Andrei Lankov on the Re-Stalinization of North Korea
Dr. Andrei Lankov has penned an excellent article (via Asia Times) about the North Korean government’s recent crackdown on post-famine “reforms.” Few outside of the North Korean studies community are aware of the reforms that have taken place since the beginning of the century and fewer still are aware of the government’s recent efforts to subvert those reforms. According to Dr. Lankov, the regime, for all intents and purposes, collapsed during the famine and in its place, a free market system took root to handle the needs of the people. :
All meaningful economic activity moved to the booming private markets. The food rationing system, once unique in its thoroughness and ubiquity, collapsed, and populace survived through market activities as well as the “second”, or non-official, economy. The explosive growth of official corruption meant that many old restrictions, including a ban on unauthorized domestic travel, were not enforced any more. Border control collapsed and a few hundred thousand refugees fled to China. In other words, the old Stalinist system imploded, and a new grassroots capitalism took over.
Private enterprises took over where the government left off, subsuming all function that were once the domain of the planning office. Soon, private bus companies, karaoke bars, video rooms and marketplaces sprung up everywhere.
These changes happened without the regime’s consent but the authorities could do little besides stand back and watch. Finally, in 2002, the regime implemented several laws, called the “Industrial Improvement Measures,” to put their seal of approval on the new changes. As Dr. Lankov points out, the changes were “never called reforms since the word has always been a term of abuse in Pyongyang’s official vocabulary.”
While many outside observers thought the recent spate of changes would be permanent, by 2005, it became obvious that that was not the case:
However, around 2004 observers began to notice signs of policy reversal: the regime began to crack down on the new, dangerously liberal, activities of its subjects. By 2005, it became clear: the government wanted to turn the clock back, restoring the system that existed before the collapse of the 1990s. In other words, Kim Jong-il’s government spent the recent three of four years attempting to re-Stalinize the country.
Price controls and restrictions were set. Crackdowns on foreign products and anti-socialist activities became commonplace. Meanwhile, North Korean leadership began to assume that they could survive on foreign aid and that this foreign aid could be used to placate the most important segments of the population.
In a fine piece of analysis, Dr. Lankov shows the differences between North Korea and China and Vietnam:
Unlike China or Vietnam, North Korea borders a rich and free country that speaks the same language and shares the same culture. The people of China and Vietnam, though well aware of the West’s affluence, do not see it as directly relevant to their problems: the United States and Japan surely are rich, but they are also foreign so their experiences are not directly relevant. But for the North Koreans, the comparison with South Korea hurts. Even according conservative estimates, per capita gross national income in the South is 17 times the level it is in the North; to put things in comparison, just before the Germany’s unification, per capita GNI in West Germany was roughly double that in East Germany.
Were North Korea to reform, the disparities with South Korea would become only starker to its population. This might produce a grave political crisis, so the North Korean government seemingly believes that in order to stay in control it should avoid any tampering with the system. Maintaining the information blockade is of special importance, since access to the overseas information might easily show the North Koreans both the backwardness
Finally, Dr. Lankov points out:
…North Korea society is much changed. Common people have learned that they can survive without relying on rations and giveaways from the government. It will be a gross oversimplification to believe that all North Koreans prefer the relative freedoms of recent years to the grotesquely regimented but stable and predictable existence of the bygone era, but it seems that socially active people do feel that way and do not want to go back. Endemic corruption also constitutes a major obstacle: officials will be willing to ignore all regulations if they see a chance to enrich themselves.