Tuesday, December 14, 2004

North Korea's Revolution

SEOUL - A creeping revolution, both social and economic, is under way in North Korea and it seems there's no turning back. For decades, the country served as the closest possible approximation of an ideal Stalinist state. But the changes in its economy that have taken place after 1990 have transformed the country completely and, perhaps, irreversibly.

For decades, Pyongyang propaganda presented North Korea as an embodiment of economic self-sufficiency, completely independent from any other country. This image sold well, especially in the more credulous part of the Third World and among the ever-credulous leftist academics. The secret of its supposed self-sufficiency was simple: the country received large amounts of direct and indirect aid from the Soviet Union and China, but never admitted this in public. Though frequently annoyed by such "ingratitude", neither Moscow nor Beijing made much noise since both communist giants wanted to maintain, at least superficially, friendly relations with their small, capricious ally.

But collapse of the Soviet Union made clear that claims of self-sufficiency were unfounded. From 1991, the North Korean economy went into free fall. Throughout 1991-99, the gross national product (GNP) of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) nearly halved. The situation became unbearable in 1996, when the country was struck by a famine that took, by the best available estimates, about 600,000 lives. The famine could have been prevented by a Chinese-style agricultural reform, but this option was politically impossible: such a reform would undermine the government's ability to control the populace. [...]

In the 1960s, North Korea was unique in being the only nation in the world where markets were outlawed. The retail trade in a strict sense almost ceased to exist since virtually everything, from socks to apples, was distributed through an elaborate public distribution system with money payments being rather symbolic. The rations depended on a person's position in the intricate social hierarchy, which eventually became semi-hereditary. In Kim Il-sung's North Korea, there was almost nothing that could be sold on market since production outside the state economy was almost non-existent. [...]

However, the economic disaster of 1991-95, and especially the subsequent famine, changed the situation. Markets began to spread across the country with amazing speed. From 1995-97, nearly all plants and factories ceased to operate. The rations were not issued anymore: in most areas people still received ration coupons but these could not be exchanged for food or other rationed goods. Only in Pyongyang and some other politically important areas did food continue to be distributed. But even there, the norms were dramatically watered down. In such a situation, the ability and willingness to engage in some private business became the major guarantee of physical survival.[...]

In North Korea, which for decades was so different, this meant a revolution. The new situation undermined the government's ability to control the populace. People involved in the new market activities are independent from (or inured to) subtle government pressures that had ensured compliance for decades. One cannot promote or demote a vendor, transfer him or her to a better or worse job, nor determine his or her type of residence (though admittedly, most people still live in the houses they received when the old system was still operating). [...]

Until recently, the government did not try to lead, but simply followed the events. The much-trumpeted reforms of 2002 by and large were hardly anything more than the admission of the situation that had been existing for a few years by then. The official abolition (or near-abolition) of the public distribution system did not count for much, since this system ceased to operate outside Pyongyang around 1995.

But the North Korean economy has indeed come a long way from its Stalinist ways. Now the government has neither money nor support nor the political will to revive the Stalinist-style central economy. There is no way back, only forward. Stalinism is dead. Welcome to capitalism, comrades!

Hopefully the road to capitalism is as certain as the road to serfdom.

[Via: Hit and Run]

PS: we have past 100 posts, thanks to all


Adam Scavone said...

North Korea Iraq Ukraine Iran Afghanistan LibyaUmm..."Elect a madman, get madness"?

Anonymous said...

great article. unfortunately, economic changes- though desperately needed- will not be enough. the one-party regime needs to be toppled- ASAP