About the Author
View more articles by Hazel Smith
Hazel Smith is director of the International Institute of Korean Studies at the University of Central Lancashire.
The following excerpt is taken from Hazel Smith, North Korea: Markets and Military Rule (Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 2015), pp. 228-231
THE MARKETIZATION OF THE FAMILY
Daily social and economic practices (in the era of marketization) reinforced the vitality and agency of the family compared to the moribund nature of state institutions as marketization generated pressures on the family to compensate for the lack of state resources for the most vulnerable (including the elderly and young children). The Kim Il Sungist (pre-marketization era) state had never been entirely successful in constituting the family unit as a means of ideological education and as an instrument of politics but it had succeeded in forcing individuals into public activities to the extent that the family was marginalized in everyday life. In the military-first (marketized) era, the family reconstituted itself much more explicitly into a socio-economic unit in which private, trust-based and non-state-directed social relations could flourish. At the same time, the family unit developed as the key social institution in and through which marketized relations were organized and directed.
The family remained constituted by quite conservative gender roles even as women became breadwinners within marketized North Korea. Women’s newfound commercial freedoms did not translate into increased economic, social and political status. Many women, especially young mothers, remained poor and lived on the margins of hunger, but the consequence of allowing women to engage in informal economic activity meant that women traveled, assembled in small groups, engaged in non-state-directed bargaining and learned how to navigate state structures that otherwise put obstacles in the way of individual economic activity. In the absence of the state’s ability to provide, women took on more responsibilities but also gained a limited increase in personal freedom. Women’s participation in market activities thus translated into increased flexibility in personal decision-making and diminished state control of family life.
In other authoritarian societies, churches and civic groups have provided civic and social support mechanisms, but in North Korea, where non-state organizational life was not permitted, individuals turned to the family as the primary social organization within which they could mobilize economically and socially. Non-state-organizational activity of any sort risked very heavy penalties, but the informal politics of private family-directed economic and social networking was conceived of by the state as “non-political” and, hence, permissible. The state rhetoric that legitimized and praised the ethical value of family allowed the family unit to develop as a relatively safe space around and in which economic and social activity could be organized.
The family was naturalized in North Korean society the extent that in 2008 the incidence of non-married adults was more or less confined to the widowed and those not yet married. Marriage was legal for men at age 18 and women at age 17 but few young people married until they were over 25 years old. In 2008 the median age for marriage was 28 for men and 26 for women. The main constraint on marriage remained the necessity to complete national service, whether performed as an enlisted soldier or as a member of quasi-military civil defense units. The government supported delayed marriage – explaining that “women tend to marry later in order to devote their early young period of life to the work for the benefit of the society.”
Women acknowledged the man as the head of the family even as it became more common for men to contribute to domestic labor in the home
Women’s breadwinner role in the era of marketization did not mean that women’s and men’s social relationships changed substantially. Women acknowledged the man as the head of the family even as it became more common for men to contribute to domestic labor in the home. Pragmatic changes to everyday life did not undermine the profound understandings in North Korean society that the family and private sphere were more naturally the domain of the woman and the public domain more naturally that of the man. Social attitudes that subordinated women to their husbands, even if women had become the main income earner, remained prevalent. These same social expectations left women to shoulder the burden of poor state services when the state could no longer provide a functioning social safety net. Ironically, one of the reasons for poor state services was under-staffing caused by the exodus of women into the marketplace.
Family goals (in the era of marketization) were not synonymous with state goals and could be understood in some ways as directly antithetical to those goals. Families survived by getting around state prohibitions on daily activities, especially the myriad trading activities in which all families engaged. Military-first era policies were therefore understood by most as inimical to the core economic interest of most families. It did not necessarily follow that families supported regime change but it did follow that families had few stakes in the continuation of regime policy.
Marketization was a social and an economic process. The individual was forced into taking daily economic decisions for themselves and to stop relying on the state. Continued food shortages forced the population to ignore and circumvent state regulations such that everyday practices embedded a disregard for state authority and at the same time institutionalized market values of private property and individual self-interest. The pursuit of trade and profits and the change from top-down economic control to bottom-up marketization did not eradicate Kim Il Sungist norms, but it significantly eroded them. Widespread awareness that survival meant self-help called into question the legitimacy of sacrifice for the good of the community and the state. It became taken for granted that those that could leverage advantages through self-help would survive and might even prosper but those who were less adept confronted impoverishment, poor health and, sometimes, premature death.
Instead of largely accepting of the right to rule by centralized decision-making, twenty-first century North Koreans valued the right to make individual, self-interested decisions that involved circumventing government policy as a matter of daily practice. The population found themselves income, began saving individually (in hard currency where possible), engaged in personal budget planning, and bought and sold goods within a whole variety of both legal and semi-legal market arenas. Economic rewards and penalties assumed a much greater importance than the system of political rewards and political penalties hitherto provided by Party dictates. Value hierarchies were transformed from an emphasis on the collective to the self-interested pursuit of making money.
ABOUT THE BOOK
The book makes a systematic comparison of Kim Il Sungist politics, economics and society with post-famine, marketized politics, economics and society in North Korea. This excerpt is taken from the end of chapter nine, which looks at marketization as a social process; focusing in this chapter on the marketization of the party, law and order, the armed forces and the family. The original version contains numerous citations to data and sources. These have been omitted from this online excerpt. Comments in brackets are not in the original.