farms twice a year, during planting and harvesting.

However, this impression of unchanged city is misleading. The conversations with people clearly demonstrate that over those decades Pyongyang has changed – or rather its people has changed. It was the same city, but a different society.

People were frank – not as frank as they would probably be in most other countries, of course, but still much franker than in past.

When none of our supervisors was hanging around, it was possible to strike a meaningful conversation with a North Korean. And in a matter of minutes the conversation would slide to issues nobody was insane enough to approach 20 years ago.

People wanted to know how the life overseas looks like. They asked about salaries and prices, travel and housing. Well, these questions might sound a bit too materialistic for some of our readers.

Perhaps, but the North Korean government has always insisted that it is second to none when it comes to meeting material demands of the populace. And it seems that the North Koreans are beginning to feel doubts about truthfulness of these long-standing claims.

There are good reasons for such doubts. Even grossly privileged Pyongyang does not look like a rich city, to put it mildly. Of course, statistics about the large and growing gap between two Koreas (approximately 20-fold if per capita GDP is used) is widely known, but it is altogether different matter to see this disparity with one’s own eyes.

However, one cannot see Pyongyang as really impoverished. The serious poverty could be encountered in the countryside.

We could catch a glimpse of it on our way to the city of Kaesong. Compared to destitute north-eastern provinces, this is still the privileged part of the country, but the picture was disturbing.

The Pyongyang-Kaesong highway is a road of reasonable quality (albeit with bad paving), but it was completely empty, with hardly a dozen vehicles encountered over hundred kilometers.

There were almost no signs of agricultural machines in the fields, with harvesting made by bare hands of farmers and city dwellers who are mobilized to join the “battle for the harvest”.

The landscape was free from all those intrusive details of modern civilization which so often annoy tourists (of course, the tourists assume that they would have access to such amenities back home).

No mobile phone antennas, few motor vehicles, very few powerlines. Sometimes it was easy to imagine oneself transported back to the times of Tang Empire when the kings of Silla dynasty ruled the Korean peninsula.

This might be a good feeling, of course – as long as one does not think too much about people who have to live in this “romantic” area under nearly medieval conditions.

And these people looked bad – worse, actually, than 20 years ago when a motor harvester was still a usual sight in a North Korean paddy field. People in the countryside were undernourished, badly dressed, their brown seemed faces covered with deep wrinkles.

Kaesong was clearly one large step down the North Korean hierarchy of prosperity (or lack thereof). It was strange to think that we were merely two hours drive from the hyper-modern and affluent Seoul – and the sight of Kaesong makes one think about the likely impact which the unavoidable “discovery” of South Korean affluence will have on those destitute people.

It also makes to have second thoughts about unification – it is difficult to imagine how those destitute farmers will find the common ground with their brethren from another side of the border. They will do it somehow, no doubt, but adjustment is bound to be painful.

However, in spite of all destitution there are many reasons for hope. Within those days we managed to meet quite a few Western businessmen quietly operating in North Korea. In order to succeed in this strange and often treacherous environment, one should remain silent and as press-shy as possible, but there is a number of the foreign businesses operating there.

The businesspeople are surprisingly optimistic about ongoing changes and about the country’s future: they talk about great transformation they witnessed over the last few years. The private economy is growing fast and the local people are hard-working and full of initiative.

The officials are increasingly corrupt, of course, but this is not necessarily bad: if they are willing to accept kickbacks, they do not care that much about following the official regulations which often are remarkably unreasonable.

Of course, the growth of market economy does not mean only good things. One of few visual changes easily noticeable in Pyongyang was an increase in social inequality. Back in the 1980s, it was not that difficult to tell an official from a humble commoner. Officials were dressed better, and sported leather shoes while the commoner had the cloth-and-plastic footwear. However, the difference was not as pronounced as it is now when on the Pyongyang street there is a small minority (few percent, perhaps) of people whose dress would not be out of place somewhere in downtown Seoul.

Sometimes, things old and things new go hand in hand. In one of the companies we visited, I spotted what is probably the worst example of comically exaggerated propaganda I’ve ever seen (and somebody dealing with North Korea for 20-odd years has seen a lot of comically exaggerated propaganda).

The hand-written poster explained why Kim Jong-il was superior to all other great minds of the humanity: “Marx was 28 years old when he founded The Communists’ Union; Lenin was 25 years old when he founded The Working Class Liberation Union; but the Dear Leader was 11 years old when he founded the Group to study the strategy of General Kim Il Sung!”

The same place also had a floor plan which demonstrated what the Great Leader did when he visited the company back in the 1980s – the plan signs indicated where the great man stood for a minute and which path he followed while moving from one desk to another. However, the same factory was also a place where we saw the most rational manager, whose speech was remarkably free from all kinds of usual demagogy. This lady in her 50s spoke like any manager, from Alaska to Madagascar would probably talk to visitors.


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