North Korea

In the Cavern of the Great Leader

By Andrej Mrevlje |
Photo: David Guttenfelder

“The path to revolution is never easy. We might have to go through the Arduous March again – in which we only had to eat roots of the grass – and we might have to fight against our enemies all by one’s self,” reads the warning published by Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of North Korea’s Central Committee of the Workers’ Party. NK News, which reported the story, points out that this announcement uses old North Korean terminology (the “Arduous March”) that commonly refers to a period of famine that devastated the country in the mid-1990s, causing millions of North Koreans to starve to death.

This ominous announcement, peppered with just the right amount of revolutionary zeal, could only come from one source. It is as if the supreme leader and dictator Kim Jong Un has been waiting for the strong sanctions that the U.N. imposed on the country at the beginning of March so that he could rule the country with an even stronger hand. But while the sanctions may help the young dictator to consolidate his power, they could also lead to a new crisis for the country. So which one is true? Or better, which one comes first? Kim’s hard-line policy – which includes boasting of his country’s nuclear power and missile capability, sharp inter-Korean confrontations, and unconcealed threats against South Korea – is ongoing. This kind of governance corresponds with the widely spread image of the country that is known for having the cruelest regime in the world. As Jennifer Dodgson concisely describes in the introduction for Life on the North Korea Borderlands, a collection of essays by well-known experts on the hermit country:

If there is one thing that everyone knows about North Korea, it is that it is a closed country. Trade is blocked by sanctions. Possession of foreign media is punishable by death. One does not leave North Korea, one escapes.

However, while it is undeniable that the DPRK is a more reclusive nation than most, its borders are far from impermeable. As the centrally-planned economy broke down in the 1990s, border guards grew easier to bribe, and the razor-wire fences fell into disrepair. With the collapse of the food distribution systems, an increasing number of North Koreans found their way across the icy Tumen river. While some were defectors searching for a better life in China, Laos or even South Korea, many more were traders and smugglers supplying a North Korean market hungry for foreign goods, or illicit migrant workers looking for jobs that would allow them to send money back to their families in the DPRK, or even people-traffickers paid to facilitate the border crossing. While its agents may have been paid to look the other way, the state was far from ignorant of the growing flows of people and goods across the Northern border. Party officials regularly make the same trip, on a quest for hard currency or luxury goods to fuel Pyongyang’s palace economy.

Considering that the volume of North Korea’s economy is very modest ($15.5 billion), the term “palace economy” seems to be an appropriate term at first. But after a closer look, one realizes that the Northern Korean economy actually has quite a large private sector, which contributes between 25 and 40 percent of the GDP. And what is even more important is that North Korea is no longer starving. In the last decade, its economy actually registered noticeable growth.

While it’s not very clear whether the growth was 1.3 to 1.5 percent (as the South Korean Central Bank estimates) or 3 to 4 percent (the figure provided by the embassies located in Pyongyang), it is obvious that the North Korean economy is growing, both in the privileged capital and in the countryside. The changes are visible: people are better dressed. There are more vehicles on the street (traffic jams even occur sometimes). And a minor restaurant boom is unrolling in Pyongyang, while computers are becoming more popular – cheap Chinese models, often bought second-hand.

Again, there are no exact figures to measure these signs of progress, so we have to rely on various sources, such as a note in the New Yorker three years ago, when Evan Osnos reported on Google’s visit in North Korea:

When Google’s executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, visited North Korea this week with former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson—over the protests of the U.S. State Department—they toured the Korea Computer Center in Pyongyang and learned about North Korea’s technology for data encryption, facial recognition, video-chat rooms, and instant messaging. They did not expect North Korea to throw open the doors to the Internet, and, indeed, it did not. (Fewer than a thousand people nationwide are believed to have Web access. About a million people, of the nation’s twenty-four million, have cell phones.) Their examination of the country’s new Samjiyon tablet computers and its “Red Star” operating system, and assorted sights at the Grand People’s Study House, made fodder for comparisons to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s expertise in looking at things, but, when in Pyongyang, that’s how you travel.

I travelled to North Korea in 1999, and I am sure that today I would no longer recognize the country. Back then, the first question I was asked after I landed at the crummy little airport in Pyongyang was whether I had a cellphone on me. I left it in Beijing, partially because there were no cellphones in North Korea. And partially because the regime, not knowing how they work, simply banned them. In 1999, there was no sign of any kind of phone in that silent country, where the main means of transportation was walking – endless walking; where, in the capital of a country with 24 million inhabitants and dozens of nukes, all the lights were switched off at 10 in the evening. Why? Because people were afraid of being bombed? Or did they want to save on electricity? It was particularly interesting that the heavy cargo trains only ran during the night, while I got woken up at five in the morning by crowing of cocks in downtown Pyongyang.  

I never figured out if North Koreans were afraid of and terrorized by the dictatorship and cruelty of the palace. But I did see many malnourished young Koreans, for whom a sip of alcohol was enough to stagger and lose control. Still, all these people, robotic as they seemed – as stripped as they were of their human dignity – did not lose their sense of humour and beauty. But love? No. Love had been lobotomized. They only knew idolatry for the Kim dynasty.

It’s hard to believe that Pyongyang’s farm houses have turned into fancy skyscrapers; that the capital of darkness has been transformed into a city of lights; and that Koreans now use public transport and chat on their cell phones. Not everything has changed, but in last decade, North Korea has grown. With corruption amongst politicians and privileges granted to the elite, obviously – but still, it’s growing. Can this growth be sustainable? In Borderlands, Dodgson writes:

North Korea has clearly benefited from the industrial boom in China, its mines have been doing a roaring trade in resources to Chinese companies, and the sale of luxury goods from seafood to exotic delicacies like frog oil has been an important source of hard currency for smugglers and government-backed foreign trade enterprises. We do not know what is going to happen to the Chinese economy. Perhaps the leadership in Beijing will pull off what is widely considered the largest transition from industry to services in global economic history. If it does, this will mean that China will continue to grow.

So where does this all leave North Korea? North Korea’s continued existence is in the core geopolitical interest of China, which does not want to see South Korean-led unification and the potential presence of the U.S. troops on the other side of its north-eastern frontier. For a short period of time, in 2013-15, Chinese leaders obviously entertained some doubts about wisdom of providing their troublesome semi-ally with excessively generous support. However, this period of doubt is now behind us: the growth of the Sino-U.S. tension means North Korea is seen as a useful, if somewhat repulsive, ally again. Hence even a sharp slowdown in the Chinese economy will probably not be followed the termination of aid to Pyongyang.

If this analysis is right, China will continue to lead from behind, feeding the regime in Pyongyang, preventing any change to the status quo – a change that would contribute to the annihilation of  North Korean regime and maybe even to the unification of the two Koreas. Beijing prefers a drunken Pyongyang to a serious country that would project Korean nationalism onto a region where China is trying to establish its own hegemony. Perhaps this is the reason why Kim Jong Un started to menace North Korea with threats of famine and the Arduous March again.

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