Market actors challenge regime construct with juche co-optation

In today’s North Korea, grassroots marketization and access
to outside information are driving public sentiment in a direction at odds with
the state’s propaganda efforts. North Koreans are increasingly seeing
themselves as the architects of their own fate rather than as the subjects of
an unreliant, corrupt leadership.

A North Korean resident from North Pyongan Province residing
in China on a personal travel visa issued by the North Korean authorities
recently sat down with Daily NK to share how she, like many others before her,
came to understand the realities of her country upon venturing into the outside

[The following is the full transcript of an interview
conducted in March (in China) with a North Korean resident]

Many say that people’s livelihoods have become a lot more
stable under the Kim Jong Un regime. Would you agree?

The market prices may have stabilized but people’s everyday
lives have not. For people in the city, if they trade at the market every day,
they’ll make enough profit to buy some rice, and on good days, they’ll even
make enough to save some on the side. But when rice and other farm produce
prices are stable, it makes life more difficult for people in the farming
communities. This is because people on collective farms can only sell grain in
order to buy other daily necessities. So if rice prices stay at the current
5,000 KPW level, they will need to sell dozens of kilograms of rice just to
generate enough profit to buy a single piece of clothing.

For example, a nice jacket for an adult male sells for about
200 RMB. That’s roughly 240,000 KPW, which means that 100 kg of corn kernels
would need to be sold to buy it. For the farmers, if they sell the corn they’ve
harvested from their individual plots to buy clothes and shoes for their
immediate family, it means they won’t have enough left over to eat.

Things are better for people in the city, but it’s still
rough. Because there are no restrictions on market sales, they can earn between
5,000 to 10,000 KPW a day. But then you need to buy coal, oil, clothes, and
stationery for the children, so getting by each day is a struggle. This is why
it’s more accurate just to say that at least people don’t starve to death
anymore, rather than that living conditions having gained stability. Money
makes you more money, so only those with significant wealth [cadres or the new
monied class of donju] are truly benefitting from Kim Jong Un’s reign.

What brought you to China?

I used to make money by selling food like mock meat with rice
[rice stuffed into a wrap made with imitation meat] in front of the train
station. I would be on the run from the police on the train all day. When the
train comes in, I would run over to passengers and sell the food. My face would
get so tanned from being in the sun, and I would be drained. That, I could
endure, but when I would get all my food confiscated, that was really tough. My
husband works at a state factory and doesn’t receive rations or a monthly
salary properly, so he is not very helpful. No matter how much I sold, it would
earn us just enough to eat cornmeal mixed in with rice. One day, I just thought
the idea of living like this to die one day was so pathetic.  

But in order to change the type of business that you’re
doing, you need money. I gave it a lot of thought and finally borrowed some
money from my mother [at a very low interest rate, as opposed to that charged
by moneylenders] and applied for a visa to China. My mother had visited China
three years ago and ran a fisheries wholesale business. I paid 5,000 RMB to a
security agent, but it took over a year to get the passport and visa approved.
Almost half of the people who travel to China on personal visit visas never return
[i.e. defect], so getting a visa these days has become more challenging,
driving up the bribes required to secure one accordingly. 

I bought 10,000 RMB worth of seafood [in North Korea] and
the day after I arrived in China I started selling it at a morning market in
Dandong. Within a week, I had sold all of my goods and made 3,000 RMB in
profits. With this money, if I bought goods from China and sold them back in
North Korea, I would have enough seed money to start a new business. I thought
in China, where there’s an abundance of food, there would be no thieves. So I
placed all of that cash in my bag and was looking around the market when
someone stole it in a split second. I gambled everything on a dream and lost it
all in an instant.

That must have left a bad impression about China. How do you
think China is different from North Korea?

I made up for the money stolen from me by working as a nanny
and cleaning the homes of Chinese people in my spare time. But I don’t want to
go back to North Korea right now. Leaving China, where you can save the money
that you work for, and having to go back to North Korea feels like I’m leaving
a lump of gold behind. I do want to go home deep down, but it feels like I’m
walking into a lion’s den.

To begin with, you can make a living on your wages in China.
Even if you don’t have a job, if you start work, they pay enough that you can
save money. It would be a dream to have a job that pays monthly wages. Also,
there are no worries about electricity here, so I was impressed that you can
enjoy entertainment and television without interruption. Even though they’re
under a socialist system, people here freely talk about the leader and assess
him. It would be great if North Koreans could also freely talk about the

I also envy the fact that they’ve opened up the country.
Everyone can go wherever they want, and I’m also impressed that they can make
as much money as they want. In the North, your age, ideology, family ties, and
relatives overseas determine whether you can apply for a visa and you need at
least three relatives to stay behind to deter you from defecting. If you’re
late on your return, your family is grilled by state security officials. I’ve
overstayed my visa by two months now, so my family is receiving repeated
threats from the State Security Department.

You said that your family is being pressured by security
agents. Does that make you worried?

I’m worried about my son who graduates school next year. But
I’ve decided that I won’t return until I’ve made 10,000 USD. My in-laws told my
husband that he shouldn’t let my decision affect our son, so he is said to have
filed for divorce. If there’s a divorce and the mother is in China, the son
follows his father’s bloodline, so it won’t become much of an obstacle for him.
But it breaks my heart that I’m being forced into a divorce. 

However, I still don’t want to lose this opportunity now
that I’ve come overseas. These days, you need money to be treated like a human
being. During the suryong’s [Kim Il Sung] era, people only knew about factory
jobs. That’s why back then people looked down on those who sold goods. But now
people scorn those who only have factory jobs and are loyal to the Party. The
Party slogan of rehabilitation through one’s own means is now ironically being
implemented by the public in the markets. 

It is upsetting that my family is facing threats by the
State Security Department because I’m staying here illegally in China, but it
does not vex me greatly. You’re as good as dead if you do not have money [to
pay them off upon return], because money is far more powerful than the General [Kim Jong Un] these days. It reminds me of the juche ideology. The philosophy
that the power to pioneer your own fate comes from yourself is a perfect
reference to the markets. You can only rely on yourself. 

What are your future goals? 

The more time I spend here, the more my goals change. I had
decided that I would just try to earn enough seed money to start a business,
but having made that money already, I want to make more. I guess this is what
people mean when they say that even the ocean cannot fill a person’s greed.
Right now, my main goal is to help my parents and siblings. I especially want
to buy my siblings a house so they have some stability.

Since I need to go back at some point, I’m trying to learn
some kind of trade instead of just making money. At the moment, I’m paying
tuition at a Chinese private academy to learn how to give people foot massages.
I think diligently learning such advanced skills from other countries is an
investment for the future.  

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