North Korea has seen its share of changes over the past five years. From the death of Kim Jong Il to the appearance of Mickey Mouse at state functions, changes have varied from the profound to the outright surprising.
But what do the changes mean – and what role will they play in determining North Korea’s future?
To find out, NK News asked ten North Korea specialists a series of five questions about changes in the DPRK: past, present, and future.
To paint as accurate a portrait of change as possible, NK News spoke to a group comprising both frequent visitors and outside observers, academics and business people, NGO workers and human rights activists.
Over the next five days join NK News for a close look at how North Korea is changing and what can be expected from the future.
Question 1: What has been the biggest change in North Korea over the past five years?
If thanks to mineral and other deposits it has been the case that the North Korean economy has been in black figures for the past few years, in my view this would probably signify the the change with the biggest potential to modify the way North Korea interacts with the international community.
These new-found financial resources could conceivably give overall North Korean economic performance a much-needed boost – provided of course that the profits associated with the mining business are not being siphoned off before reaching the state’s coffers.
“Mining: This is I think a game-changer”
I’ve never used this term before, but here I go: If indeed the North Korean economy is in the black because of the sale of mineral and precious metals to China, this is I think a game-changer. It will make North Korea even less sensitive to international pressure (and yes, I do realize how this sounds).
As far as international pressure on account of the nuclear weapons issues goes, this won’t make much difference. In contrast, I am not so sure about the human rights issues.
Human rights is an issue in which which the international community could conceivable have achieved something, even if only temporarily and locally, with an alternating strategy of pressure and engagement. But it is probably too late for that now. And given the state of affairs in North Korea with regard to human rights, this is truly lamentable.
The obvious answer, of course, is the change in leadership.
The peculiarities of Kim Jong Un’s policies are still far from clear, but the sudden emergence of a new leader is clearly significant. And I also would say that his leadership style, as different from his (still unknown) policies is remarkably different from what we have seen in the past.
“The obvious answer, of course, is the change in leadership”
Apart from that, I would also draw your attention to a change in attitude toward the markets – this happened in early 2010, immediately after it became evident that the 2009 currency reform was a fiasco.
In the years 2005-9, the North Korean government did much to limit the growth and push back against the growth of markets. After 2010, though, the North Korean government has adopted a laissez-faire approach.
Politically, we see the attempts by civilian leaders to claw back authority from the military leaders to whom they transferred political authority with the establishment of military first-politics in the late 1990s. They have been more successful at nominal reconstitution of Party authority over the military than actual reconstitution of political power.
This is because the party itself has changed almost beyond recognition from an organization whose officials main job was to promote Kim Il Sungist ideology to an organization of individual rent seekers whose main job is to obtain economic benefits, for themselves and their families, as well as their constituencies.
Reconstituting old party modalities through conferences, regional and national assemblies hasn’t change the basic economic nexus which is that the government no longer pays a living wage or guarantees a reliable food ration to all its employees so all citizens – including party, security and military officials – need to engage pro-actively in the gray economy if they are to survive and prosper.
Economically, we have seen the establishment and consolidation of the private/ public trading company system. These are a key source of supply of food and goods at market pricing for about a third of the population and are one of the motor forces of the marketized economy in the DPRK.
In food and health, there has been a continuing fall in severe malnutrition and a steady improvement in the health status of the population since the mid-2000s. The 2012 severe malnutrition rate for North Korea was 5 percent; considerably better than richer Asian countries, including India where 20 percent of children suffered from severe malnutrition, and Indonesia where the analogous figure was 13 percent.
“The 2012 severe malnutrition rate for North Korea was 5 per cent; considerably better than richer Asian countries”
Children and women remain chronically malnourished for similar reasons to other poor to middle-income countries: poor governance and poverty. Nevertheless, in 2012 the chronic malnutrition rate of children at 28 percent was again lower than some of the richer Asian countries; significantly so compared to India at 48 percent, and compared to Indonesia at 36 percent.
North Korea’s children and mothers fared better than the average in South Asia but worse than if they lived in the developed countries of Japan and South Korea.
