When many years ago I heard, for the first time, lamentations by Pyongyang about the economic sanctions imposed on them by the vicious U.S., my first reaction was of surprise. Sanctions presuppose a ban on trade, I thought, but can North Korea really trade?
Having spent my university years in the Soviet Far East (the most active region of Russia in terms of trade with the DPRK) I remember three types of North Korean goods on the shelves of Soviet stores.
First, there were nashi pears. In my local store I was probably the only customer who ever bought them, and I did so largely driven by patriotism as a Korean Studies student. Other customers avoided Korean fruit, considering it strange looking and watery and preferring Western-type pears.
The second was soy sauce, and it was of good quality. Unfortunately, this happened long before the epidemic of sushi-bars in Russia, and most Soviet citizens simply did not know what to do with this suspiciously dark salty liquid.
Driven by Korean patriotism, I introduced it to my parents, and my father proceeded to liberally poured it over his breakfast eggs as if it was ketchup. Father’s breakfast went in the garbage, and my parents politely asked me not to buy them any more North Korean products.
And no feeling of Korean patriotism, even combined with the strained student budget, could force me to consume the third widely available North Korean product: sports shoes made of an astonishingly foul smelling rubber.
Economic exchange between the Soviet Union and the DPRK was heavily subsidized – a fact even once recognized by Kim Jong Il in a secret speech to Party cadres.
To regular North Koreans, the subsidized nature of the “exchange” was blurred by the fact that hard currency did not feature in these barter relations. This economic absurdity was for many years compensated by the political gains: the Soviet Union needed an ally in this uneasy region, and the surest way to get such an ally was to buy it.
Perestroika destroyed this system of international relations, freeing Russian shops from the stinky North Korean shoes. The Russian government, instead, requested that the DPRK pay hard currency for everything.
The first reaction of the North Korean side was shock. Despite all the rhetoric about juche, the DPRK’s relationship with the world was not unlike that of the teenager, accustomed to getting his food directly from his mother’s fridge (the role of mother was performed, alternately, by China and the Soviet Union). Now it was left on its own in the cold and unsympathetic world of the market economy, and it found this state of affairs utterly unfair.
Interestingly enough, the organizers of the small underground businesses which mushroomed in the country easily grasped the concept that everything had its price in the world and rushed to create services and products which could be sellable. These nascent capitalists were quite sober in their relations with the world.
The DPRK’s relationship with the world was not unlike that of the teenager
But in comparison to its smart and adaptable citizens, the North Korean state proved to be much less flexible. Refusing to communicate with the world on market terms, it continued to obstinately stand in front of the empty fridge and wait for the food to come.
Meanwhile, official propaganda reinforced the old autarchic slogan of charyeok-kaengsaeng (자력갱생, working on the nation’s salvation by your own efforts), calling on citizens to save every bit of the national budget and develop import substitution solutions.
In the mid-1990s – early 2000s, North Korean films and literature promoted a range of behavioral patterns for the ideal citizen of the new era. Some of these patterns were, to put it mildly, a little unusual.
The film “The family of Kubongryong” (구봉령의일가) (2002) tells the story of a family of managers of an unsealed road on Kubong mountain pass. Their revolutionary conscientiousness does not permit them to ask for state funds to pave the road with a proper cover, or to fix the protective nets which keep rocks from constantly falling on it.
The road-keepers spend their lives on the Sisyphean task of every day smoothing the road’s surface and clearing it from falling rocks after regular avalanches. This utterly inefficient job, performed with primitive manual tools, is accompanied by a string of self-sacrifices.
The father of the family dies during one of the avalanches, and the mother, together with her daughter, two sons, and their wives continue to carry the road-cleaning mission.
The mission has no way out option. The mother Seong Rim (played by the famous actress Han Kye Seong) does not allow her second son, a promising taekwondo champion, to enter the national team because his place in the family brigade would be empty.
The daughter breaks up with her city-based boyfriend because their marriage would mean leaving her duties. She marries another guy, but only after she is reassured that the young man will stay with their road-keeping family.
In comparison to its smart and adaptable citizens, the North Korean state proved to be much less flexible
When the daughter-in-law leaves her post for a few hours to visit her sick father, she receives a severe reprimand from Seong Rim, like a soldier on duty that has left his guard post.
Through the whole film, the camera shows the women of the family in dirt and sweat, with emaciated, tired faces and dressed in sackcloth, involved in the monstrously hard labor of carrying heavy stones by hands and on their backs. These images, quite suitable for an illustration of slave labor in Ancient Egypt, is not intended to ignite viewers’ distress, however.
On the contrary, the filmmakers intend to present it as an example of revolutionary devotion to the charyeok-kaengsaeng era: they are saving the precious budget of the country and refusing to let down the leader, who can use the road during on the spot guidance tours.
