North Korea Now: Will the Clock Be Turned Back?

This morning I received an email from a reader at the Brookings Institution who shared an article by one of their visiting fellows.  Much of it was about US/DPRK foreign policy, but I thought the following excerpt was interesting from a social change perspective:

On a recent visit to Pyongyang, this author was impressed by the sheer scale of new economic phenomena in DPRK. In terms of variety of goods, activity, and scale, markets in North Korea’s central areas (less in the provinces) remind of Chinese provincial markets. Numerous restaurants serve good—and very cheap, by Western standards—food to customers flocking to them. New “service centers” (eundokwon), combining shops, saunas, and restaurants under one roof, have sprung up and are run by highly placed entities such as Party departments and “offices.” Every branch of the Party, military, and local authorities now operates trading companies. Real business managers have appeared, some engaged not only in the “shuttle” trade with China but in bigger projects (in construction, for example), and some corporations have amassed a considerable volume of business. Judging by the author’s experiences in the 1980s and 1990s, these “new Koreans” are much more realistic and open to contact with outsiders than was the case before. There are changes in the official line as well: North Korean economists explained that now, out of several hundred thousand products manufactured in the country, only several hundred are now centrally planned. For the vast majority of manufactured products, managers of the state-owned enterprises are given a free hand to determine their production targets and to get what they need through the “socialist wholesale market.”

Having witnessed the processes eventually leading to the denunciation of the command economy in the USSR, and the transition to a market-based economy, this author can testify that there are striking resemblances in certain aspects of contemporary daily life in the DPRK to the USSR in the 1970s and 1980s (the Chinese experience in the1980s, with private enterprise officially sanctioned, is less similar). At that time in the Soviet Union, a vast black market of goods and services began to form in major cities. Many of its dealers became (often after a prison term) the leading businessmen of the post-Soviet era.

For example, at that time there was no private property for apartments in Moscow or elsewhere, and no real estate market officially existed. But at the same time almost any Soviet in the course of his life would “change” one apartment for a better one, paying considerable sums of money to the former “owner.” Some shadowy dealers would buy apartments outright, bribing officials to get a “registration” (propiska), and many made a profession of acting as a “go-between.” Similar activities are sprouting like mushrooms around North Korea. A one-room apartment in Pyongyang is said to cost about US$5000, less in local areas. However, real estate in some small cities close to Pyongyang boast the same high prices, as various kinds of dealers and traders, who are not permitted to settle in Pyongyang, buy apartments there. Foreign currency flows freely and, like in the USSR, most things can be obtained for money. A Russian joke said: “if it is illegal, but very much desirable, it is not prohibited.”

The ground for developing market relations is well prepared. The “royal economy” serving the ruling class (Kim Jong-il’s immediate retinue and the top nomenklatura or kanbu), and a large part of the internationalized sector (joint ventures and free economic zones) operate on market principles. The next step, should the country’s leaders admit the need for developing the country and sustaining their power, should be “setting the rules of the game” by providing a legal framework for what already exists. For that, however, external security should be guaranteed to the regime—irreversibly and comprehensively. Only then will the hard-liners, who fear—with good reason—that reforms would invite subversion of the regime, be confident enough for real progress to take place. Nevertheless the words “reform” and “openness” (especially because of their “Chinese connotations”) are unacceptable to Pyongyang, and Kim Jong-il himself stated as much during his talks with Roh Moo-hyun in October 2007. Under the present leadership Pyongyang, any economic reforms would most likely never be called such and would take place in an unpublicized manner without discussion, which is not helpful in terms of public relations with the West and negative international sentiment about the regime.

The full article can be found here:
North Korea Now: Will the Clock Be Turned Back?

Georgy Toloraya, Visiting Fellow, Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies


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