Excerpts of Guardian opinion by Jang Jin-sung, once one of Kim Jong-il’s favorite state poets until he defected in 2004:
North Korean exiles will tell you that the international community must stop funding food aid. We say this for pragmatic and humanitarian reasons.
Today, the fatal threat for the regime lies not in the outside world, but within the country itself. More specifically, this is the jangmadang – an underground economy arisen from the ashes of economic collapse in the 1990s, and which consist of market activities taking place beyond the remit of the regime’s control mechanisms.
This fundamental transformation from below, the notion that lives may be lived outside the domain of loyalty to the system, is the greatest imminent threat to the regime’s power – which is held in place by inculcating the cult of the Kim dynasty, surveillance controls and the coercive mobilization of its subjects.
In today’s North Korea there are two rival forces in battle: the forces of the regime and the forces of the market. The former’s interests are better served by the maintenance of existing party, military and surveillance mechanisms of control. The latter are equivalent to North Korea’s progressives, who believe in a future that is possible beyond the absolute, stifling and structurally inhumane confines of the regime.
An international community wishing to assist the North Korean people should recognize that funding food aid is a channel of limited efficiency. The majority of North Koreans depend not on the regime’s munificence but on market forces – they have already found this a more successful alternative, despite a disproportionate lack of international support or awareness. Even at times when the regime is calling for food aid, it does not mean that the jangmadang will not have food on offer, whether stolen from state cooperatives or smuggled in from China.
Reluctantly, the North Korean government has allowed the establishment of informal markets, with ordinary people setting up stalls to sell food, clothes or cheap consumer goods.
But in the murky economy where nearly any major business deal requires under-the-table payments, most analysts believe it is the same songbun elite that profits in the business world. They are part of an informal club that gives them access to powerful contacts. If they need help finalizing a black-market business deal, they have people to call.
“Who gets the bribes?” asked Bob Collins, who wrote an exhaustive songbun study released recently by Washington’s Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, who believes the caste system remains deeply entrenched. “It’s the guys at the upper levels of songbun,” a mysterious caste system has shadowed the life of every North Korean.
Five North Koreans visiting China spoke to NPR recently, offering a rare insight into how political dictates have had an extraordinary social impact in their own homes. All of them count among the elite, who have enough money to enter China legally and hope to return to their families North Korea.
“In the past, our husbands would bring home rations, and we’d live off that,” says Mrs. Kim. “Now there are no rations, and the women support the families. If we don’t make money, they starve, so life is hard for women.”
Facing a catastrophic famine in the mid-1990s, the state had reduced — and then mostly stopped — giving out the rations, known as the Public Distribution System.
By then, markets had sprung up illegally to keep people alive, and have thrived despite the state’s numerous attempts to roll them back. The government had imposed a welter of restrictions on market activity, including forbidding anyone except older women from market trading. Those restrictions have largely been relaxed recently.
Most women trade in the markets, orjangmadang. Mrs. Kim gets up at 4:30 each morning to feed the animals she sells, and also brews alcohol illegally. Every minute of the day is spent figuring out how to feed her family, including an adult son and daughter whose state-run jobs do not provide enough to live on.
For almost half of North Korean families, private trading forms the only source of income, according to research done by American academics at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.