In the late 2000s, the incidence of diseases associated with the rapid economic deterioration of the 1990s, TB and malaria, fell sharply. The incidence of vaccination preventable diseases including measles, whooping cough, diphtheria, etc. is tiny.
Attitudes and information: There are visible signs that the urban population are fully aware that they are far from living in a socialist paradise. They are knowledgeable about South Korea and China – not from clandestine radio – but from South Korean movies, K-pop DVDs and Chinese traders.
It is fairly straightforward for a middle class person living in the China border to get hold of a mobile phone and talk with relatives in South Korea.
In historical comparative terms of the 50 odd years of literal closure of the North from the South this access to information from and about the outside world is unprecedented.
I would say the way that some of our local partners have become increasingly amenable to the demands and requests of the western tourist market.
It is now easier than ever (still not particularly easy though!) to gain access to special events such as watching military parade participants on their way across the city, attending local football matches, arranging sports events between visitors and locals, visiting schools, etc.
While our partners in Pyongyang have always understood what is attractive to our travelers they are not the ones who decide whether something is possible or not. It’s been gratifying to them as well as to us that we have been able to co-operate in successfully increasing the access that tourists have to places around the country, to special events, and to the local people themselves.
Also, the numbers of western tourists visiting the country, especially tourists from the United States, has increased a great deal over the last few years, as have the number of travel companies entering the market as well (obviously there is a correlation here).
While numbers remains small in absolute terms (a few thousand people a year) this is degrees increased from just a few years ago when several hundred people would be the norm: I would say that between 2008 and 2013 there has been an increase of something like 400% on the annual amount of western tourists visiting the DPRK.
The succession from Kim Jong Il to Kim Jong Un is the most significant change in North Korea over the last five years. The familial nature of the regime provided a focal point for the transition, and therefore eased it. The regime is also quite institutionalized, and I don’t put much faith in “collapse” scenarios, which are seeing a resurgence at the moment. But in personalist systems, there is always risk as new leaders have to solidify support and manage potential challangers. With Luke Herman, I have documented the extensive turnover at the top of the system including in important military and security roles. These changes are not necessarily indicative of internal leadership struggles, but they do suggest that the regime is not fully consolidated.
“It is pretty obvious that internal dynamics play some role in diplomatic developments since 2009”
The succession has also been associated with a less forthcoming foreign policy. Analysts differ about what went wrong in 2008: were the North Koreans not adequately forthcoming or were the Americans moving the goal posts? The answer is “both.” But it is pretty clear that around the time of Kim Jong Il’s stroke in August of that year, diplomacy slowed down as the regime focused on organizing the succession. Note that the first nuclear test in 2006 was followed quite quickly by a return to talks.The collapse of talks in 2008, by contrast, was followed by the nuclear and missile tests of 2009, the sinking of the Cheonan and shelling of Yeonpyeong-do and the ongoing tensions over the satellite launch, culminating in the tensions in early 2013. Outside actors are often blamed for failure to make progress on the peninsula, but it is pretty obvious that internal dynamics play some role in diplomatic developments since 2009.
Marc Noland and I have tried to document another longer-run change in the country–what we call “marketization from below.” These changes remain an important force for change in the country, including the emergence of private and quasi-private actors and increasing inequality. Associated with the growth of markets is also an increase in the flow of information into the country. But these changes are of longer-standing, and the question is how the new leadership will respond to them.
I guess the most noticeable and significant “big change” would be the leadership succession, mainly owing to its abruptness. Chairman Kim Jong Il’s sudden death in December 2011 was unforeseen despite his known failing health—the warning signs were there, but only the Cyclops can see his final destination. Kim Jong Il’s third son, the late-20s/early-30s Kim Jong Un, became the regime’s supreme protagonist much sooner than anyone expected. And most North Korea observers—and North Koreans alike!—knew little if anything about the new leader or what his ascension would bring.
