Archive for the ‘1990s Famine’ Category

North Korea’s natural resource risks: Kim Jong-il’s own take

Thursday, April 14th, 2016

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

As North Korea debates and experiments in economic strategies, it’s always interesting to go back and look at older debates of a similar nature. While reading vol. 14 of Kim Jong-il’s Collected Works (Sonjib) I stumbled upon an interesting speech attributed to Kim from 1995.* Whether it was foresight or just common logic of political economy, Kim actually warned of the risks of North Korea becoming a mere natural resource exporter to other countries, without reaping the full benefits of trade. Recall that one of the charges against Jang Song-taek was selling out the country’s natural resources for his own benefit. The issue itself, of course, is much older.

In the speech, given to an audience of Central Committee functionaries, Kim attacks cadres that have a faulty understanding of foreign trade under socialism, and think only about how their own “units” (단위) can make foreign currency profits (p. 8). He also emphasizes the need to calculate all the costs involved with foreign trade, including production costs at home, to calculate actual profit.

The most interesting part, in my opinion, however, is where Kim gets to the natural resource question. Kim states that natural resources shouldn’t just be sold to other countries, but processed (가공) domestically to the greatest extent possible (p. 10). He says that “now, capitalists are buying natural resources at a cheap price from our country, processing them and selling them to a higher price.”

Kim complains that it’s a grave crime that capitalists are pocketing their own wallets by selling off North Korea’s own resources by processing them, and that North Korea could become mere suppliers to monopoly capitalism if it doesn’t start processing their natural resources itself. He also states that those who just sell off natural resources without processing are just like slaves to foreign countries.

Kim also warns people about thinking that foreign currency can be earned “for free.” “The imperialists and capitalists never give anything to anyone for free,” Kim states, and says that if capitalists say they have anything to give, it is because they have their own desires” (p. 11).

This speech is a reminder that North Korea has grappled with how to handle its natural resources for a long time, and it suggests that controversies abounded in the 1990s as well.

*These works are sometimes edited after the fact, sometimes several times over, but this edition is from 2000, published by the Worker’s Party Publisher (N’odongd’ang chulpan’sa). All translations are my own, and if anyone has any corrections to offer, please get in touch.


The (Market) Forces of History in North Korea

Friday, October 30th, 2015

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

The market is a common topic for debate in history. How did it impact the rise of the anti-slavery movement in the US and the UK? What impact did economic conditions have in the French Revolution? These questions are, and should be, asked in the current debate about North Korea’s socioeconomic development as well.

But despite the hope of many, the market might not simply be a story of growing individualism and disconnect from the power of the state. While such a trend may well be at work, it could also be the other way around.

This was recently illuminated through an interesting story by Reuters. In a visit to Pyongyang, they took a look at how markets and everyday business transaction function in North Korea at the moment. As they note, it is telling that a reporter from an international news agency can make transactions in the open, with a government minder by his side, at the black market rate. Business that previously had to be done in the shadows now happens in the open:

Shoppers openly slapped down large stacks of U.S. dollars at the cashier’s counter. They received change in dollars, Chinese yuan or North Korean won – at the black market rate. The same was true elsewhere in the capital: taxi drivers offered change for fares at black market rates, as did other shops and street stalls that Reuters visited.

The most obvious conclusion is that the state is adapting itself to the bottom-up development of the market. Indeed, this is the way the story is often told. In this narrative, the government is only reacting to developments and has long lost the economic policy initiative.

But one could also see a government that is confident enough to relax the rules. It just isn’t a certain fact that the state and the market are two opposing entities.

First, connections to the state still seem to be good for those wanting to trade on the market. For example, according to the surveys conducted by Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland that laid the foundation for Witness to Transformation (2011)party membership is still considered one of the best ways to get ahead in North Korea (or at least it was at the time when the surveys were conducted). A somewhat similar trend can be discerned in survey results presented by Byung-Yeon Kim of Seoul National University at a conference at Johns Hopkins SAIS in late September this year. Kim’s results also indicate that there is a strong positive correlation between party membership and participation in both the formal and informal economy.

Second, the government is making money off of the market. DailyNK recently reported that the fees charged by state authorities for market stalls was raised. They also noted that regulations of the markets seemed to have gotten more detailed over the years. As noted in this report published by the U.S.-Korea Institute at SAIS, the space that the government allocates to markets has consistently increased in the past few years. Not only have official markets grown, many of them have also been renovated and given better building structures.

