Some countries have or used to have a system of state distribution of goods – like food or clothes. In some, this “public distribution system” (PDS) is part of the welfare program for satisfying the needs of poor people – like in the United States. Some others – like the Soviet Union – used the PDS in times of extreme emergency to guarantee that their people would not starve.
The North Korean PDS was perhaps one of the most radical variants of the system, since ideally almost everything was to be distributed by the state.
However, it was not always like that. When the Soviet administration enacted the PDS in northern Korea in 1946, their motive was simple: feed the population of the former colony, who were suffering from war and inflation. The PDS was presented as a temporary measure and in the early 1950s the North’s Rodong Sinmun newspaper announced from time to time that another communist country had just abolished the PDS, hinting that we, Koreans, would soon do the same. However, this never came to pass.
(Kim Il Sung) wanted a complete system of state-distributed goods, a system which would have erased almost any need for currency
When in 1957 Kim Il Sung became independent from the Soviet Union, instead of abandoning the PDS, he decided to extend it. Kim the First was an ardent believer in the planned economy and it was this faith that ultimately caused the North Korean economy to collapse in the 1990s. When it all started, the Soviet ambassador was frightened by Kim’s decision and a number of times urged him to reconsider the new policy. Had it taken place two years earlier, the whole idea of the PDS would have been immediately aborted due to the Soviet protests, but now it was too late. The Soviet control over North Korea was lost and Kim Il Sung was free to do what he wanted to. And he wanted a complete system of state-distributed goods, a system which would have erased almost any need for currency.
THE PDS TRIAD
The North Korean PDS is officially divided into three subtypes. The first one (배급 in Korean) is the distribution of grain, such as rice, barley or corn. Rice is considered the most prestigious, and people of higher social status or Pyongyang residents tend to get more rice than others do. Grain is distributed twice a month and one gets it either in his/her workplace or in a grain distribution center.
Norms of distribution were never published officially, and they did change from time to time. However, there have been a number of attempts to reconstruct a system according to various testimonies; the following table is a summary of such attempts. One should also remember that Pyongyang conducted various “patriotic campaigns,” when citizens received 90 percent (or sometimes even less) of the grain they were supposed to receive.
As one can see, the system was quite egalitarian in its nature and a miner was getting more grain than a high-ranking official. But this is true only when is comes to the first type of PDS, and it is the second type which resulted in the social inequality in Kim Il Sung’s North Korea.
The second category (공급) covers pretty much everything else but grain, i.e. all other food, clothes, house appliances, etc. And here, the priority is given to Pyongyang residents and party bureaucrats, providing them with a much higher social status than the rest.
Finally, the third type (분배) is given only to farmers: These are the seeds and sprouts they are supposed to plant in their collective farm.
The PDS was once used by Pyongyang to solve political problems. In late 1960s, when Chinese-North Korean relations were extremely bad and the countries were on the brink of open military conflict, DPRK authorities decided to deal with the Chinese diaspora in the country. PRC citizens living in the DPRK were subjected to significant pressure from the state and the most effective measure was cutting them of from most of the PDS.
“Oh, so you are a foreigner?” said Pyongyang. “You’ll get only grain from now on. What, you don’t like it? Either submit an application for Korean citizenship and surrender your Chinese passport, or go back to China where you belong.” It should be of no surprise that after the diaspora faced the prospect of starving, it was very soon destroyed almost completely. Fortunately for them, in the 1970s, when PRC-DPRK relations got better, the North Korean Chinese were permitted to restore their Chinese citizenship.
Despite all talks about ‘proud, sovereign country’ the DPRK economy was – and to certain extent still is – a parasitic one
When the USSR was dissolved in December 1991 and China cut aid to North Korea, Pyongyang found itself in a very uncomfortable position. Despite all talks about “proud, sovereign country” the DPRK economy was – and to certain extent still is – a parasitic one, based on a premise that either the Soviet Union, the PRC or they both would provide North Korea with money and aid while not asking for anything is return.
When the aid flow suddenly disappeared, the only way for Pyongyang to avoid total collapse of the economy was to implement urgent reform. Kim Il Sung was not prepared to do so, and when he died in 1994, Kim Jong Il was for some time concerned mostly with staying in power. Thus, the collapse came. The North Korean economy started to shrink – and the major symptom of the crisis was that the public distribution system stopped functioning.
In the early 2000s, life in the DPRK became mostly stable, but the country changed a lot. Markets became the heart of the new North Korean economy and the PDS remains mostly dysfunctional. Add here the pervasive corruption of the state bureaucracy and you wouldn’t be surprised that for many North Korean the PDS became a symbol of stability and social equality which is now gone.
And one should remember that North Korean society has become extremely mercantile. Kim Il Sung put a lot of effort into annihilation of independent thinking in the country – hence there are almost no intellectuals in the DPRK who could remind the people that life is not only about getting rich. Thus, many North Koreans worship money – pretty much like the “evil capitalists” from communist propaganda do.
Earning as much of the U.S. dollar (this is the most prestigious currency in the modern DPRK) as one can becomes the major goal of life. Political and even personal freedoms are of little value and the main, if not the only criteria by which a ruler is measured is income level.
One North Korean woman to whom I talked in China told me that two of her favourite historical figures are Kim Il Sung and Deng Xiaoping. Of course, the economic growth under the first was solely due to Chinese and Soviet assistance, and the second was probably the most efficient reformer in the history of China. But she did not get into such details: Her concerns were whether people of the country eat real rice. If yes, the ruler is good. If no, the ruler is bad. All other considerations are trivial.
North Koreans do not know much about the situation with the PDS in other countries, but some conclude that if there is a PDS, there is also rice, so if there is rice, the PDS must also exist. There is a popular story about an older North Korean woman who said that she knew the truth the authorities had been hiding from her: The American people actually do live well. The state distributed 800 grams of pure rice per day to everyone – even to babies.
But despite what this old lady might think, the DPRK won’t be able to return to this PDS utopia. Kim Jong Un’s economic reforms may or may not continue – but neither the USSR, nor Mao Zedong’s China are ever coming back. Without them, one would never be able to reinstate the omnipresent PDS. Thus, North Korea will either go forward – dissolving the State Planning Committee and building a legal market economy – or it will stagnate, further submerging into corruption and nostalgia about good old times of the PDS utopia.
Image: Eric Lafforgue
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Featured Image: Time for rice in North Korea by Eric Lafforgue on 2009-05-19 11:44:41