Strange News from Another Star

NORTH KOREA IS NOT the information black hole it’s so often made out to be. It’s more like Alpha Centauri, a star several light years from Earth. We can remotely acquire a wealth of information about this distant location, even though there’s always a frustrating time lag.

It’s not the speed of light, but the speed of processing defectors that prevents us from getting information about North Korea in a timely manner. By the time the South Korean government has vetted, interviewed, and oriented those who have left the North and the information they carry in their heads has filtered into the public, it’s already old news.

But North Korea doesn’t change, you might protest. It’s been stuck in a Cold War time warp for the last couple of decades. It’s a land of Mao suits and labor camps, a country without internet, dissidents, or stand-up comedians. So, what difference does it make if the information from defectors is a year or two old?

Daniel Tudor and James Pearson want to explode this image of North Korea as an opaque, unchanging, and fundamentally alien land. Their new book,North Korea Confidential, is all about the transformations taking place in the country, most of them from below, and many of them quite out of keeping with the official orthodoxy. Indeed, North Korea is in so much flux these days that this short but informative book may well be out of date as soon as you get your hands on it.

Unleashing the Market

The most obvious change that has transformed North Korea over the last 15 years is the market. The leadership in Pyongyang has emphatically rejected Chinese-style economic reform. But as a result of the famine of the 1990s and the virtual collapse of the state-run economy, the market became a de facto method of survival for a large number of North Koreans. Even though the food crisis has gone from acute to chronic, private markets remain a fixture of everyday life throughout the country.

The North Korean government has begrudgingly accommodated to this new reality by taxing and regulating these private markets. One sign that the new entrepreneurs are now embedded in the system is the pervasive bribery required to keep a business going. Rather than repress this gray economy or look the other way, both the government and its organs of law enforcement have decided to grab a piece of the action.

As Tudor and Pearson point out, the North Korean leadership is not ideologically opposed to the market. Marxism-Leninism has long ceased to have any real meaning in the country. Rather, the apparat is worried about losing control over the changes that the market generates. Founder and first leader Kim Il-sung used to talk about the flies that come in when you open a window like market reform. These flies are now buzzing all around North Korea.

As a guide to this new insect life, North Korea Confidential discusses all manner of illicit activities — taking drugs, enjoying South Korean films, wearing skinny jeans — as well as the efforts by the regime to discourage their growth. The market, in its creation of a space somewhat independent of the government, serves as the method by which these influences spread throughout society and transform the culture.

Take, for instance, the issue of gender. Despite its adherence to dialectical materialism, North Korea has always been a thoroughly Confucian society. Like its feudal predecessors, North Korea has strictly observed various hierarchical relationships: between the leaders and the led, the older and the younger, and men and women. True, women have entered the workplace in large numbers, just as in other nominally Communist countries (proletarian values do occasionally trump Confucian ones). But women have generally remained subordinate, as the virtually all-male composition of North Korea’s political organs demonstrates.

The market, however, has upended the traditional status equation in North Korea. Women are usually the market sellers, and they have taken advantage of this unprecedented alternative path to success. Tudor and Pearson write:

In North Korea, adults are assigned to work units, to serve the state in return for pitiful salaries. Married women, however, are exempted from this. This means they are free to work as market traders. They can therefore earn significant multiples of what their husbands make, turning them into breadwinners and challenging the traditional Korean husband-wife dynamic.

This accumulation of power outside the traditional system — but now increasingly within a newly ordered system — has challenged not only the older Confucian tradition but also the Communist overlay of stratification known as songbun (the division of society into three classes: loyal, neutral, hostile). Women in particular are rising in status not through songbunposition, Party membership, or family connections, but because of their willingness to take risks. As Tudor and Pearson point out, this change is reflected in the language as well, as women have begun addressing men with informal speech, previously unheard of in the country.

The creation of new paths of opportunity has also created new reasons for leaving North Korea. During the famine years, it was hunger and poverty. Many have also left for political reasons or because they fear punishment for some transgression. Now, according to Tudor and Pearson, some are explaining their defection by saying it was because “I could not develop myself.” They see the new chances for advancement but can’t figure out a way to succeed except through exit.