All in all, this paints a picture of a government that controls markets while allowing them more space to function. It is not clear that formerly black market activity happening in the open means that the market is gaining ground at the expense of the state. They may well be moving together. That is good news for those hoping for stability, but bad news for those banking on a market-induced revolution. Despite the hope of many that the market will cause the demise of the regime, the role of the market force in North Korea’s history is far from clear.


Lankov on the evolution of personal income in the DPRK

Wednesday, April 25th, 2012

Andrei Lankov writes on the history and evolution of personal income in the DPRK. According to his article in the Asia Times:

When one talks about virtually any country, wages and salaries are one of the most important things to be considered. How much does a clerk or a doctor, a builder or a shopkeeper earn there? What is their survival income, and above what level can a person be considered rich?

Such questions are pertinent to impoverished North Korea, but this is the Hermit Kingdom, so answering such seemingly simple questions creates a whole host of problems.

We could look first at official salaries but this is not easy since statistics on this are never published in North Korea. Nonetheless, it is known from reports of foreign visitors and sojourners that in the 1970s and 1980s, most North Koreans earned between 50 to 100 won per month, with 70 won being the average salary.

Read more below…


North Korea redefines ‘minimum’ wage

Wednesday, April 25th, 2012

Andrei Lankov writes in the Asia Times:

When one talks about virtually any country, wages and salaries are one of the most important things to be considered. How much does a clerk or a doctor, a builder or a shopkeeper earn there? What is their survival income, and above what level can a person be considered rich?

Such questions are pertinent to impoverished North Korea, but this is the Hermit Kingdom, so answering such seemingly simple questions creates a whole host of problems.

Read the full story below:



Mirim’s second Kim Il-sung Square

Tuesday, January 31st, 2012

UPDATE 1: By coincidence NK Leadership Watch and I posted on a similar topic today.  See his post and analysis here.

ORIGINAL POST: Today the Daily NK reported that preparations were underway for another KPA military parade:

A high level government official revealed today, “North Korea has been mobilizing military personnel and equipment to practice for the military parade at Mirim Airfields near Pyongyang. This practice has been taking place since even before the death of Kim Jong Il.”

The official explained the reason for the ongoing parade practice as part of preparations to commemorate Kim Il Sung’s birthday (April 15) and the Mlitary Foundation Day (April 25).

The military parade practice has so far involved the Worker and Peasant Red Guard, which is made up of currently-serving soldiers and reservists, mobilized with the latest-model tanks, armored cars, as well as short and medium range KN-02 and Musudan missiles.

The official added, “North Korea conducts parades on anniversaries such as the Military Foundation Day and other national holidays. Looking at the speed and scale of preparations currently underway, it seems more likely that the parade will take place in April rather than on February 16, Kim Jong Il’s birthday.”

The logistics of these parades are enormous.  I learned a lot about them back in November at a meeting with Osamu Eya in Japan. Among the many things we discussed, I asked him where the North Korean military practices their parades through Kim Il-sung Square. He answered with a single word: “Mirim”.

Now I am kind of embarrassed to admit that I never saw the resemblance (because I thought of the Mirim area as a runway strip and because the two places are not geographically laid out in the same directions). Once you rotate the satellite images and set them next to each other, however, there is no denying that the KPA has a Kim Il-sung Square-sized practice area from which to rehearse its grand military parades.


Pictured above (Google Earth): (L) Kim Il-Sung Square, (R) Mirim parade practice area.

Looking at the most current Google Earth satellite imagery (2010-10-6) we can see vehicles already practicing for their next parade:

In this Google Earth image (2006-11-11) we can see people practicing in the area:

Going back to the oldest available satellite image on Google Earth (2000-6-12) the use of the facility as a practice area is a little more clear.  We can also see some of what remains of the original landing strip in this photo:

But Mirim is not just a practice filed.  It also contains facilities to house and feed the thousands of people who come to practice. Just to the left of the field is the April 25 Hotel:


According to KCNA (1998-9-30):