The family’s reward is purely spiritual. One evening they are excited to learn that the leader is coming the next day, and under the light of torches carried by the children begin to even the surface of the road with their palms. Kim Jong Il appreciates their efforts, and the family receives the ultimate gratification: a photo with him.
SEARCHING FOR THE IMPOSSIBLE
Apart from the usual devoted workers and peasants, North Korean art of the 1990s introduced a new type of protagonist: researchers achieving impossible things. Shaming skeptics, such protagonists often find a vital natural resource, which is said to not exist in Korea, or invent a wonder technology which allows the economy to function without the resource in question.
The protagonist of a short story by Han Hyeong Su, titled “The Spirit Lives in the Future” (넋은 미래에 산다), is the young geologist Ri, who refuses to stop his search for a mineral which the Dear Leader had encouraged him to find, even though it has been “scientifically proven that this mineral did not exist in Korea.”
The wisdom of the Great Leader outsmarts the verdict of reactionary researchers, and after decades of persistent searching, Ri manages to find it.
A young engineer in the film “Move aside” (길을 비켜라)(1996) achieves a similar miracle. Based on sheer belief and devotion, he finds a huge deposit of gypsum – a mineral which does not exist in North Korea. The efforts of the hero are expectedly hindered by the favorite North Korean villain – a doubtful chief engineer who is lacking in patriotic imagination.
During their search, these protagonists reject worldly pleasures and their health suffers: the force that warms, nourishes and inspires them, instead, is their deep love for the Great Leader.
North Korean art of the 1990s introduced a new type of protagonist: researchers achieving impossible things
NOBODY GIVES US NICKELS FOR FREE!
The film “Two Families of Haeungdong” (해운동의 두가정)(1996) contrasts two different modes of living: that of Ryu Jin (played by Ri Keun Ho) and Hak Yeong (played by the artist Ri Ji Yeong). Both are engineers working on the invention of new welding rods which require smaller amounts of imported nickel. Hak Yeong quickly succeeds, receiving the gold medal at the National Youth Science and Technology Festival, obtaining his doctoral degree and a safe managerial position at a factory.
His life is normal and balanced. After work, he hurries home to spend time with his wife and daughter, and when an extra meeting holds him up, he grows impatient. Listening to a speaker who begins with the stereotypical “At the moment when our whole country,” Hak Yeong interrupts him with the irritable: “Stick to the point, please. We all already know what “our whole country” is doing right now.”
When Hak Yeong hears the lamentations of his boss about the necessity of spending the precious national budget on nickel, he shrugs.
Such a person, who would typify an ideal citizen in the mass culture of any country, stands instead in negative contrast to his neighbor Ryu Jin, who aims to invent a welding rod that works without nickel. He spends his nights at the laboratory, abandoning his family and forcing his wife to push for a divorce. When the community approaches him with criticism over his neglect of his family, he attacks them:
“We are trying to import nickel from abroad, but every bit of it is precious. Nobody is giving it away. They demand mushroom, timber… Even Pollack’s spawns! They are asking for more than they give us. But we cannot sell our precious resources to the others! How we all treasure this land! We suffered under Japanese occupation for such a long time! Our leader won it back and made it more beautiful and rich. How can we ever forget his efforts?
Now the enemies are crazy to bring down our socialism. The state brought me up into an able scientist. My consciousness won’t allow me this to happen. If only I can protect a grass, or a tree, or even a spadesful of earth of my country, I will gladly accept any gossip about my shabby clothes, or a meager bowl of porridge.”
This little speech speaks volumes about the official North Korean idea of foreign trade. Nickel should go to the DPRK for free – a request to pay for it is equated to an attempt to “bring down socialism.” Paying for the nickel with mushrooms, timber and pollack’s spawns is unfair – because North Koreans “love their land.” Unlike Koreans, the foreigners have not had their lands colonized and saved by the Great Leader, and this presumably makes their lands less precious to them.
This double-standard reasoning by Ryu Jin is met with the full understanding of his listeners. His neighbor and the factory manager confess:
You are the man of the purest heart I ever seen. All along, I thought that you were someone who could not look after his family.
As one can expect, the devoted scientist Ryu Jin succeeds in his research. In the new welding rods, nickel is no longer needed, and pollack spawns remain with the Koreans.
LEARNING TO COPE
Time cures everything. The longer the period separating North Koreans from their past in the Eastern bloc, the weaker this mentality becomes.
Today’s North is quickly learning to trade with the world, even if that means violating international sanctions, and is producing products and services of reasonable quality and price. However, the notorious unwillingness of North Korean government to share profits with foreign investors (presumably on the basis that the DPRK needs the money more) demonstrates that at least part of the old mentality is still alive.
Just ask the employees for Orascom or Xiyang Group – two joint ventures whose property was expropriated by the North Korean authorities once they began to make money.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
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