According to a defector who once claimed membership in the Korean Workers’ Party, and served in the North Korean air force before he resettled in the South, important features of Pyongyang’s planned economy are gravely misunderstood as are incidents like the execution of Kim Jong Un’s uncle-in-law Jang Song Thaek.
The defector, identified only as Kim, said drastic actions from powerful members of the North Korean regime, including Jang, were responsible for the shutdown of North Korean industry when millions starved.
When North Korea publicly disclosed the execution of Kim Jong Un’s uncle-in-law in 2013, the news sent shock waves around the world. North Koreans may also have been surprised, but not shocked, when Jang was sentenced to death by his nephew.
But according to defector Kim, Jang was a “bad person” who enriched himself during North Korea’s notorious 1994-98 Great Famine, when idle machines in factories were torn apart and sold. Jang was responsible for selling North Korean coal to China, even though the energy source was needed domestically.
Jang, who secretly controlled the levers of power in the North for decades, also ordered the rounding up of citizens with spinal disorders that cause dwarfism, Kim said. The victims were sent to concentration camps because Jang believed their presence in society was “bad for socialism.” The men and women were “secretly kidnapped,” and families would find them unexpectedly missing when they returned home.
North Korea’s economy may also baffle outsiders. Profits are the least of economic priorities in North Korea, the defector said, where a pair of shoes that costs 60 cents to produce would be supplied to the population at 3 cents. The notion of an economy that benefits people in this way also means Kim Jong Un is not the kind of dictator outsiders have assumed him to be.