May 20, 2024

The rise of North Korea’s new rich

From washing machines to bulging waistlines, wealthy Northerners flaunt new wealth

Over the past two decades, North Korean authorities have struggled hard to keep up Stalinist appearances. Generally speaking, they have succeeded: for the casual short-term visitors can be forgiven for their belief that North Korea is still a Stalinist state. What is on display has not changed much – posters with sadistic U.S. imperialist monsters and muscular shock workers, military tunes booming out of loudspeakers and the pompous Stalinist architecture of Pyongyang being chief among them. However, there are things that officials cannot hide: the booming private economy and its unavoidable result – the growing gap between the haves and have-nots.

Nascent North Korean capitalism has produced significant material inequality. There are many very poor North Koreans, but there are also North Koreans who are quite rich – and not all of them are government officials. Apart from big market venders (whose capital can be estimated as worth hundreds of thousands of U.S. dollars), there are also a large number of successful mid-level entrepreneurs who are not particularly rich, but still make a decent living in North Korea’s informal economy – and whose income is well above nationwide average.

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