North Korea Confidential: Private Markets, Fashion Trends, Prison Camps, Dissenters and Defectors by Daniel Tudor and James Pearson
The sub-title tells it all, “Private Markets, Fashion Trends, Prison Camps, Dissenters and Defectors”. North Korea Confidential is a rare book about North Korea that is far closer to describing reality than the endlessly recycled narratives of a North Korea seemingly frozen by minds set in the late Kim Il Sung era.. Not that Tudor and Pearson pull their punches. They describe the rapid transformation over the last decade and more from a Stalinist command economy to a non-capitalist market economy. In Pyongyang the majority of the population are now dependent on the market and the markets. If you have the money—and of course many don’t—everything is possible and everything is available.
This is no accident but rather the consequence of Party policy driven by—they would argue—necessity, after the “arduous march” in the late 90s as hunger and famine gripped the country. The Agricultural Reforms of 2001-2 that cut the quotas for delivery to the State and allowed the surpluses to be sold in the marketplace had two consequences. First, they provided a boost to productivity—as one Minister put it to me—better than the application of fertiliser. Second, they institutionalized the Farmers’ Markets and allowed them to serve as the basis for wider reform. Today the “Tong-il” and Central Markets in Pyongyang have “farmers” producing electronic goods and household necessities, suits—Mao and non-Mao—and skirts, nails and light bulbs. The present shift towards family unit work teams in agriculture promises even more production over—and thus outside—the plan.
For the more discerning and more affluent Pyongyang resident behind plain frontages there are shops selling Italian stilettos, made to measure suits and dresses, computers, cameras and watches. I saw Omega Speedmaster Moon Watch was retailing for US$10,000. Tudor and Pearson explain that the fickle finger of fashion has also arrived. Blue jeans are still unacceptable, but black jeans pass the fashion police. Skin tight jeans with a flare at the bottom can be safely hidden under a coat in public and even bar girls are expected to have the latest smartphone at their ears. With 2.5 million cellphones in use, that’s a lot of money.
Of course some are more equal than others. Just as 727 numberplates—the date of the “victory” in the Fatherland Liberation War—pick out the elite on the roads, 195 phone numbers, with their separate network and wider access distinguish those who count from those that merely have money. Not that the two are not increasingly becoming intertwined. The companies behind this new wave of consumerism are public private partnerships where well-connected people in the Military and Party use their contacts to import consumer goods for the markets and split the profits between their institutions and themselves.
The entertainment industry is booming with new bars, restaurants and microbreweries opening on the same basis. Alongside there are new state facilities with funfairs and waterparks, dolphinarium and riding stables, ski-slopes and beach resorts. The package holiday has reached Pyongyang. Mount Kumgang that was for a few years, after the first North-South Summit, the haunt of South Korean tourists before Seoul suspended the operation is now—in the Summer—crowded with groups of North Koreans from the capital treading the same paths and climbing the same trails.
While the Party’s monthly theoretical journal Kulloja urges its members to give up smoking, those who lack the political willpower can at least puff away on the new 7.27 brand cigarettes. All of this is principally aimed at those who count in Pyongyang, but there is the promise of spill-over to the provinces. Hamhung on the Northeast coast now boasts a waterpark with public commitments to funfairs being rolled out across the country.
Tudor and Pearson conclude that the country is run by a “family and friends” coalition around Kim Jung Un. Within this circle, there are interests and inclinations that are not always congruent. Shifting policies and changes in the “court’s” clientele reflects this diversity in the same way in Pyongyang as it does in the West Wing of the White House. On this basis they believe the regime is stable and over the next decade we will see a gradual opening up orchestrated by the current leadership. Where there is little report of change is in the area of crime and punishment, which leads to their finale: “we continue to watch with a mixture of frustration and hope.”