North Korea Confidential

North Korea Confidential: Private Markets, Fashion Trends, Prison Camps, Dissenters and Defectors by Daniel Tudor & James Pearson



Overview

Did you know:

  • The average North Korean lives off the proceeds of capitalism?
  • Most North Koreans have seen South Korean TV dramas and movies, and listened to South Korean pop music? And,
  • North Korean soldiers spend more time working on private construction projects than on plotting the destruction of the United States?

Typical accounts of North Korea strip the Korean people of their agency, reducing them to dehumanized caricatures. They are always either painted as brainwashed Kim Il Sung worshipers or the helpless victims of the state security apparatus.

This book gives the reader a comprehensive look at the daily life of a citizen in North Korea, or the DPRK (The Democratic People's Republic of Korea).


North Korean Markets

How They Work, Where They Are, and How Much Things Cost

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Thriving, person-to-person market exchanges permeate all levels of society. However, as with sex in Victorian Britain, while everybody does it, few publicly admit to its existence.

Private trade has never been as widespread—or necessary—as it is today. The reason for this is simple: the state can no longer provide for the people in the way it once could.

In 2010, 62% of North Korean defectors stated they had engaged in work other than their official job in North Korea. There is a thriving gray market in North Korea that uses unofficial currency exchange rates. They have become so popular that it is now the deficit way of setting prices, even for the elite.

North Korea had a remarkable strong economy throughout the late 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s. The North's command economy outperformed the South's on a GDP per capita basis un around 1973.

North Korea, through the Cold War, received foreign aid from both China and Russia. The North Korean people, however, were told that it all came from the munificence of Kim Il Sung.

Increased economic mismanagement began under Kim Jong Il but it was not until the early to mid-1990s that the system began to completely break down.

The Famine of the 1990's

As we will see throughout this entire book, the horrific famine of the mid-1990s was the turning point for North Korea in almost every way imaginable.

This famine, from 1994 to 1998, claimed the lives of up to 3 million North Koreans, up to 14% of the population at the time. The famine thrust North Korea into chaos. The government could no longer provide for its citizens and family did anything they could to keep food on the table.

Even professors at Pyongyang’s prestigious universities had to turn to low-level market activities, simply to survive.

Since many men were either laid off from work or were bringing home significantly lower salaries, many women were now empowered to join the workforce. 

Women now aspired to be more than just homemakers, many becoming the real breadwinners of the North Korean family unit.

Even government officials, who on the surface should reject all signs of capitalism are now using trade as a means of generating personal wealth.

North Koreans, since the famine, have been consistently losing faith in the regime. This lack of trust spreads to anything viewed as government-managed.

Ordinary people now increasingly seek out the yuan and other currencies as stores of wealth. They have learned not to trust the government and its currency, the won.

At the same time, they have learned that trading and saving in yuan can shield them from the consequences of future government depredations and incompetence.

Economic Double Life

In North Korea, "everyone from the miner to the schoolteacher lives an economic double life of sorts, with many engaged in cash-in-hand jobs or market activity in their spare time to generate income."

There are markets in which North Koreans can set up stalls and sell anything and everything imaginable. It's become the main place of shopping for citizens.

In North Korea, adults are assigned to work units, to serve the state in return for pitiful salaries. Married women, however, are exempted from this. This means they are free to work as market traders. They can therefore earn significant multiples of what their husbands make, turning them into breadwinners and challenging the traditional Korean husband–wife dynamic.

Pyongyang may still only compare to a third-tier Chinese city in terms of development but it is not the universally impoverished, communist country that the media propagates.

You can go to a privately-owned restaurant or cafe in Pyongyang, order a pizza or a green tea latte, and see people using iPads. (This is something I saw for myself on my trip to North Korea.)


Leisure Time in North Korea

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International media perpetuates the ridiculous image that DPRK citizens are robots who simply live to serve their “Dear Leader.” In reality, just like the rest of the world, North Koreans still seek out opportunities to enjoy themselves.

More than half of defectors interviewed in a 2010 survey, said they had seen foreign television or movies, and many officials in Pyongyang will privately admit the same. However, with many recent developments in North Korea especially since 2010 mean this number is likely now much higher.

North Korea directs and produces its own entertainment media but it generally considered boring and is usually not watched by citizens. 

In the past citizens were told that South Koreans were poorer than they were and that the United States is responsible for all of the suffering in North Korea, but times are changing. People in North Korea now know that the lives of those in the South are much better than theirs and most North Koreans have very moderate views on the United States which has a lot to do with the influence of international media. Titanic, the ubiquitous classic movie is very famous in North Korea, for example. 

