This is part of NK News’ series of opinion and analysis of the first five years of Kim Jong Un’s rule.
It’s interesting to imagine what the late founder of North Korea, Kim Il Sung, would have thought walking around Pyongyang in 2016.
Quite a lot of it would have been familiar to him: the marshall music, the colorful propaganda, the towering testaments to the strength of the ruling party and the Korean people, for instance. All would have been firmly in keeping with the country he spent his life building.
But to the late Great Leader and to his son, the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il, much of North Korea’s capital would be unrecognizable. Where once free market activity in the country was highly restricted, now a new class of entrepreneurs (known as donju) is beginning to make its mark, and consumer products are beginning to pop up in the traditionally austere country.
North Koreans, at least in the capital, are beginning to enjoy creature comforts like the rest of us and, while it’s certainly not legal, more have access to film and television from the outside world than ever before.
So how much is Kim Jong Un responsible for this cultural shift? And is the growing flood of information a threat to the regime’s survival? In the third part of a six-part series examining how Kim Jong Un has spent his first half-decade in power, NK News reached out to experts from across the world with three key questions on changing culture in North Korea.
The following North Korea specialists responded in time for our deadline:
- Andrei Lankov, NK News contributor, professor at Kookmin University
- Sandra Fahy, Post-Doctoral research fellow at the University of Southern California
- Fyodor Tertitsky, Ph.D. candidate at Seoul National University in the Department of Sociology
- Park In-ho, Publisher of DailyNK
- Andrea Lee, co-founder and CEO of Uri Tours
1. What has been the most important cultural/social development in the past five years and why?
Andrei Lankov: The changing of attitudes towards the market economy which is not just tolerated, but quietly encouraged. This has resulted in economic growth, improvement of living standards (albeit still abysmally low), and an increase in support for Kim Jong Un from both the new bourgeoisie and the common people.
It has also sped up the slow-motion disintegration of the once unparalleled system of political surveillance, and prompted a gradual switch to more individualistic values and goals.
Sandra Fahy: The most important development in the last five years would have to be the pressure the international community is putting on the Kim Jong Un regime. These pressures take the form of unprecedentedly strong sanctions and widespread criticism of the DPRK’s human rights, and these violations are now permanently on the UN Security Council agenda. North Korea is unable to participate in the international economic community, even in the limited manner it did prior to sanctions.
The DPRK is naturally concerned about these pressures, particularly economic sanctions which are aimed at strangling the regime. The regime is compelled to seek more and more clandestine currency sources, and ramping up those it currently utilizes.
The regime is responding to the UN and the international community on human rights violations – this is unprecedented too – though their claims about respecting human rights are without evidence.
Fyodor Tertitsky: If we are speaking of culture and society, not politics and economy, then I’d say that it would be the first sparks of a dissident movement. There are now people who oppose Kim and are trying to subvert the regime and sometimes they work in organizations which are generally viewed as pillars of the regime. This, of course, does not mean that the DPRK is about to collapse, but that time is probably not on the regime’s side.
Park In-ho: The most important social development over the last five years, in my view, is that North Korea has become a stable society. In other words, North Koreans know what to expect from the government much more clearly than they used to. After the famine, there was a long period of time when people just did not know what kind of policies the government would implement. The policies were often inconsistent and even contradictory.
After Kim Jong Un took power, a couple of things became very certain. First, whoever is against Kim would be killed. Second, the government would not try to interfere with people who are making a living on their own. North Koreans now understand the boundary of what is allowed and what is not. That gives society a certain level of stability, for better or worse.
Andrea Lee: The most important cultural and social development that I’ve seen in the recent years is the rise of entrepreneurship and commerce. There are an increasing number of players in each sector, and the general field of business has become very competitive.
I’m seeing more domestic brands popping up and more product choices for the consumer. As an example, whereas buyers in the past may have had only one choice of toilet paper, there are now likely over a dozen choices all sold through domestic companies.
2. How do you think the leadership will respond to growing access to foreign information over the next five years?
Andrei Lankov: I think Kim Jong Un has demonstrated that he sees the spread of uncensored information from overseas as one of the greatest threats his regime faces. This attitude is often described in the Western media as ‘paranoid’, but it is actually based on very realistic assumptions about the country.
None of the previous Kim family rulers wanted the common populace to know too much about the outside world, but Kim Jong Un’s attitude is remarkably pronounced and tough. Given that the self-imposed information blockade is, indeed, one of the major conditions for North Korea’s political stability, I do not see why this policy could possibly change.
