Changes in NK already underway, expected speeded up

It is not widely understood how much North Korea has changed over the last two decades. North Korea of Kim Il Sung’s era could be seen as the world’s most perfect example of a Stalinist state. It was a society of a personality cult gone mad, of omnipresent social and political control, of an all-encompassing rationing system and almost the complete absence of independent economic activities. But, these days are now long gone.

The economic collapse of the early 1990s, when the industrial output of the country almost halved in a few years, triggered a dramatic social transformation. Now the average North Korean is not particularly dependent on the state when it comes to making a living. A majority of North Koreans make a living from the black and grey economy. North Koreans toil semi-legal private fields, work at unofficial workshops and trade. They understand that they can make a living without government rations and without state control.

Economic change has also triggered massive social upheaval. Gone are Kim Il Sung’s days when the average North Korean spent a couple of hours every day attending political meetings and indoctrination sessions. People are under much less ideological pressure nowadays and in many cases they have learnt how to escape the gaze of the bureaucracy. In the past, for a trip outside their county or district, a North Korean was required to obtain official permission. This regulation still remains in force, but a small bribe will ensure that such a permit is issued in no time, where it used to be very difficult to obtain without due reason.

Now North Koreans, especially more affluent ones, spend a great deal of time at the market, where they make a living, shop and most importantly, socialise. They exchange rumours, including rumours about life outside North Korea’s borders.

This is important, because for nearly half a century, the North Korean regime maintained a strict information blockade. All radios sold in North Korea had fixed turners, this meant that only local broadcasts could be listened to. All foreign periodicals were housed in special sections of libraries, only available to those with the proper security clearance. Few foreigners resided in the country and most North Koreans understood that interacting with foreigners would attract highly unfavourable attention from the authorities and the political police. So, only a short talk about the weather could usually take place between a North Korean and a foreigner. This system was maintained to make sure that the average North Korean would know nothing of the outside world and, especially, the booming economy of South Korea. North Koreans were expected to believe that their country is a beacon of prosperity and most of them as such, for the lack of alternative evidence.

But this is not the case anymore. North Koreans (particularly younger ones) watch western movies and South Korean TV shows, which are smuggled inside the country in large – and growing – quantities. They listen to foreign and South Korean music. Many of them have either been to China or know people who have visited their post-communist neighbours (in most cases, such trips are illegal and involve clandestine border crossings, but they are common nonetheless). It is not incidental that even official propaganda has ceased to insist that South Korea is a living hell, characterised by destitution and backwardness. North Korean warriors on the agitprop front have come to understand that the populace will no longer fall for such outrageous falsehoods.

Last, but not least, North Koreans are less afraid of their government. Contrary to what is often claimed, there is good reason to believe that in the last 15 years, the North Korean state has become significantly less repressive (even though it still remains arguably the world’s most oppressive regime). The relaxation is partially related to an explosion of official corruption – low level officials also have to rely on markets, rather than official salaries and ration coupons in order to satisfy their material needs. Therefore, most of them are on the lookout for a bribe taking opportunity and are more than willing to turn a blind eye to some irregularities and infractions in the name of financial reward. Sometimes this must look almost bizarrely comical, for example in the Kim Il Sung era, a person would be imprisoned for a few years for listening to a foreign broadcast. Now, I am aware of situations where a relatively small bribe ($100 in 2008) was sufficient not only to close the case, but also ensure that the radio set that allows such a crime (illegal though it is) would be returned to the listener.

However, in some cases, this relaxation does not relate to corruption but is the result of a governmental decision. For example, in the era of Kim Il Sung, there was a notorious family responsibility principle which required that all members of the offenders family be despatched to a concentration camp. This principle ceased to be universally applied in the late nineties and nowadays, only those adjudged to be dangerous or particularly egregious offender’s families suffer as well.

This transformation is influencing the mindset and values of the entire North Korean population, but it is having the greatest impact on the minds of the North Korean youth. Nearly all North Koreans below the age of 30 can be seen as a ‘black market generation’ whose views, values and assumptions are dramatically different from those of their parents.

These people are less afraid of the government and its police agencies. They also have less respect for the government and its officials, who they often see as a swarm of parasites (for their parents, they were the natural providers of everything). They know that they live in a very poor and unfree society, much inferior economically to its neighbours – above all South Korea. And last, but not least, their experiences of independent economic activities make them far more capable of organising themselves independently of the state.

In the long run, these traits of the new emerging generation do not bode well for the regime’s stability.
One should not be too optimistic though, since it will take a couple of decades before these people will constitute a majority of the population as well as a sufficiently large portion of the elite. When it happens, one would expect these people will become quite troublesome and start a North Korean version of the Arab spring. It may happen sooner, since these people are much better connected to each other, less docile and more socially active than their parents. Perhaps therefore, they will get an opportunity to show their true colours sooner rather than later – and, of course, the recent changes in Pyongyang might speed things up.

One Response to Changes in NK already underway, expected speeded up

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