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View more articles by Chad O'Carroll
Chad O'Carroll has written on North Korea since 2010 and writes between London and Seoul.
Since the great famine of the mid 1990s, conceptions that North Korea closely resembles a Stalinist, rigidly communist country have been shown to be increasingly off-the-mark. Today the socialist utopia – if there ever was one – is certainly no more in North Korea. That’s because the famine (or ‘Arduous March’) marked a major turning point for many North Koreans, who witnessed the near collapse of the once reliable Public Distribution System (PDS) and subsequent disappearance of the majority of their rations.
With the state unable to provide food, ordinary citizens had no choice but to start engaging in market activities to survive. If they didn’t, they might starve. Some in the border areas begun to conduct risky but profitable trading trips to China, while others resorted to selling herbs, painstakingly collected from the increasingly bare hills. And with that, business and market activities had entered the North Korean psyche at large by the early 2000s.
Looking back, it is also clear that capitalist tenancies were substantially fanned by the increasing amount of outside information entering North Korea through the 2000s. While the state still claims to control the information environment 100%, outside news, cultural trends and media are penetrating North Korea like never before. As such, the affluence of the outside world is making itself clearer than ever, while the relative poverty of the North is becoming clearer and clearer.
Today a wealthy middle class emerging in Pyongyang, with some elites even said to be making tens of thousands of dollars each month. It’s a far cry from the egalitarian, socialist society once envisioned by Kim Il Sung, and growing income disparities are becoming increasingly commonplace. But with the growth of markets has come huge corruption, with merchants and traders leading the way in bribing officials to avoid penalties – or in some cases to avoid punishment for no longer being at their the government appointed job. And while information is entering the country like never before, it still remains illegal to access it – and punishment can still be harsh.
So given the above, what will happen if North Koreans are suddenly expected to embrace capitalism and an open-information environment? To find out, in part eight of our defector survey we asked our panel of respondents for their opinions. While many said that capitalism should be no issue for most North Koreans, some suggested the fast-pace of South Korean business could pose problems – especially when wed to some of the more corrupt practices increasingly found in the North.
It is simple: ask yourself, is there a single person in this world who does not like “freedom”?
Freedom is often considered to be more precious than life itself. It is just that North Koreans do not understand the true meaning of freedom, but if they ever get to experience what real freedom is; they will want it even if they are told they cannot have it.
This becomes apparent when you look at how well North Korean defectors adapt themselves to capitalism when they arrive in South Korea. If they learn what freedom is and how it affects them, no one would ever call for collectivism again.
North Korea has gone through many changes and already the younger generations indirectly grasp the meaning of capitalism, even if they may not completely understand it.
It is therefore my opinion that North Koreans would not feel unfamiliar or uncomfortable in an environment where they would be granted freedom of speech, media, and capitalism.
It should not be difficult for North Koreans to understand, emphasize, and adopt to these concepts. I think North Koreans are ready for them now. It has already been 20 years since North Korea discontinued socialism. North Koreans are actually dependent on the black market economy known locally as ‘Jang Ma Dang’.
Recent defectors understand you cannot earn money without working harder than the previous generations.
The economic crisis in North Korea forced people to learn about a market economy independently. As such, the pursuit of material wealth is actually stronger in the North than in the South.
Of course, understanding and experiencing are two very different things – it will be more difficult for North Koreans to put these ideas into practice than to simply understand them.
However, while it will not be that difficult for people to accept society opening up and ensure freedom of speech, it will be difficult to curb fraud, trickery, and corruption.
These things might have been difficult up until the 1990s, but in reality North Korea today operates as a market economy. Therefore, it will not be too difficult for them to accept a capitalist economic system. Opening up and freedom of speech will not be very difficult either. People already feel differently than before, since they have heard a lot of news from the outside and there are open cities like Rajin or Sonbong.
One challenge would be to set up a way to share the positive aspects of each system so they can be implemented. But as of now, there seems to be no way of accomplishing this.
In my opinion, South Korean capitalism is a failure. The world may look at it as an advanced country from the outside, but since too many people do not understand the capitalist market economy, there have been many negative side effects such as the wide rich-poor gap and the highest suicide rate among developed nations.