For the majority of North Koreans, the act of watching South Korean TV and movies is not a political act. They do it for entertainment purposes, in a land that offers precious little entertainment of its own.

Those who own a collection of books will probably be familiar with a handful of classic Russian and English writers. Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, Austen, and Dickens are among the most read.

Some Quick Facts on Entertainment in the DPRK

It's now estimated that there are over four million laptops and desktops in the country, or around one for every six people which are used, among other things, to watch foreign DVDs.

North Korean products are universally considered to be unfashionable. Anything Japanese or European is desirable, while anything Chinese is considered low-quality and cheap, but slightly better than its North Korean equivalent.

North Korea brews its own beer and it's available everywhere. At the time of writing of this book there were more breweries in North Korea than South Korea.

House parties are very common in North Korea.

Members of all social classes like to gather in one another’s homes, and share food and drink to celebrate birthdays and other special occasions...

In a country where public behavior is subject to a relatively high degree of control, the house party is a natural way of cutting loose. Those who have attended one will say that the amount of drinking at house parties would put South Koreans to shame.

Who Is In Charge?

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Kim Jong Un and other members of the Kim family are certainly very powerful but Mr. Kim, and even the family as a whole, does not hold absolute authority.

It's well known that Kim Il Sung's rise and emergence as the leader of the DPRK owed a great deal to luck, though he had been a relatively well-known guerrilla leader. His son, Kim Jong Il, was a propaganda specialist and "was well placed to boost his father’s reputation with movies, books, paintings, and operas exaggerating his greatness."

Kim Jong Il, a notorious sycophant, essentially bribed himself into power after his father's death.

Unfortunately, it seems that Kim’s bribery tactics introduced a level of materialism and corruption that has infected broader North Korean society. One of the defining characteristics of the Kim Jong Il era was the shift from political idealism to an “every man has his price, and everything can be bought” mentality.

The Kim family holds tremendous power in North Korea but there also exists a shadow power structure called the Organization and Guidance Department, the OGD. The OGD has risen to become the central hub of power in North Korea, it "sees and knows everything."

It possesses a file on "anyone who is anyone"; it is the conduit via which the various branches of the government communicate with the Supreme Leader, passing instructions down and information up; it is responsible for implementing and enforcing policy; it runs a network of spies that reach from the highest army general to the lowest provincial factory manager; it "signs off" on any government or military appointment; and it is essentially in charge of the well-being of the ruling family. 
So while one may consider a high-ranking army general or minister to be powerful—and indeed he would be, within his own organization and network—ultimate power flows through the OGD; nobody else has full organizational visibility.

Removing the ability for different military units to communicate directly with each other protects the Kim family from possible coup attempts. 

Today, the DPRK is best considered a formally unstructured coalition composed of Kim Jong Un and his close relatives, senior OGD members, and any high-ranking military or party officials who have their trust.

In that sense, North Korea has something in common with other countries. The DPRK has an identifiable figurehead, but behind him stand a layer of powerful people with interests and inclinations that do not necessarily always match. If a “hard-line” policy is followed by a “reformist” one, or a “rising star” is suddenly pushed out, it does not mean that “absolute dictator” Kim Jong Un is mercurial and unpredictable. It means that neither he, nor any one other individual, is in full control.

Crime and Punishment in North Korea

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It is well-known that the DPRK operates prison camps that can rival in cruelty anything the twentieth century could offer.

The penal system of North Korea is designed and operated in such a manner as to make the cost of challenging the regime intolerably high.

The most plausible estimates at this point suggest that there are around 70,000 people imprisoned for conventional crimes, and between 80,000–120,000 political prisoners.

All North Korean's know of the political prison camps, and though they do not necessarily know exactly what goes on in them, they do fear them. Their role in maintaining control is thus hard to overstate.

The justice system in the DPRK is extremely harsh, but "not completely exceptional, by the standards of a poor and undemocratic country."

Corruption in the DPRK

Ordinary police are not generally feared. The post-famine social environment promotes bribery as the norm. What's more, the "regime no longer feels willing or able to impose strict order anywhere outside of Pyongyang—except where political threats are concerned." 

Corruption pervades North Korean society. For many crimes, the trouble can be made to disappear if one has a little money.

Trials

Trials are remarkably fair and strike a resemblance to many countries' court system. There are defense lawyers and prosecutors, who each make their case in front of the judge. Even after convictions it is possible to appeal.

