Vinylon and CNC? What are they good for?

The North Korean media has released a number of articles focusing on the production activities of the February 8 Vinylon Complex in Hamheung and the Heecheon Machine Tools Factory as part of propaganda efforts to imply the revival of the national economy.

In recent days, Chosun Central News Agency (KCNA), Chosun Central TV and Uriminzokkiri (being amongst our nation), the latter run by the North Korean Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland, a part of North Korea’s United Front Department, have all spoken of how there is now vinylon “pouring like a waterfall” from the newly revitalized February 8 Vinylon Complex in Hamheung, whose reopening Kim Jong Il made an unprecedented public appearance to celebrate.

Meanwhile, Rodong Shinmun released a report on the 11th of this month saying that Kim Jong Il had strongly emphasized the importance of 10,000 Computer Numerical Control machines during his onsite inspection of factories in Heecheon, Jagang Province, no doubt leading to the propaganda poster in central Pyongyang saying, “CNC, towards the world!” which was photographed by an embassy staffer in the city in the first week of March.

So what is the purpose of this propaganda, “Vinylon pouring like a waterfall” and “CNC, towards the world!”? After all, the truth is that people outside the military never see vinylon products and do not even know what a CNC machine is for.

Experts on North Korea say that the slogans are merely to soothe people confused by the aftereffects of the currency redenomination, while some add that they are designed to raise Kim Jong Eun’s stature as the next generation’s leader. But they are also an attempt to emphasis the renewal of the light industry sector, as part of the march towards 2012.

The truth is that North Korea is a country whose economy rests almost entirely on the munitions and military support industries, which together comprise around 60% of today’s production. The only light industrial production is military support-related.

After the Eastern Bloc collapsed, more than 60% of state-run industries perished due to shortages of materials, fuel and infrastructure. Materials were siphoned off and electrical equipment and pieces of machinery disassembled and then illicitly sold by hungry workers and managers alike.

The only places where goods continued to be produced and workers provided with food were the munitions and military support sectors.

Even in the late 1990s, when as many as two million people were dying of starvation, Kim Jong Il empowered trade enterprises affiliated with the National Defense Commission and the Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces and instructed the Second Economic Commission under the Central Party, which is in charge of the overall military economy, to use the profits as its funding.

In short, when times are hard, Kim Jong Il tends to cling to the munitions and military support industries. Vinylon from the February 8 Vinylon Complex and CNC machinery from the Heecheon Machine Tools Factory are essential for production in these areas.
Indeed, especially since the March of Tribulation, the dream job for young people has been any position within a trade enterprise or a munitions or military support factory, because the Second Economic Commission occasionally provided such workers with distribution.

However, as North Korea continues to face serious shortages of foreign currency, materials and fuel, so such industries have suffered.

Therefore, now, even the workers in military support factories cannot live on their distribution alone, and they too end up siphoning off production materials.

One anonymous defector who now lives in Seoul recently met his brother-in-law in a city in northeast China. His brother-in-law is a worker in a military support factory producing boots in Kyeongsung, North Pyongan Province. Upon his return to Seoul, the defector reported to The Daily NK the stories his brother-in-law had told.

“Corruptions among soldiers, officials, and those who related to military supplies factories is getting serious,” he said.

He explained that general workers in such factories now steal materials and sell them to craftsmen working privately. In practice, such embezzlement represents the majority of their income. Additionally, post-production, the finished goods also become targets for embezzlement.

In markets in Jangang Province and North Pyongan Provinces, where some of the most significant military support factories are located, all kinds of military supplies such as uniforms, shoes and foods such as soup circulate widely at comparatively low prices.

Therefore, supplying the army is getting more difficult. A woman who just completed her course at Hanawon, an educational facility for new defectors near Seoul, was discharged from military service in 2008. She told The Daily NK, “Due to a shortage of daily necessities, I had to use a small cake of soap with seven other soldiers for a month. It was one of the most terrible things of all during that period.”

In any case, defectors suggest that the current campaign to revive light industry is tantamount to promoting the munitions and military support industries. But there is a positive side; due to the endemic corruption, if munitions and military support industries are managed well, this might have a positive indirect influence on people’s lives, since it will present more opportunities to divert production into the regular economy.

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