If North Korea were to adopt this system, it would hurt the defector community even more. It might seem like there is an easy solution to the problem, but the situation could turn out to be even more difficult.
As long as Kim Jong Un’s regime exists, it will not be easy for North Koreans to properly understand the concept of liberation, freedom of speech, or a free economy. But once Kim’s control over the country collapses, it will be a lot easier than many people speculate.
Although North Koreans might not have a deep understanding of the free market, they are already familiar with it. Also, the many defectors successfully living in South Korea will be able to influence positive changes in North Korean view of the capitalist system.
Most of all, since both Koreas speak the same language, and the South is economically superior to the North, there will not be many obstacles to overcome.
I think it would be natural for the North Korean people to transition to a capitalist market economy. If you look at North Korea today, the system is already being sustained through market activities. People’s opinions have also changed quite a bit, which will help make the transition even smoother.
Of course there will be some things that will be hard for the North Korean people to understand.
Most North Koreans have never been exposed to a competitive environment, except in the political realm. For them, the fiercely competitive nature of capitalism will be difficult to grasp at first. North Korea is a planned economic system where market competition does not exist. Essentially, it’s a society devoid of competition that failed to progress and continued to decline. This had a significant impact on public opinion.
With no sense of ownership, no one in North Korea was motivated to work hard and it became commonplace for people to cut corners in their work. This mindset will gradually change on a personal basis as people will need to learn to survive in a competitive system. This transition will not be difficult to implement, since North Korea’s modern economy is already a de facto capitalist system.
A change in public opinion will also serve to change North Korea. The introduction of advanced culture through reform will change the people of North Korea and a free press would further increase people’s awareness. Freedom of the press is the most urgent problem that needs to be addressed in North Korea. It is not an overstatement to say that the current situation in North Korea is largely a result of press censorship.
North Koreans eagerly await for the day when they will be able to speak freely and be granted freedom of speech in a capitalist market economy.
When the planned, socialist economic plans proved to be a great failure in the 1990s, North Koreans abandoned their government assigned occupations to work in the markets. People exchanged crops and fish with each other in the marketplace even though were stringent government restrictions and surveillance were in place. As a result, many black markets emerged.
The North Korean government could not curb the growth and expansion of the black markets, where people became increasingly engaged in the selling and buying of goods. If freedom of speech and capitalism were therefore introduced in North Korea, North Koreans would easily adapt to the capitalist way of life.
It’s possible that it would not be as difficult as we think because fairs and markets have already become an important part of daily life in North Korea. I think people would not have any problems understanding the fundamentals of a market economy.
One challenge would be building trust and maintaining long-term relationships. It will also be difficult for North Koreans to understand long-term growth. For example, they might make a profit one day and then not make a profit for a long time. I think that other people living in former socialist countries might have shared this experience. And this could affect business transactions with North Koreans because they would not be planning for the long-term. People might start to rely on illegal transaction methods more and avoid official business channels.
I think it will take a while for North Koreans to understand freedom of the press under the current circumstances. First, I think it is essential for people to understand what press freedom is and how it contributes to social growth. Achieving that will take time. For example, if I tried to explain this to North Koreans who fled to China or are visiting China, I think it would be a difficult concept them to understand.
All North Koreans are well aware that capitalism is superior. They are also asking for openness and reform. But, they stop short of openly expressing these opinions due to fear of negative political repercussions.
North Koreans already know that neighboring countries such as China, Russia, and Vietnam are better off than North Korea because they implemented economic reforms. It is only be a matter of time before they reform too.
If one person – Kim Jong Un – is removed from power, North Korea would easily adjust to economic reforms.
Once North Korea opens up to the outside world, I think it would be easy for people to initially understand these concepts. It may even appear easy for them to understand how these concepts work.
However, I also think it will take a considerable amount of time for them to adapt and fully understand how capitalism and democratic governments function.
Some people question whether the North Korean people, who have lived under a dictatorship for 60 years, will be able to adapt to a free democratic system.
Oftentimes, prisoners who have been locked up for long periods of time have trouble adjusting to society after they are released.
But, that does not necessarily mean they would reject living in a free society. After all, human beings prefer living in a free society.
Main picture: R. Cunningham