Non-political prisoners will "spend half the day doing forced labor, and the other half receiving propaganda education... The state’s intention here is to re-indoctrinate the prisoner before returning them to society."

Political Imprisonment:

North Korean political prison camps are notorious and for good reason.

Brutality is commonplace. Below-subsistence rations, torture, and beatings are all standard practice. Public execution of those who attempt to escape is considered a normal and effective means of discouraging others from trying.

Political prisoners are considered non-citizens, with almost no hope of ever being released.

Perhaps most importantly, political imprisonment happens not merely to individuals, but rather, to whole families.

Someone who commits a particularly threatening act to the state will be punished as well as his whole family and their children for three generations.

Here, we can see once again the feudal mentality of the DPRK. The “three generations” idea is not communist in origin, but rather derives from Korea’s monarchical past.

The OGD, to some extent now but particularly before the famine, "were said to know everything about you, down to how many spoons and chopsticks your household possessed. They also still possess the ability to enter any household they wish, as they have copies of all door keys."


Clothes, Fashion and Trends

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Traditionally in North Korea clothes and fashion were regulated to an extreme degree. Some of these rules banned jeans, for example, or demanded citizens has officially sanctioned hairstyles.

However, as with media consumption and attitudes to capitalism, there are many today who have very little interest in looking as though they follow the socialist lifestyle.

There are interesting trends developing in clothing, hair, cosmetics, beauty standards, and cosmetic surgery in North Korea. Those who consider such things trivial should think again: these trends are changing how some people feel about the DPRK authorities, and even inspiring a few to defect.

As with generational splits in many countries, typically the older generations are more liekly to dress in a conservative and inconspicuous fashion.

Men may wear "Mao suits.. high-collared, buttoned-up dark gray, black, or blue suits popularized by Stalin, and the variations worn by Chairman Mao and Kim Il Sung."

For women, it means dressing in an un-sexy manner. Traditional Korean hanbok, which hides rather than accentuates femininity.

Brave New World

In North Korea today there are many who break the rules. "As with much social change in North Korea, the mid-1990s famine can be considered a turning point."

So while the rules forbid bright colors, jeans, the dyeing of hair, and short skirts, it looks as though the current regime does not mind too much.

In the era of the USB stick and the DVD, many North Koreans have seen South Korean fashion and have come to the conclusion that it is much better than their own.

Northern cities, those that border China, are the hub of fashion in North Korea.

Pyongyang is the only part of the country where the state is in full control of public order. The government will still crack down hard on serious dissent wherever it arises, but generally, it lacks the resources and respect to compel people in the provinces to adhere to the full range of its rules and regulations.

What may be considered rebellious in Pyongyang would be considered almost boring in the northern cities highlighting the differences between the northern and southern cities.

While jeans and other body-contouring clothing are banned, many young women are choosing to wear these clothes in defiance. One defector recounts that skinny jeans "make your legs look slim and good so you can show off.” For young women, showing off in this way seems to be a new and liberating experience.

Local Knock-offs

Not all of the fashionable clothing in North Korea is imported. Plenty is made at home, by tailors and cobblers who respond to the demands of the market.

Most of what they produce is cheap, but there are a few highly-skilled artisans who can, for instance, make virtually identical copies of Burberry’s famed trenchcoats. These eventually sell to members of the new financial elite for around US$300.

Some talking heads argue that North Korea can never pursue economic reform because any openness would enable North Koreans to “find out” about the superior quality of life that exists south of the DMZ. But the truth is this: North Koreans already know about it.

Beauty Products and Plastic Surgery

Women’s make-up is also popular, this means eye shadow, mascara, and everything else that a modern woman would want to beautify herself with.

Plastic surgery is also quickly rising in popularity, no doubt as an influence from South Korean TV and DVDs that make their way into North Korea. South Korea has become the international capital for cosmetic surgery and South Korean actors and actresses are considered physically very attractive—and a large part of the reason for that is the plastic surgery and botox treatments that most of them have.

North Korea obviously doesn't have the same money or supply of skilled plastic surgeons that the South has, but the double-eyelid operation has become entirely commonplace.

There is a common belief in East Asia that big eyes, with fold lines along the lids, are attractive. Some people are naturally born with them, but most are not. This is easily “corrected” with a simple surgical procedure called blepharoplasty, which requires very little in the way of medical skill, and can be completed in under ten minutes.

For most, the operation is done in a very “back street” fashion. In such cases the procedure costs as little as US$2, and is performed in the patient’s home—without the aid of anesthetic. Many of those who perform the operation are not even doctors. It is in fact possible for anyone to learn how to make an eyelid fold, and start offering the service. Those who do it well will benefit from word of mouth, and be able to make a good living.

