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2009/10/22 10:53 KST
NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 77 (October 22, 2009)



By Adrei Lankov (Associate Professor, Kookmin University, Seoul, Korea)

For decades, North Koreans knew only too well that in order to succeed, one had to be a loyal soldier of the Dear Leader - or, more precisely, look like a loyal soldier. Even compared to other Leninist states, in Kim Il-sung's North Korea chances for success outside the state structure were almost absent. There was only one game in town and this was the official game, dominated by the party-state bureaucracy. The government decided everything: all food was rationed, with the size and quality of rations dependent on an individual's place within the official hierarchy. Jobs were allocated and houses distributed by the state. Not much money could be made outside the official economy, since the black market remained marginal. Only a person who could demonstrate - or plausibly fake - loyalty and zeal in serving the state would be successful in any sense.

   A good example is the 'songbun,' or family background system that loomed so large in North Korean life from the 1960s through the mid-1990s. Under this system, the entire population of the country was divided into three major 'strata' -- basic, waving and hostile -- with each strata consisting of a number of subgroups. Affiliation was determined by one's family origin and, above all, by the deeds of one's parents and grandparents during the late colonial era and the 1950-53 Korean War. If your grandfather had some land confiscated during the 1946 land reform, you would be classified as a 'landlord's descendant' and a member of the hostile class. If your grandfather was killed in action during the Korean War, you would be described as a 'fallen war hero's descendant', a proud member of the basic class.
In Kim Il-sung's North Korea, only members of the basic class were eligible for promotion to managerial positions. One had to belong to the 'basic class' to be allowed to reside in Pyongyang. In contrast, unlucky members of the 'hostile class' were barred from admittance to any college or university, and in some cases could not even be drafted into the army. The 'songbun' system was hereditary, with a person's status transmitted through the male line. This author knows of one case involving a 'landlord's descendant' being married to a woman from a 'revolutionary' family. Despite the heroic exploits of the wife's grandmother, the couple's children were prohibited from entering college due to the father's bad pedigree. Any crime - and political crimes in particular - committed by a relative or ancestor damaged a family's status with the 'songbun' system for generations.

   In today's North Korea, however, one must use the past tense when describing this system. While it still exists on paper, recent social, economic and political transformations have made 'songbun' if not irrelevant, then at the very least far less important. This reflects a major trend over the last two decades: namely that the party-state, once all-powerful, is becoming more and more irrelevant to the lives of common North Koreans.

   The economic crisis and famine of the 1990s destroyed much of the leverage the North Korean party-state had over the lives of the common people. Food rations ceased to be delivered in the mid-1990s, and even now are not necessarily delivered in full. Goods seldom distributed by the government can easily be purchased at one of the country's booming markets. Nowadays, the regime cannot provide significant reward for behavior it considers desirable or punish less important transgressions.

   After the collapse of the Stalinist state-run economy in the mid-1990s, meaningful economic activity largely switched to the markets. This market economy -- largely illegal, but very powerful nonetheless -- created attractive alternatives to the old avenues for social advancement. In the past, a socially ambitious North Korean was willing to spend years memorizing speeches of the Dear Leader, obediently attending indoctrination sessions and enduring seven to ten years of military service in order to become eligible for a promotion to a minor post. Nowadays, these sacrifices are seldom considered since they do not make much sense: after all, a minor official is clearly inferior in income to a market vendor. Market activities provide a faster and safer way to affluence, being very attractive to the younger generation and in particular to those unable to succeed under the old 'songbun' system.

   Surprisingly, it was women who came to enjoy the social advantages of this spontaneous shift to a grassroots market economy. North Korea under Kim Il-sung paid lip service to the idea of gender equality, but for all practical purposes it remained a very patriarchal society. While state propaganda and police mechanisms went to great lengths to indoctrinate and control males, women -- deemed less important -- were subjected to less rigid demands.

   Even today, while a majority of state-run factories are not operational, men are still required to be present at their workplaces. Obviously, authorities believe this is the best way to keep them under control as the state's political surveillance system operates on the assumption that every able-bodied male is officially employed. Therefore, male workers must report to idle factories, spending their days sitting there (though some prefer to bribe their supervisors who, for a fee, are willing to register absentee workers as present).

   Women, on the other had, always had greater freedom when it came to evading official employment to pursue market activities, even under Kim Il-sung's era. It is therefore natural that since the late 1990s women have come to constitute a clear majority of the country's market vendors and are also predominant among employees of new private capitalist enterprises proliferating in North Korea's 'grey economy.' (This is partly because such enterprises often develop out of market activities and partly due to the fact that light industry and services dominate North Korea's 'underground capitalist industry.')
Market-related activities are the major source of income for a majority of North Koreans, so in a typical family the woman enjoys a much higher income than her male counterpart. This shift in economic power has also led to changes in gender relations as well. An 'economically useless' husband who still insists on being treated as the 'master breadwinner' has become standard fare for North Korean jokes. ("I have two pets: a dog and a husband. Both do not make money, but are cute and can protect the house against thieves when I am at the market.") Women also enjoy greater personal freedom now - including the freedom to divorce. Extramarital affairs were once completely taboo, but are now increasingly initiated by women. Paradoxically, the economic crisis empowered North Korean women, or at least those who survived the 1996-99 famine, of course.

   The explosive growth of corruption became another consequence of the economic collapse and spontaneous marketization. Kim Il-sung's North Korea was a relatively clean society. It made no sense to take bribes when regular payments for an official post were lucrative in comparison with other types of employment and when money had little use to begin with, since there were almost no markets to buy quality goods from. Corruption began to increase from the mid-1990s, however, driven partially by the economic difficulties of junior officials. Once rations ceased to be delivered, like most commoners they faced the very real threat of starvation. It was only logical for them to rely on bribes as a major source of income.

   The largely illegal nature of the North Korean market economy makes corruption almost unavoidable. Since their activities are illegal, merchants must provide officials with payoffs so they can continue uninterrupted with their business. The payments involved are large by the North Korean standards, so few if any bureaucrat can resist temptation.

   As a result, there is almost nothing that cannot be done in North Korea for the right price. Older restrictions dating to the Kim Il-sung era still theoretically exist, but people with higher incomes can ignore many of these regulations. For example, trips outside of one's native town or county normally require a police permit that can only be produced if supporting documentation is presented. Most vendors know, however, that a bribe of US$2-5 can ensure that this permit is issued immediately and with no questions asked. For some $50-75 paid to border guards one can cross to China, and for a few hundred dollars heavy sacks of merchandise can be smuggled across the border. Even political problems can be solved if the price is right. For example, if somebody is found in possession of a radio set with free tuning (theoretically banned in North Korea), $100-200 will solve the issue. There are even stories about people being released from prison camps, though the price in such cases is said to be around $10,000.

   Under Kim Il-sung North Korea maintained a system of police surveillance and mutual control which had almost no parallel in the world history. The system, nonetheless, proved unsustainable as it was expensive to run. Once foreign aid dried up and the economy collapsed, the state's massive surveillance system disintegrated as well. The growth of the marketplace brought sweeping changes to North Korean society, and while it is still a very peculiar place, it has become far less controlled and controllable.