The April 25 Hotel has been built on the outskirts of Pyongyang as a monumental edifice in the era of the Workers’ Party. The hotel with a total floor space of more than 134,000 square metres and accommodation for 20,000 guests has bedrooms, cultural and welfare facilities and cook equipment on a highest level. It will serve servicemen and civilians who participate in national military and civic events. Soldier-builders successfully finished this gigantic project–erection of buildings, assembling of equipment and arrangement of the area–in a little more than one year. A ceremony for the completion of the hotel took place on Tuesday. Present at the ceremony were Jo Myong Rok, Kim Il Chol, Kye Ung Thae and others. A congratulatory message of the Workers’ Party of Korea Central Committee was conveyed to the soldier-builders and helpers who had performed feats in the hotel construction. The message noted that the April 25 Hotel, a monumental edifice of the era, has been built in a short span of time under the present conditions that all the people have to overcome manifold trials and hardships in their advance. it could be done only by the revolutionary army of Korea who knows no impossibility, and it is a proud fruition produced by the might of the army and people rallied around the party as one in mind, it stressed. Highly praising the soldier-builders and helpers for demonstrating again the potentials and stamina of socialist Korea by completing the hotel, the message expressed the belief that they would make greater success in carrying out their revolutionary duties. Jo Myong Rok made a report at the ceremony. The reporter said that the heroic and proud feats performed by servicemen in the noble work to carry out the WPK’s grand plan for construction will be always remembered by the fatherland and handed down to posterity.


KCNA reported on 1998-10-8 that Kim Jong-il visited the hotel:

Pictured above: Kim Jong-il giving “on the spot guidance” at the 4.25 Hotel

[Kim Jong-il] then went to the April 25 Hotel which was newly built on Mirim plain. Looking round the interior and exterior of the hotel including a bedroom, a washroom, a dining hall and a kitchen, he learned how the hotel had been built. He highly praised soldiers and helpers for having built the hotel in a short span of time and contributed to demonstrating the potential and stamina of socialist Korea once again. He said the construction of the hotel in a short span of time is a miracle that can be worked only by the heroic Korean People’s Army (KPA) which is intensely loyal to the party. He added that the country will always remember the soldiers’ heroic feats and proud achievements in socialist construction. He called for equipping the hotel, an asset of eternal value for the army and people, with better facilities, planting many trees around the hotel, creating a pleasure park and providing those who stay in the hotel with good conditions for cultured life. As many servicemen and civilians will use the hotel, they should be given best services, he said, and gave the hotel important tasks for its management and operation. The Chairman of the DPRK National Defence Commission was accompanied by director of the General Political Department of the KPA Jo Myong Rok, chief of the general staff of the KPA Kim Yong Chun, Minister of the People’s Armed Forces Kim Il Chol and general officers of the KPA.

This hotel was built at the time the DPRK was experiencing the “Arduous March” (Forced March)–a famine which killed up to a million people. Despite the acute shortage of food and a breakdown of the DPRK’s revolutionary social contract, KCNA listed this hotel as one of the great accomplishments of the North Koreans during this time (1998-12-31):

This year proud successes have been reported from the DPRK in face of difficulties brought on by the combined effects of the never-ceasing campaign of the imperialists to stifle the DPRK and years of natural disasters. The most remarkable success gained in the forced march this year is artitifical satellite “Kwangmyongsong 1” which was launched into orbit on august 31. The scientists and technicians of Korea launched into orbit the first artificial satellite, a product of their own wisdom and technology, fully demonstrating the national power of Korea with a powerful scientific and technical force and the solid foundations of the independent national economy. Bulky April 25 Hotel and September 9 Street sprang up in Pyongyang to commemorate 50 years of the DPRK (September 9). The hotel with modern equipment and accommodation for 20,000 is on the east outskirts of the capital city. The street linking Pyongyang Airport to the Kumsusan Memorial Palace, the sacred temple of Juche, gave a major face-lifting to the northwest area of the capital city with bridges of special characteristics, flats for thousands of households, ornamental forests, scores of metres wide, on either side of the highway in good harmony with landscape. Thousands of minor power stations were built across the country this year. The locally-built minor power stations in Jagang Province meet the needs for the lighting of the flats for more than 100,000 households and the production of local-industry factories. Flats for 10,000 households in Chongjin, an industrial city, benefit from electric heating. A growing number of cities, counties and units are offsetting the demands for electricity with electric energy turned out at minor power stations. The Huichon General Machine Tool Plant produced hundreds of machine tools in a matter of a few months. In the railway transport diesel engine locomotives were converted into electric locomotives called “forced march.” 60 kilometre-odd-long railroad between Haeju and Ongjin, between singangryong and Pupho in the central area of the country was switched over to a broad-gauge one. The Pyongyang Integrated Circuits Factory, salt refineries and other industrial establishments were commissioned or completed throughout the country. As a result, a more solid economic foundation of the nation was laid.