It looks increasingly likely that plastic surgery will increase in coming year both options and availability.

A Rapidly Changing Country

International media representation of North Koreans tends to strip them of agency. The DPRK citizen is shown as either a blind follower of state propaganda, or a helpless victim of it. But the fact that there are young North Koreans who are prepared to risk severe punishment—as well as the strong disapproval of elders—simply to look good, should disabuse the reader of such a simplified, caricaturish notion

Those who still may believe in the stereotypical view of North Korea should consider the case of the growing industry referred to as: “rooms by the hour.”

North Koreans, as with people around the world, have desires. No amount of prohibition or social disgrace is going to stop those desires from being expressed in the end.

In North Korea, pre-marital sex is frowned upon, and even holding hands in public can result in harsh words. Yet "there are young people who engage in the risky business of renting private apartments merely for the length of time it takes to have sex."

Young South Korean couples have the option of “love motels,” which form a huge industry there. But North Koreans have no such choice—and this has resulted in a grassroots, free-market solution. In any given big city neighborhood, there will be a middle-aged lady known to let out her apartment by the hour.

Her preferred time will be in the afternoon, when her children are at school, and her husband is at work. An amorous couple will knock on her door, and hand over some cash. The woman then leaves them alone, perhaps for an hour or two. She may take a walk in a local park, or spend the money she received on goods at the nearest market.

The process is very simple, but it acts as a reasonable summary of the people’s adaptation to post-famine North Korea: it is illegal; it is informal; it corresponds to basic human needs; and, it is one hundred percent capitalist.

Communications

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One of the most noticeable changes to have taken place in North Korea in the past five years is the rise of the cell phone.

In 2008, the network operator Koryolink launched and quickly amassed over 3 million North Koreans. 

Much as it was in the early 1990s in the developed world, the mobile is seen as both a status symbol and an invaluable tool for business.

Cell phones existed prior to 2008 but they were briefly banned in 2004 by the government. There had been a massive explosion at Ryongchon that is rumored to have been a deliberate bombing detonated by cell phone to which the government responded by banning cell phones and shutting down all cell towers.

It would be almost five years until Kim Jong Il allowed another cellular phone network in North Korea.

In December 2008, Egyptian firm Orascom Telecom began operating Koryolink as a joint venture between itself and the DPRK, with the former holding 75 percent of shares. This time, the results were more successful: from an initial subscriber base of less than 10,000, user numbers climbed dramatically, reaching 432,000 in December 2010 (the second anniversary of opening), one million in February 2012, and over two million in late May 2013.
 
 

These days, there are Koryolink billboards in Pyongyang, and images of people using mobiles in state media.

International calls and internet access are still blocked—and probably will remain so for a very long time—but it is at least now a normal sight to see North Koreans making phone calls and sending text messages... Some even have smartphones, though the lack of internet access limits their value.

Those who trade in North Korea are beginning to see phones as not just a luxury, but rather a necessary business expense.

But for young people, it is probably more of a status symbol—something to pressure your parents into buying for you, so you can appear wealthy and cosmopolitan.

Access to Chinese Cell Towers

Northern cities in the DPRK have cell phones from China that can access Chinese mobile networks.

Chinese phones are being used to talk, arrange trade, pass information back and forth, and even facilitate defections. For such reasons, it is highly illegal in North Korea to connect to a Chinese mobile network.

However, those caught using Chinese phones can escape punishment most of the time by simply paying a bribe.

More than half of those who have made calls out of North Korea with Chinese phones do not actually possess one themselves. They are being shared from person-to-person, usually for a small price. 

The fact that people are now confident enough to let others use their illegal phones offers clear evidence that North Koreans in border regions now have much less fear of authority, and are also less concerned about the possibility of being informed upon.

Radio

Radios and televisions in North Korea are sold with access to only a limited numbers of pre-set DPRK channels.

Possession of either a modified radio or a foreign radio with across-the-band tuning is punishable by law. But as may be expected, this does not stop jangmadang traders and Chinese merchants from selling them.

Many homes in North Korea now have access to foreign radio but it's not as popular as foreign TV and movies in North Korea. This is because, just like people in the rest of the world, North Koreans tend to find TV more entertaining.

Although people find it less entertaining than TV, they also consider it the most trustworthy and informative medium. This is not just true of regular listeners, but also of North Koreans in general...

