Which parts of North Korean society are the most well-off today? In the past, the powerful and popular were those with good seongbun, usually members of the Korean Workers’ Party; however as a result of the ongoing economic difficulties in North Korea, some other livelihoods – well paying ones - have become lucrative enough to start attracting people in huge numbers.
This focus on other aspects than seongbun can be seen in marriage. For example, many cadres now find that a good seongbun may not be enough to guarantee a wife if they do not have economic clout to go with it. Since the 2000s, people have begun to talk about an unlikely socio-demographic triumvirate: ‘The Big 3’, or those who are the most well-off.
The so-called ‘Big 3’ refers to Party cadres, fishermen and widows. These people tend to have fared better than average citizens since the onset of economic difficulties which have dogged the country since the mid-1990s, and often made them the object of envy.
First of all, ordinary citizens’ ability to make money from business depends on how much direct influence government officials wield over their lives.
According to defectors, it is practically impossible in modern day North Korea for ordinary citizens to survive and participate in the economy without taking part in illegal activities, such as smuggling or secret trade. For this reason, people find it necessary to cultivate close relationships with cadres in the legal system, who become the recipients of bribes in return.
When there are crackdowns, cadres often have their palms greased by those looking to escape punishment. Regarding this, one defector from Hyesan says that “Recently, officials in the Party and legal system who supervise and crack down on smuggling and trade are doing very well.”
In order to find a good job or enter a reputable university, many people also pay money under the table to officials who have the power to get them in. Even those without the authority to make such things happen often make money by exerting their influence over those who do.
Secondly, working in legal fisheries which operate under the permission of the government has also become lucrative. For these workers, whatever is left over after handing over the required quota to the government becomes the fisherman’s bounty, and this offers an opportunity to amass considerable wealth for those with enough business acumen.
For this reason, many people working in the industry have been able to amass wealth over the course of their careers. Many workers are said to have their own small personal fleets. In coastal areas, it is unsurprisingly therefore an attractive work prospect.
A female defector from Haeju, Hwanghae Province, says that the popularity of fishing recently is ‘sky high’, and says that whereas people used to look down on those who earned their living from the sea, recently they are enjoying a popular renaissance.
Finally, attractive women who have been widowed by their previous husbands are also finding their stocks at an all-time high. Naturally, such women are not often in the social limelight, but their ability to live a stable life, at least economically, makes them part of the ‘Big 3’ according to defectors.
Another woman who defected from Wonsan last year says that “Given the ration system has fallen apart and the economy is bad, many widows began dating cadres as a means of survival. The lifestyles of the relatively attractive widows are stable enough to the point where they need not be envious of anyone.”
Outside of ‘The Big 3’ but still a growing object of envy in North Korea today are those who work in trade, both in its official and unofficial forms. Whether working legally or not, the fact that traders handle money day to day gives them a kind of power not enjoyed by many in the country.
Ahn Chan Il, the president of the World Institute for North Korea Studies says that the malfunctioning state ration system has increased the importance of money, and that people are now more serious about obtaining it in order to secure their survival. “The high number of people in North Korean society preferring to work in trade occupations shows us just how bad the economic troubles are,” Ahn says.
“When you consider that Jang Sung Taek puts his own relatives into fields that have a lot of contact with the outside world, it can be seen just how much trade is a preferred industry in North Korea.”