I would expect more control on the borders, more crackdowns on foreign videos, and a more sophisticated surveillance system built in the North Korean computer software.
Sandra Fahy: People’s access to foreign information is deadly to regime survival. The fact that the BBC has agreed to run a Korean language service is a significant challenge to existing DPRK propaganda.
The UK has diplomatic relations with DPRK and is not viewed as hostile to the regime as the U.S. is; VOA and other sources are an excellent source of information for DPRK residents, but the BBC world service is globally comprehensive, and doesn’t carry the bias North Koreans would likely associate with VOA. The leadership will likely crack down on access to foreign media – ideologically and via secret police.
Fyodor Tertitsky: Judging by the way they have responded up until now, I would say crackdowns with possibly some counterpropaganda is the most likely way. Kim Jong Un is significantly more repressive than his father when it comes to this, so he’ll probably continue to imprison and execute people for watching South Korean dramas and listening to non-state approved radio.
On the other hand, under the young Kim Rodong Sinmun had also produced a number of articles telling the people that defecting to the South is bad, so we may actually see something similar. Kim Jong Un seems to care about what foreign media say more than his father or grandfather.
But they have shown a tendency to be more flexible and generous in recent years when it comes to non-political content.You might even say it’s an expression of confidence on the part of the North Korean government. They seem to assume that access to foreign information (of non-political nature) won’t make North Koreans more subversive.
As such, I expect the North Korean government will become more generous toward what they consider as non-political foreign contents.
I do think that with increased business and cross-border transactions, there is a growing need and desire for easier access to information and more efficient means of communication with the rest of the world.
I am already seeing movement in the area of communications, and in the area of travel with more people legally traveling out of the country for business, sports and other reasons.
3. How has the rise of the Donju affected North Korea’s class structure and society?
The new emerging culture is likely to be more hedonistic and individualistic, emphasizing not the sacrifice for the Leader and/or some lofty ideas, but rather hard work for one’s own success and family’s prosperity. Another result is the further spread of corruption.
However, I do not expect donju to be especially politically active.
Like the party bureaucrats, they have a stake in the system, they need stability and they also need a separate North Korean state where their businesses can grow in relative security from the South Korean behemoths. They do not need unification, and they do not want a revolution.
Sandra Fahy: The rise of a population with money that is earned from their own skills, savvy, and hard work is likely to produce lifestyles and thinking that are contrary to the unfulfilled promises of the North Korean government. This is not necessarily for the better.
However, studies have shown that women earners are more likely to spend their money on family whereas men are less likely to do this, preferring to spend it on immediate consumables (tobacco, beer). We know that the black market is a gendered space, and that mostly women are selling. This could signal something positive for changes in DPRK society.
North Koreans have a new option for social success: business. This option is much less linked to the state than the others (Party, military academic or diplomatic career) and thus the DPRK society less and less resembles the pyramid it once did, as one can be wealthy without being high in the official hierarchy. Logically, it also makes people less dependent on the state and causes them to think more independently.
Finally, it should be noted that the new rich’s skills are applicable only within the modern sociopolitical reality of the DPRK. Should Pyongyang conduct real reforms or should the North Korean regime fall, they could easily find themselves out of business.
Park In-ho: The difficulty in answering this question is that there is no clear definition of donju. When there is no definition, it’s hard to analyze its effect on the society. If we were to agree that donju generally refers to people who have amassed certain wealth through trade, my answer is that such phenomenon has not affected the class structure within North Korea much. In North Korea, the class system is fundamentally political.
The core, wavering, hostile classes have remained the same, more or less, through the famine and afterwards. Those who belong to the hostile class who made money through trade have not been able to change their political class to core. And these people, thanks to their political background, are vulnerable to extortion by the authorities. There are even possibilities that their wealth would be destroyed overnight.
There is a possibility that donju will change North Korea’s class structure in the future – it just hasn’t happened yet.
Andrea Lee: It’s impossible to make generalizations on the current state of North Korea’s class structure. I think what’s clear is that the economy is getting stronger, there is a growing consumer culture and there are more people with disposable income evidenced through larger markets, more product choices and increased domestic tourism, among other things.
I would be interested to see how this affects the class structure of the country, but I presume a growing middle to upper class will play a very important role in the overall economy going forward.
Additional reporting: Chad O’Carroll, Oliver Hotham, Hamish Macdonald, JH Ahn, Dagyum Ji
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Featured Image: October # 2 by Christian Petersen-Clausen on 2015-10-06 16:22:03