Radio aimed at North Korea tends to be news-heavy, rather than full of drama series. And because much radio content is specifically intended for North Koreans, it deals with topics they care about, and fills an information gap left by the lack of genuine detail that pervades state media...

For this reason, radio’s relative lack of audience is compensated for by a word of mouth multiplier effect. Word about some particularly interesting news heard on the radio travels further and faster than talk about South Korean TV.

Social Division

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North Korea is much closer to being a traditional Korean society than a socialist one. There are three main ways in which the population is divided and they can tell us a great deal about the nature of the country: social class, ethnic origin, and regional background.

The first two may seem surprising. North Korea is commonly perceived as a communist (i.e., classless), as well as an ethnically homogeneous, country. But North Korea has:

"A government-created system of social hierarchy, as well as a small but highly influential community of ethnic Chinese who are at the vanguard of North Korea’s growing informal trade and information exchange with the outside world."

The third divide is more obvious because the phenomenon of capital city dwellers looking down on those who live in rural part of the country is certainly not confined to North Korea.

Rural North Korea exists much as it always has, but a great many people in the northeast are now well informed of events in the outside world, and are also disappointed in the Kim regime.

The Workers’ Party Politburo May 30th Resolution of 1957 introduced the concept of dividing North Korean society into loyal, neutral, and hostile groups. Broadly,

  • Loyalists were those who fought for the DPRK during the Korean War as well as socialist intellectuals and revolutionaries.
  • Hostile persons were those who had been landowners and capitalists; those who had relatives and/ or strong connections with South Korea; religious groups; and collaborators with the old Japanese colonial regime.
  • Neutrals were those who fell between the two.

The most common figures state that:

  • 28% of North Koreans are in the loyal class,
  • 45% in the neutral class, and
  • 27% in the hostile class.

This "social currency" is called songbun. It is a highly entrenched system that impacts nearly every aspect of life in North Korea. However, it's not something that people are aware of on a day-to-day basis.

Songbun is a properly organized system. Your status appears on your government file, and whenever you request a promotion, apply to a university, or are arrested, for instance, the relevant decision-makers will take your songbun rating into account.

Songbun is one of the few things that cannot be changed with a bribe. "The number of people one would need to bribe to significantly alter one’s songbun would render the whole venture impossible."

Bad songbun used to be able to negatively impact a person's life in a myriad of ways. 

Ultimately, songbun acts as an anti-meritocratic force, giving unearned advantages and disadvantages to people based on an accident of birth.

It is little different from the class system found in the UK, or one could argue, the whole concept of inherited wealth in any capitalist society.

Fortunately, in the post-famine era, the influence of songbun has been somewhat eroded.

Other than fear of punishment, money is the prime motivating force in today’s North Korea. If one is successful in business, one cannot buy better songbun itself. One can, however, buy the effects of better songbun—university places, coveted jobs, high-quality apartments, medical care, greater freedom of movement, and immunity from prosecution or harsh punishment, in most cases.

Many of the growing entrepreneurial class have poor songbun, but it scarcely makes a difference in their lives. And if one has plenty of money, one can always marry into a high-status family.

One must not fall into the common trap of assuming that songbun has been completely circumvented, though. While corruption and capitalism are providing the sharp operator and the talented outlier with opportunities to rise that they would never have had under Kim Il Sung, songbun still gives great advantages to some, whilst holding others back. Songbun is no longer the sole deciding factor, but it is a gigantic head start.

Will North Korea Collapse?

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This epilogue is the culmination of the entire book. I would love to share this section with you but as I frequently say, my goal with these summaries is to provide you with enough incentive to buy the book and read it for yourself, not to share material protected by copyright laws.

North Korea is a hot topic in the news and may continue to be for the foreseeable future.

Don't believe everything you hear the talking heads on TV say. If this topic interests you, I highly encourage you to buy the book. It goes into much more detail than I ever could in this summary and paints a very clear picture of the lives of average North Koreans.


Where to Buy

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Buy the book on AmazonBarnes and NobleBAM, or just Google it. (I receive no kickback or commission for these links or summaries. See my disclosure for more.)

EVEN MORE GREAT STUFF IN THIS BOOK:

  • Government interventions to limit free market trading
  • The difference between the "real" and "official" exchange rates
  • The impact on trade with China
  • The impact on fashion of the First Lady
  • What happens in political prison camps
  • The balance of allowing cellphones while also trying to monitor usage
  • The effects of having bad songbun
  • Specific information on the OGD and how it operates
  • The destabilizing public execution of Jang Song Thaek
  • And much, much more!