“Special provisions are not necessary. Just do not regulate the markets”

market.jpgAt its height, North Korea’s socialist infrastructure was responsible for the vast majority of the people’s standard of living.  Ration coupons and large purchases (such as for a car or refrigerator) were all provided through one’s employer.  This is because society was vertically integrated, with state-owned companies and ministries providing a broad array of social services that are handled by a variety of agents in a capitalist society (food, housing, education, childcare, health care etc..). There was little room for markets, or even prices, in people’s lives.

Although this system only worked for North Koreans in large urban areas, and excluded those in smaller villages and the country side who were much more dependent on themselves, for the vast majority of North Koreans today that system (or social contract) is a distant memory.  Out of fiscal necessity it has been chiseled away over the years, and as a result the scope for individual entrepreneurship in both the public and private spheres is increasing.  I do not want to give the impression that capitalism is running wild, but when compared to the past, the control of the North Korean state over the lives of its people is diminished.

One practice which has been retained to some degree, however, is the distribution of gifts or special provisions on the birthdays of the two leaders, Kim il Sung and Kim Jong il.  The scale of one’s gift, however, allegedly depends on one’s rank in society.  A common farmer might get a new pair of socks.  A senior Worker’s Party official probably receives a good deal more.  One estimate puts the value of these special gifts at USD$20m

The origins of these gifts are mixed.  Some are donated by foreignersSome are imported by the leadershipOthers are made domestically by the people themselves.

According to a story in today’s Daily NK, creeping marketization – bringing with it an increase in price and quality discrimination,  has left many North Korean consumers less than impressed with this year’s gift offerings:

A North Korean source in Shinuiju said in a phone conversation on the 17th, “When looking at the goods provided this time around, the quality has gone up as a whole in contrast to the past. However, the citizens did not attach too much significance to the ‘Great General’s gift’ as in the past.”

The source relayed the public sentiment as “Goods more valuable than his gifts are all over the place in the jangmadang. A portion of the people has said, ‘Special provisions are not necessary. Just do not regulate the markets.'”

In Shinuiju, a bottle of luxury liquor, 2kg of tangerine, and two pheasants were provided to the party organization through the “special provision’ and a bottle of liquor and a modest amount of fruits such as apples and tangerines were given to regular organizations. The People’s Units received a bottle of liquor, a toothbrush, and a bar of soap and pre-school and elementary school students received five pieces of gum, two rice crackers, two packs of chips, and one pack of candy.

The source added, “Those receiving the ‘title of hero’ and the Secretaries in charge of the county parties were given boxes marked with the label ‘gift,’ but its contents are uncertain.”

Another source in Hoiryeong in a phone conversation on this day said, “A bottle of liquor, a bar of soap, and a bottle of toothpaste were provided through the February 16th holiday provision and the children received a pack of candy, two packs of chips, a pack of pea candy, two packs of rice crackers, and seven pieces of gum.”

He also expressed discontent, saying, “It is pitiful to have to wait in line in front of the stores through which provisions are handed out for a mere bottle of liquor and soap.”

In the Hyesan, Yangkang Province region, laborers working at state enterprises were given 3kg of Annam rice (wild rice) and a bottle of liquor and oil were given to average households.

North Korea, in time for Kim Jong Il’s birthday in 2007, provided around 10 food items and daily necessities, including liquor and beer, cider and rice tally, oil, chips, and gum, to civilians.

In 2007, 200g of chips, 200g of candy, 100g of rice snacks, and five pieces of gum were given to elementary school students. Due to the shortage in foreign currency, special provisions were not offered to average civilians.

A caveat to this story is that all of the data points are from the large cities on the Chinese border.  These cities have benefited the most from trade with China and in all likelihood are the most “ideologically contaminated” in the DPRK.  

Jangmadang Goods Are More Valuable Than the General’s Gifts
Daily NK
Choi Choel Hee


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