The complex ties interlinking cadres and the donju

It’s time for Market Trends, where we take a weekly look at North Korea’s economic situation. Marketization has rapidly expanded in the past couple decades in North Korea. In this context, a new development has begun to take place. It seems that even the cadres in North Korea are unable to shake off the influences of marketization and are responding by forming complex relationships with business owners in order to secure their own power base. To find out more, we talked with reporter Seol Song Ah. What’s your view on the matter, Ms. Seol?  

Yes, thank you for having me. Although North Korean propaganda touts that the country is a monolithic structure, the cadres have begun to create an “all-ssam” culture. “All-ssam” is a cuisine that involves wrapping a custom mix of one’s favorite foods – such as samgyeopsal (roast pork belly), pepper, and garlic – in lettuce leaves. The all-ssam culture of the cadres refers to the fact that the cadres pick and choose their own supporters. While it may seem unusual that the cadres are looking to buttress their power base outside of official circles, these supporters are by no means being used to form anti-government networks. In fact, the cadres are looking for supporters who understand their motives and have some connections with legal authorities and Party members; the cadres and their supporters help one another.  

In the case that Party cadres make a mistake and get subject to investigation, having a familiar face at the prosecution office can be quite helpful. But the “all-ssam” relationship goes both ways. If the friend at the prosecutor’s office wants to get his children into university, the Party cadre should help him get that done. After these connections are created, word gets around. People say things like: “The secretary of the Propaganda and Agitation Department and the head the Ministry of People’s Security are in all-ssam with one another.”        

It seems like cadres are quite accustomed to watching each other’s backs like this. I’m curious now if there are any other arrangements that follow this pattern.  

Absolutely. Cadres don’t engage in this kind of relationship exclusively with one another. The current trend is for cadres to engage in all-ssam with the donju (North Korea’s rising entrepreneurial class). But North Koreans don’t refer to close relations between ordinary people as all-ssam relationships. That being said, I’d like to explore the all-ssam culture that links cadres and the donju a bit more deeply.   

In South Korea we’d call these kind of relations between government officials and business leaders as either unhealthy or flat-out collusion. I’m curious how the all-ssam relationships in North Korea break the standard political mold to create new power sharing arrangements. 

One example of how this relationship gets put into action concerns the state factories. The donju rent this space out from the cadres to make their products. But leasing the space requires more than money. To get the space, it’s also necessary to have a relationship with the managing cadres. The donju in South Pyongan Province have gotten quite cozy with the cadres there. The monthly building rental fee issued to the cadres becomes a form of profit for them.  

Although this may seem like an illicit affair, the Party secretary affiliated with the factory knows about this. In fact, the secretary encourages ‘extra earnings’ through official orders. ‘Extra earnings’ refers to any profits made by the state factories that do not come from the use of raw materials and labor for the productions of goods for sale. 

Moreover, the donju do not merely contribute some of the profits. They also issue a per diem including living expenses to the manager. This is a voluntary donation, and the manager usually responds by scratching the donju’s back in the form of providing extra factory facilities or making things more convenient for them. For example, in return for a per diem, a factory manager might issue an order to let the donju use a state vehicle to transport products to the market.   

Seeing this, the Party secretary began to fear that his authority was becoming eclipsed by that of the managing cadres. He became worried that his title was strictly nominal and that he wielded little actual power. That’s why he began to grab up donju and bring them into all-ssam relationships with him. Those that didn’t enter into the relationship were cast out of his good graces. The more prosperous the donju, the bigger the problem for the cadres. 

So it seems like the donju really have to have a sixth sense and keep their ears to the ground when it comes to managing these relationships. It is apparent that the Party cadres are using these all-ssam relationships to build up their own power base. Is that right? 

Yes, that is correct. The Party cadres have the ability to enter into all-ssam relationships. However, the important thing to remember is that all-ssam ties need some connection to the market. The donju become attached to the hip of cadres when they receive some form of assistance from them, perhaps being forgiven for an illegal move.    

The donju in South Pyongan Province say that the Party secretary of the prosecutor’s office is smarter than the head of the prosecutor’s office. Their criteria for judging is market sensibility. The head followed the rules strictly. He worked from itemized lists, allowed no exceptions, and was generally considered to be incorruptible. The cadres, who rely on favors and flexibility to form the basis of their all-ssam relationships, are turned off by this kind of stubborn attitude.   

The Party secretary of the state factory that I told you about earlier was in a similar situation. He didn’t have any all-ssam relationships with donju. He was envious of the factory managers – who received everything including a per diem from the donju – and so he started a quarrel with the donju. And so the donju were forced to begin giving bribes to the Party secretary. From this turn of events, a veiled enmity emerged between the Party secretary and the factory managers. They competed with one another for the sponsorship of the donju. 

So, I’m wondering how the donju work this out. It must be difficult to manage all these relationships at the same time: they have to pay rent, issue bribes, and cozy up to the cadres. 

That’s right. There’s a limit to how many people they are able to satisfy. The repercussions can be serious. They might get a notice, for example, that one of their workers has been apprehended after the donju was unable to bribe or cozy up to the right cadre. To use a more specific example, the Party secretary might find some legal fault in the operations of a donju who is engaged in an all-ssam relationship with a competing cadre, such as a factory manager. To get revenge – or to elicit future bribes – the secretary could document the legal infractions and pass them on to the appropriate legal authority. 

The goal is to get rid of the donju and managers that oppose their plans. But remember that a lot of the managers have all-ssam relations with cadres in the prosecutor’s office, so they get notice that the Party secretary is making moves against them. The managers respond by seeking revenge. They can prepare their own paperwork alleging that the secretary is corrupt. This can be done by accusing the secretary of using bribe money to enter the Party or of embezzling Party money gained through foreign currency earning operations. 

Since the secretary and the manager have competing claims against one another, the winner will not be the person with the superior legal argument, but the person who has the most all-ssam in the prosecutor’s office. 

Party cadres, donju, factory managers, and the head of the prosecutor’s office are all entangled in a complicated web of relations. Can you explain a bit more about how most of these disputes involving all-ssam and power get resolved?

The prosecution office cadres usually give the donju a chance to give them a bribe when the investigation is being conducted and when the results are handed out. 

Now to address the issue involving the managers. If the managers have an all-ssam relationship with the cadres in the prosecutor’s office, the fact that the managers accepted bribes from the donju and exceeded the bounds of their authority will be excused. This is because the money they had received from the donju has already been partly handed over in the form of bribes to the cadres at the prosecutor’s office. The managers do this as a sort of insurance in case an emergency should arise and they need all-ssam in judicial institutions. Cadres who have the power to issue a not guilty verdict to donju during the preliminary stage of investigations often become quite wealthy.  

There’s a saying in Korean: “When whales fight, the shrimp’s back is broken.” It means that when titans engage in battle, the collateral damage often extends to innocent victims. For instance, when the donju who rented the factory are declared guilty, they are sent to prison. When the cadre and donju are engaged in all-ssam and a guilty verdict is handed down, the donju is tragically punished but the cadre often gets off scot-free. In the competitive and violent sphere of North Korean politics – where the justice system is a superficial mechanism – the donju often become sacrificial lambs.   

When the cadres get concerned that the donju have amassed too much influence, they blame them for being anti-socialist elements. After that, the cadres simply collude with other donju in order to maintain their power. We need to deeply consider who is responsible for creating the conditions that force the cadres to perpetuate this inhumane spiral of interactions.  
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