North Korea’s new class system

Saturday, December 3rd, 2011

Andrei Lankov writes in the Asia Times:

It is often overlooked how much North Korea has changed over the past 20 years. Its Stalinist and militaristic facade is carefully maintained by the state, but in the new circumstances it is increasingly misleading. Behind this official veneer of militant posters and goose-stepping soldiers, the society itself has changed much.

In a nutshell, the past two decades were the time when the state was steadily retreating from the private life, and also was losing its ability (perhaps also its will) to control the daily activities of its subjects as well as how they made a living. One of many significant changes has been the steady decline in the significance attached to family background (known as songbun in North Korean parlance) – once the single most important factor that determined the life of a North Korean.

Family background did matter in other communist countries as well, but to a much lesser extent. For example, in the Soviet Union immediately after the 1917 communist revolution, scions of aristocrats, descendants of priests, and merchants faced many kinds of discrimination. It was more difficult for them to enter a college or to be promoted, and they were more likely to be arrested for alleged political crimes. However, this discrimination had disappeared by the late 1940s, so in the days of my youth, in the 1970s and 1980s, it had become quite normal in the USSR to boast about real or alleged aristocratic family roots.

North Korea is very different. In 1957, the authorities launched a large-scale and ambitious investigation of the family backgrounds of virtually all North Korean citizens. As a result of this and subsequent investigations, by the mid-1960s the entire population was divided into a number of hereditary groups, somewhat akin to the estates of medieval Europe. Career chances and life prospects of every North Korean were determined, to a very large extent, by his membership in one of these strictly defined groups.
The major criteria of classification were quite straightforward: the songbun (origin) of the North Korean was largely defined by what his or her direct male ancestors did in the 1930s and 1940s.

The official songbun structure was quite elaborate and changed over time. However, at the first approximation, there have been three groups in North Korea, usually known as “core”, “wavering” and “hostile” classes. Every single North Korean had to belong to one of these groups.

The “hostile class” included people whose ancestors in or around 1945 were engaged in activities that were not to the regime’s liking. Among others, this group included descendants of clerks in the Japanese colonial administration, Christian activists, female shamans, entrepreneurs, and defectors to the South. Members of the hostile class faced the greatest number of restrictions: They could not live in Pyongyang or other major cities and they could not be admitted to good colleges or universities. People whose songbun was exceptionally bad would not even be drafted into the military.

Members of the “core class” included those whose direct male ancestors contributed toward the foundation and strengthening of the Kim family regime. They were descendants of anti-Japanese guerrillas, heroes of the Korean War, or party bureaucrats. For all practical purposes, over the past half-century, only these people could be promoted to key positions in the North Korean state and party bureaucracy. They constituted the hereditary elite.

In the days of Kim Il-sung’s rule, from the early 1960s to the early 1990s, songbun was of paramount significance. It determined where people lived and worked and even what they ate. Most marriages were also concluded between people of the same or similar songbun.

It was also important that the songbun was, in essence, unchallengeable. It was inherited from one’s father and was then bestowed on one’s children. The mother’s songbun did not matter. I know a couple where the husband’s songbun was bad (he was a “landowner’s grandson”), but the wife had the best songbun imaginable, being a descendant of a family that once was involved with the anti-Japanese guerrillas of Kim Il-sung. Frankly, such a marriage was rare and unequal – in most cases women of such standing would be as reluctant to marry a man of low origin as, say, a European noble lady from the 17th century. However, in this particular case the marriage did take place, much against the resistance of the girl’s parents.

In due time, though, the spouses discovered that the wife’s songbun did not really matter. Their daughter, a promising athlete, could not be sent for further training, since her songbun was bad: the great-granddaughter of a minor landlord could not compete on the national level and, for that matter, could be accepted only to a junior college.

In Kim Il-sung’s era – that is, before 1994 – the state was in near-complete control of an individual’s life. The only way to achieve high status and affluence was to climb the official bureaucratic ladder. As a North Korean friend put it in the late 1980s: “I hate officials, but I want to become an official, because in our country, only officials can live well.” Indeed, in Kim Il-sung’s North Korea all material goods were distributed by the state and almost all income was derived from work in state industry or the state bureaucracy.

