In North Korea today, those actions which are subject to the harshest oversight and most excessive punishment are those deemed anti-socialist, an expression of the extent to which such actions are seen as a threat to the regime.
Yet these very actions have already taken deep root in people’s lifestyles, spreading rapidly as a result of chronic economic difficulties, food insecurity, endemic corruption and the inflow of information from abroad.
First of all, every North Korean and defector the Daily NK meets says much the same thing; that if people had not followed an ‘anti-socialist’ path during the mid-90s famine, they could not have survived. The power which maintains North Korean society through the hardest times is that derived from anti-socialist actions, and it is those actions which the authorities would like to put an end to.
The blocking of these so-called ‘anti-socialist trends’ nominally began with Kim Jong Il’s 1992 work, ‘Socialism Is a Science’, issued following the fall of the Eastern Bloc. A time of great fear for the regime, ‘Socialism Is a Science’ expressed a determination to block out anti-socialist phenomena.
However, a famine exploded nationwide shortly after the publication of the thesis, placing these very anti-socialist modes of behavior at the core of the lives of almost everybody in the nation.
Having completely replaced Kim Jong Il and the Chosun Workers’ Party as the alpha provider of sustenance, money is now uppermost in the minds of the people. If they can, they are moving away from the collective farms, factories and enterprises to become more active in the market.
“At a time when the state didn’t provide rations and workers were not even receiving their monthly wages, the ones who started trading early on were all best able to avoid this predicament,” said one defector, “Others followed after their example and, rather than trying to find work, went straight into the market.”
Money, then, is the fundamental toxin that now threatens to shake the very basis of the Kim regime, completely undermining the ‘let’s work the same, have the same and live well’ lifestyle that the regime has long been demanding from the people.The authorities, as part of a losing battle to halt this slide, ‘educates’ the people with the mantra, “Don’t become a slave to money,” but it makes no difference.
People are growing more and more money-oriented. What simply began as a desperate rearguard action to survive extreme poverty has become a preoccupation with accumulating wealth. The many who don’t have the capital to start a business are keen to work with those who do.
One interviewee, a woman hailing from North Hamkyung Province, told The Daily NK, “They have to keep trying, but they can’t eliminate it. How could they, when the state itself is actually encouraging its spread? Everywhere you go, they demand bribes, and people with money never get punished even when clearly guilty, because everyone is desperate to earn money.”
Given that the central authorities demand Party funds from regional bodies, and regional Party and military cadres in turn work with smugglers, and the cadres charged with inspection turn a blind eye to criminal acts in exchange for bribes, the whole system is, as the interviewee said, rotten from the top down.
One defector who left his position as a cadre in a Yangkang Province enterprise agreed, recalling, “The Party periodically collected money from our factory, but since all the machinery had long since stopped running, they made us work in the market and give 30% of the profits to the authorities. It was the state that promoted anti-socialism in consequence.”
Another defector originally from North Hamkyung Province said in a similar vein, “The National Security and People’s Safety agents stationed on provincial borders stop people without the right permit to travel, but let them pass in exchange for a few packs of cigarettes. Some even ask for your wrist watch. It’s not just the people; the whole nation is busy being anti-socialist.”
Increasing exposure to foreign materials is also influencing the situation somewhat. Such things are especially popular with students and women working in the markets, two groups which are more up-to-date than most.
South Korean and Western culture is being transmitted quickly via DVD, and materials that are brought into the state from China by traders and smugglers are also pushing forward new trends such as the ‘Korean Wave.’
To the North Korean people, who once lived in near complete isolation from the rest of the world, the introduction of foreign materials has intensified their yearnings for a new life style. The stricter the regulations become, the thirstier for something else the people become.