“The succession from father to son has not translated into any major shift in North Korea’s policies”
At the passing of the father and ascent of the son, what struck me was that there seemed to be a great “release,” if only momentarily. People were reticent, but you could tell expectations were bubbling in the ecosphere of the post-Kim Jong Il world. There was uncertainty, but also a latent expectation for something else. Everyone was seduced especially after the young leader’s April 2012 speech and the relaxation that followed, the whispers of new agricultural measures, the welcoming of a dancing Mickey Mouse to Pyongyang and introduction of North Korea’s first electric guitar-picking all-girls Moranbong Band. We also didn’t quite expect the image branding of the new leader that has followed—being portrayed as a charismatic and congenial re-embodiment of his grandfather and founding DPRK leader Kim Il Sung—although from a regime perspective it makes sense.
But change is synonymous with continuity when we talk about North Korea. The succession from father to son has not translated into any major shift in North Korea’s policies—not yet! Hopefully, once the young leader tests his mettle and consolidates his power more fully, we might see some incremental steps toward more meaningful economic and social change that will benefit the ordinary people. But that will take time.
There is a new leader!
There have been obvious economic changes over the past few years in the DPRK – these range from more construction projects, not just limited to the capital – but of course most prevalent there, as well as a general increase in the number of cars on the road, new Chinese buses and taxis driving around, new roads (especially in the case of Rason), and a lot more lights turned on, implying that the energy situation has improved in Pyongyang at least.
“There is a much greater interest in engaging new ideas”
There are a lot more children on roller-skates and bicycles these days, and fashion has modernized quite a bit. Granted, I notice a lot more blackouts in the winter even in Pyongyang, especially driving around the streets past midnight when there are sometimes entire blocks of the city without power.
In terms of attitude, this may not have any direct correlation to the DPRK actually changing over the last five years and quite possibly have more to do with the fact that our organization has been more “grandfathered” in with several domestic organizations, but cooperation has certainly become easier for us. In the past, when it would take months or even years to get a project approved, now it only takes a few weeks. There is a much greater interest in engaging new ideas, projects and places on the part of our partners in-country, and economics are a favorite topic.
From speaking with defectors who left North Korea five years ago compared to people who left this year (and the years in between), I would say the most significant change is the continued general rise in awareness of the discrepancies between South Korea, China and their own country, linked with a more sophisticated understanding for the causes of North Korea’s poverty, and increased prevalence of people willing to discuss these issues and criticize the regime (at different levels of explicitness) among trusted contacts.
“With the normalization of foreign media consumption in many communities, we also see an increase in shared illegal behaviors”
There are several ways North Koreans can learn about the outside world now, and along with the rise in trade-contact with China, the last five years have seen a further rise access to information technology; particularly DVDs, portable DVD players, USB memory sticks, cellphones, laptops and tablet PCs. These have all increased significantly over the last five years and open up a window to the outside world by facilitating access to foreign media. The only way for most North Koreans to get access to illegal foreign media is through people in their communities–whether buying, renting or borrowing–and with the increase in availability and the normalization of foreign media consumption in many communities, we also see an increase in shared illegal behaviors like watching foreign media with neighbors or friends. This seems a lot more common than five years ago, and is significant in building trust between citizens. So it’s not just informational change, but social change to boot.
Defector (refugee) insights of course carry the standard caveats and apply to the communities that defectors come from, but those borderlands are interesting hotspots of social change in North Korea that deserve extra attention, because in many ways they are at the leading edge of some of North Korea’s most interesting social trends.
To some extent, the widespread corruption in North Korea has eroded the long-standing system of discrimination based upon “one’s background.”
North Korea introduced a caste system based on perceived political loyalty in the 1960s, a system that had an effect on everything from educational and occupational opportunities to wage discrimination and food rationing.
Widespread corruption now means that money can allow some people to buy membership to the party or send their children to higher education institutions, so there is a greater mobility between the classes. Money is the way to bypass this old obstacle.
In part two, published Tuesday, we ask which changes that took place in the past five years surprised the participants most.
Picture credit: Eric Lafforgue
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