But things started to change dramatically in the early 1990s. The state sector, suddenly deprived of Soviet subsidies, collapsed. North Koreans suddenly discovered that food rations were no longer forthcoming and their official monthly salary would only buy 1 or 2 kilograms of rice. Predictably, mass starvation followed, killing at least a half-million people.

To survive, the North Korean people literally rediscovered capitalism. Estimates vary, but the consensus is that over the past 10-15 years, the average North Korean family has come to draw most of its income from what can be described as black-market activities. Actually the so-called black market is not particularly black, since the government – in spite of occasional crackdowns – has tacitly tolerated its existence since the mid-1990s. Nowadays North Koreans work on individual fields on steep mountain slopes, they establish private workshops to produce garments and assorted consumer goods, and they smuggle and trade.

The new and increasingly dominant unofficial economy is in essence capitalist. As such, it rewards those who are sufficiently industrious, greedy, intelligent, ruthless and disciplined – and in some cases, it rewards them handsomely. Social inequality is growing and many a successful merchant or workshop owner lives better than a middle-ranking bureaucrat. A successful entrepreneur might have all trappings of luxury – including, say, a Chinese motorbike or a refrigerator, which in North Korea can be seen as roughly equivalent to a Lexus and a yacht.

The success in the emerging new economy is usually unrelated to one’s songbun. In fact, sometimes it seems that people with bad songbun tend to be more successful nowadays – perhaps because back in the 1990s they had no expectations of the state and were the first to jump into the murky waters of the emerging North Korean market economy.

Of late, the previously attractive career avenues have lost much of their allure. For example, in the past, many North Koreans were willing to do their long and tedious military service, which lasted some seven to 10 years. This popularity was easy to explain: For a person with average songbun, this would be the only way to get into the bottom tiers of the bureaucracy. As a North Korean told it, recalling the time of her youth, the 1970s: “The only way to become somebody was to go into the military, join the Korean Workers Party while on the active service, and then come back to become an official.”

Recently, however, military service has lost much of its popularity. Few people would be willing spend 10 years in a squalid barracks so as eventually to become a minor official in the city administration. Such a job is still attractive, to be sure, but it seems preferable to become a smuggler or a merchant, whose income far exceeds that of a petty bureaucrat.

Still, on the very top, songbun is important, since the key administrative positions are held by those with good songbun, and a mid- or high-level official can make a nice income by milking the private economy. Hence people with good songbun still often think about capitalizing on the real or alleged contribution of their ancestors to the establishment of the North Korean regime. However, for a majority the emergence of markets opened a new, faster and more attractive (but also more risky) avenue of social mobility.

North Korean society has become defined by one’s relationship to money, not by one’s relationship to the bureaucracy or one’s inherited caste status. Money talks, and for better or worse, in North Korea, money talks ever louder. As a female refugee in her early 40s put it recently: “Under Kim Il-sung, songbun was very important, it decided everything. Under Kim Jong-il, things are different – your family background still matters, but money nowadays is more important than social background.”

Read the full story here:
North Korea’s new class system
Asia Times
Andrei Lankov


Some interesting recent publications and articles

Thursday, October 20th, 2011

1. “Relying on One’s Strength: The Growth of the Private Agriculture in Borderland Areas of North Korea”
Andrei Lankov,Seok Hyang Kim ,Inok Kwa
PDF of the article here 

The two decades which followed the collapse of the communist bloc were a period of dramatic social and economic transformation in North Korea. The 1990-2010 period was a time when market economy re-emerged in North Korea where once could be seen as the most perfect example of the Stalinist economic model. The present article deals with one of the major areas of socioeconomic change which, so far, has not been the focus of previous studies. The topic is about the growth of private agricultural activities in North Korea after 1990. This growth constitutes a significant phenomenon which has important social consequences and also is important from a purely economic point of view: it seems that the spontaneous growth of private plots played a major role in the recent improvement of the food situation inside North Korea.


3. Korea Sharing Movement anti-malarial program (Via Cancor)
Read a PDF of on the project here


4. What is it like to teach at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST)?
Find out from one instructor here. More on PUST here.



Marcus Noland on NK’s refugees and economy

Sunday, January 16th, 2011

Evan Ramstad at the Wall Street Journal: Korea Real Time interviews Marcus Noland:

Only a handful of outside economists spend the enormous time required to delve into the mysteries of North Korea.

