North Korean propaganda is built on a popular anti-capitalist narrative – Americans are evil imperialists and the great leader Kim Jong-un is celebrated for his devotion to the masses.
But since the 1990s the country has cautiously welcomed foreign business, with one unintended consequence: citizens have started to talk capitalism. Where once there were “management secretaries” and “operations”, now talk of “bosses” and “companies” has crept into day-to-day parlance. This vocabulary was once feared as the antithesis of socialist principles.
For years private ownership was banned in North Korea. Companies were non-existent and this meant there were no bosses. But despite technically still being banned, de facto private operations have become ubiquitous.
Today, most people refer to a boss as someone who works with foreigners, such as the Chinese, to earn money. In the 1990s, as many faced starvation it was these bosses who eventually found a way to bring food and opportunity to those in need. That’s why the word is now infused with a sense of respect and loyalty. It reflects the new status, jobs and skills that people aspire to.
Unlike most aspects of life in North Korea, one’s ability to shoot up through the company ranks is less contingent on background: even those with poor songbun, a caste system delineated by family background and political loyalty, can be a boss. Those who failed to get into the Workers’ Party – once the preferred method to secure favorable living conditions – have been known to gain the title. Even former prisoners of re-education camps can be bosses.