An informative yet entertaining new book, “North Korea Confidential: Private Markets, Fashion Trends, Prison Camps, Dissenters and Defectors” by journalists Daniel Tudor and James Pearson is exactly what one would want from people who know a few of the country’s secrets. It reads like a CIA fact sheet mixed with juicy anecdotes—and the authors have reassured readers that everything in it has been verified by three sources.
“The main cause of North Korea’s recent social change is actually a tragic one: the famine of the mid 1990s,” the authors write. That famine, which they estimate caused at least 700,000 people to die from starvation, gutted the control Pyongyang and the government had on the country as a whole. The reason is that when the government could no longer feed its citizens, North Koreans turned to a “quasi-capitalist market economy” to feed themselves. This undermined not only the power of the state, which lost a major source of its power (the collection and redistribution of food), but simultaneously opened up the country to a form of capitalism reliant on the outside world.
In the aftermath of the famine, an illegal but countenanced market system called the jangmadang took root. Under jangmadang, members of a family, usually married women who are exempt from state-mandated work units, sell a variety of goods. These can be family possessions, DVD players, phones, foreign currency, and so on. Families rely on income from these markets, as the official and unofficial exchange rates with foreign currencies have imploded, and the government has left much of the country outside of Pyongyang to fend for itself. The markets are so ingrained in society, the authors claim, that families not known to engage are often suspect because it is assumed they are obtaining wealth from defector relatives. One side effect of these markets is that women are often bringing home more money than their husbands, which undermines the traditionally patriarchal society.
The new North Korea depicted by the authors is dominated by this semi-capitalist form of life, and while most would imagine that would be difficult given the dictatorship’s image as a suffocating leviathan, the country has a new king—cash. Throughout the book, the authors stress that nearly every crime, from political to petty, can be resolved with a bribe. Get caught trying to cross the border? Pay the guard a bribe. Caught with foreign DVDs? Pay the inspector a bribe. Need anything? Pay a bribe.
[The Daily Beast] Read more