Marcus Noland is one of them. With his research and writing partner Stephen Haggard, Mr. Noland has written several books about the North, including a definitive study on the famine that gripped the country from the mid- to late-1990s and resulted in the death of at least 1 million people and perhaps upwards of 2 million.

In a new book published this week, called Witness to Transformation: Refugee Insights into North Korea, Messrs. Noland and Haggard produce the results of interviews they and their researchers conducted with more than 1,600 North Koreans who fled the country. The interviews took place from 2004 to 2008 and involved people who left North Korea as early as 1991.

The book documents the remarkable changes inside the North through the eyes of people who lived through them. Of course, it’s a group that holds negative views of North Korea. But the economists do their best to take that into account.

Mr. Noland, who is based at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, discussed the book with us. Here’s an excerpt of the interview:

WSJ: Most books and studies on North Korea by people outside the country are focused on the nuclear weapons issue and the geopolitics around that. Why have you focused on refugees and the economy?

Mr. Noland: An understudied aspect of the North Korea story, we believe, is the really quite dramatic internal changes that have been going on in North Korea over the last 10 to 20 years. North Korea poses an analytical challenge in that access is limited and the conventional ways that one could go studying a country aren’t available. In this context, the diaspora of refugees leaving the country is an important source of information.

The refugees themselves constitute a first-order crisis. Most of these people, in a clinical setting, would probably be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Their mental health issues appear to be related not only to the difficult circumstances they faced in China but their experiences in North Korea.

WSJ: What is the cause of those stresses?

Mr. Noland: Specifically the loss of family members and family separations associated with the famine. The sense among many of them that they were abandoned in their moment of greatest need. The feeling that they were not given access to international humanitarian aid, which many of them believe was diverted to the military. And the experience of many of them of having been arrested and incarcerated in North Korea’s vast and sprawling penal system.

So the refugees themselves are an issue. They also provide us a window into North Korea.

WSJ: What did you learn from them?

Mr. Noland: Our book addresses three broad issues, which they illuminate.

The first is the underlying economic changes in the country. What we find is the economy has essentially marketized over the last 15 years or so, not as any kind of planned reform but rather as a function of state failure. What is extraordinary is the degree of marketization that the refugees portray when describing their daily lives. They describe a situation in which doing business or engaging in corrupt or illegal activities is increasingly seen as the way to get ahead in North Korea. And positions in the state or the party are still highly desired and seen as a way to get ahead, but not out of patriotism because these positions increasingly provide a platform for extortion of the general population.

Which brings us to the second big theme of the book and that is the criminalization of economic activity and the use of this vast penal system not only for its traditional use as a tool of political intimidation but for economic extortion. What we find is that changes in the North Korean legal code have criminalized vast areas of economic life, the sort of economic life that real people actually lead. In their daily lives, most if not all of North Korea’s non-elites run afoul of some of these statutes, which in effects makes everyone a criminal.

The fact that everyone is running afoul of some statute is combined with the fact that the police are given extraordinary discretion in who they arrest and who they incarcerate and for what period of time. We find that the North Korean penal system has four components. The worst and best known are the long-term political prisons, the North Korean gulag that was set up by Soviet advisors. There’s also a set of institutions that are effectively felony prisons, where you put the murderers and the rapists. Then there are a set of institutions that correspond to misdemeanor jails in other societies. What has developed since the famine period of the 1990s is a fourth set of institutions that have been codified. Those primarily house people who have made economic crimes, such as hiring labor for money or selling things in the market that you’re not supposed to be selling. We go through the enormous expansion of articles in the North Korean legal code to cover these crimes, such as illegally operating a restaurant.

This is a fantastic instrument for extortion. It means if you were engaging in entrepreneurial behavior, the police can come to you and say ‘You’re engaged in illegal activity. We can take you, take your spouse, take your kid and put them in this institution where you know horrible things happen.’ So the penal system not only serves its traditional function as a platform for political corruption but we find it is now a platform for economic predation as well.

We discovered something that we call the ‘market syndrome.’ It is a series of characteristics that seem to be linked with engaging in market activities. People who engage in market activities are 50% more likely to be arrested than their counterparts. They are more likely to harbor more negative appraisals of the regime than their counterparts. And in a society where people are afraid to express their opinions, these guys who are engaged in the market, who have been to jail and been released, are more likely to express their views to others. That is to say that the market is emerging as a kind of semi-autonomous zone of social communication and potentially political organizing. And in that sense, the regime is right to fear the market.

And that brings us to the final theme, and that is the political attitudes of these people and nascent dissent. What we find is people have very negative appraisals of the regime. That’s not surprising. We’re sampling from a group of people that have voted with their feet and one would expect them to have negative views, though we go through fairly elaborate statistical exercises to try to control as best we can for the demographic characteristics of the people we’ve interviewed.

People have very negative views of the regime. They are increasingly disinclined to believe the regime’s meta-narrative, which rationalizes their misery as a function of being held captive by hostile foreign forces. Most of these people hold the government itself as responsible for their plight.

WSJ: You two previously wrote one of the seminal studies on the North Korean famine (Famine in North Korea: Markets, Aid and Reform), what did the refugees tell you about living through that?

Mr. Noland: Both Steph and I were really struck by was just how the famine experience reverberates. The famine was more than 10 years ago. It ended in 1998. A significant share of the people, I think about a third, reported separation from, or death of, family members during that process. You had people out scavenging to find food. People going to China. Family separation and death of family members just continued to reverberate.

We asked them: ‘Were you aware of the international food aid program?’ The numbers differ in our surveys, but significant numbers of people were unaware of the food aid program. It was astonishing to us.

Then, among the ones who were aware, we asked `Do you believe you were a beneficiary?’ Only a small minority responded yes. And when we run all the regressions, this status of knowing of the existence of the program but believing you were not a beneficiary, this is a profoundly demoralizing experience. These people feel they were abandoned at this time of need, when they were seeing their families and neighbors dying. They believe it’s going to the army and the elites. That group of people, when we run the psychological tests and ask them their views of the regime, this is an embittered group. The effect of that experience is bigger than being in the prisons.

We wrote a book on the famine, so obviously we’re interested in it. But we were surprised and we wouldn’t have guessed that this experience continues to reverberate among the people who lived through it.

Read the full story here:
Marcus Noland on NK’s Refugees and Economy
Wall Street Journal: Korea Real Time
Evan Ramstad


North Korea between collapse and reform

Friday, December 19th, 2008

Asian Survey Vol. 39, No. 2 (Mar. – Apr., 1999), pp. 287-309
Kongdan Oh and Ralph Hassig

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The refusal of North Korea’s letters to institute serious economic reforms has frustrated those who study the country and those who seek to alleviate the suffering of the North Korean people.  Two French medical aid organizations have withdrawn from the country complaining that the Pyongyang government interfered with their work.  This is but one sign of a growing donor fatigue.  The muddling through plan that the Kim regime has adopted involves soliciting foreign aid, bargaining with its military and nuclear products, making minimal unofficial changes in the domestic economy, and waiting for the international environment to become more favorable—perhaps even expecting a resurgance of international communism.  Equally important, Kim and his ruling cohorts are willing to sacrifice the economic health of their nation for the security of their regime, just as other dictators, both communist and non-communist have done.  The painful difference in North Korea’s case is that it is half of a divided nation, posing an immediate humanitarian dilemma for the millions of Koreans in the Southern half of the penninsula whose families are suffering in the north.  For this reason more than any other, the future of North Korea cannot be ignored.  


Famine in North Korea Redux?

Monday, November 3rd, 2008

Peterson Institute Working Paper
WP 08 – October 2008
Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland

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Abstract: In the 1990s, 600,000 to 1 million North Koreans, or about 3 to 5 percent of the precrisis population, perished in one of the worst famines of the 20th century. North Korea is once again poised on the brink of famine. Although the renewed provision of aid is likely to avert a disaster on the scale of the 1990s, hunger-related deaths are already occurring and a dynamic has been set in motion that will carry the crisis into 2009. North Korea is a complex humanitarian emergency characterized by highly imperfect information. This paper triangulates quantity and price evidence with direct observation to assess food insecurity in North Korea and its causes. We critique the widely cited UN figures and present original data on grain quantities and prices. These data demonstrate that for the first time since the 1990s famine, the aggregate grain balance has gone into deficit. Prices have also risen steeply. The reemergence of pathologies from the famine era is documented through direct observation. Although exogenous shocks have played a role, foreign and domestic policy choices have been key.

Keywords: Famine, North Korea
JEL codes: Q1, O1, P2