Those who leave remain a fraction of those who remain: the population of North Korea is roughly 25 million people while the population of defectors is roughly 25,000. For those who stay in North Korea, the market has brought both opportunity and unpredictability. “North Korea’s new ‘system’ is unfair and Darwinian,” Tudor and Pearson write, “but it at least gives the average person a sense of agency, and the chance to earn a (admittedly meager) living.”

The Singularity of the North

There is no shortage of information about North Korea, but interpretation can still be challenging. The default position among casual observers is to assume that the country is simply bizarre. How else to understand the personality cults surrounding the Kim dynasty, the synchronized spectacle of the Mass Games, the expletive-laden diatribes against South Korea and the United States, or the mindless cruelties of the prison camp system?

North Korea Confidential does devote considerable space to describing and explaining some of North Korea’s idiosyncrasies. Tudor and Pearson itemize the methods by which North Koreans watch contraband material (generally by flash drives smuggled into the country). They identify train travel as one of the few opportunities for strangers to meet, talk, and trade rumors. They debunk the rumors of widespread marijuana consumption but report on the pervasive use of crystal meth.

But the purpose of North Korea Confidential is not to treat the country as a sideshow exhibit. For all the peculiarities of the system, Tudor and Pearson argue, North Koreans are not much different from people anywhere. “North Koreans are concerned with making money, raising their children well, and occasionally having a little fun,” they write. More importantly, they are no mere parrots. By looking at the ways North Koreans express themselves, in both sanctioned and unsanctioned ways, the book humanizes a population so frequently dehumanized by its own government, not to mention by those who blithely talk of war with Pyongyang without considering the devastating consequences.

The authors, who have both worked as journalists in Seoul, are able to normalize North Koreans in large part because they can speak Korean, are familiar with South Korea, and possess a general knowledge of Asia. Thus they’re able to see that many of the “strange” aspects of North Korea are part of the larger patterns of Korean or Asian culture. For instance, their discussion of “line” in North Korea — the patronage associated with family or hometown or school connections — is informed by their knowledge of a similar dynamic in South Korea.

This knowledge also enables the authors to resist conventional interpretations of North Korean actions. It is commonplace, for instance, to identify reformers and hardliners inside the North Korean regime — such a dynamic exists in virtually every country, so why not in Pyongyang as well? In fact, though, they report, this kind of segmentation hasn’t (yet) occurred in the top echelons of the political elite. Remember: North Korea has no visible dissent and little if anything that resembles civil society. It is not Burma or Iran. Being a “reformer” in North Korea, where the very word “reform” has negative connotations, carries too many risks for politicians there to identify themselves as such.

Also important for any analysis of North Korea is verification. In a country where rumor is the most respected news agency, accuracy is hard to come by. For the most part, journalists don’t have access to the country, so they must make do with interviewing defectors and outside observers. Tudor and Pearson do as best they can — in addition to their own investigations, they cross-check defector accounts and subject some popular claims to proper skepticism.

For instance, the conservative South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo reported that in 2012 the North Korean state executed the members of a popular music ensemble because of the distribution of a pornographic video involving its members, including a former girlfriend of leader Kim Jong Un. But this former girlfriend is still around and not even out of favor with the regime, the authors write.

The Chosun Ilbo — which enjoys a close relationship with the South Korean government and intelligence service — is fond of running stories based on unnamed intelligence sources, which invariably make North Korea look evil, eccentric, or both. This in turn bolsters the position of the South Korean intelligence service at home, especially in an era when it faces continual calls for reform on the grounds of its politicization.

As this example reveals, while the media in both South Korea and the United States love to portray the North Korean leadership as crazy, Tudor and Pearson believe that: “The DPRK leadership may be many things, but irrational is not one of them.” Pyongyang would not, in their opinion, go to war against Washington or Seoul because the North Koreans know that they are seriously outgunned. They might be proud and pugnacious, but they are not suicidal. They’re interested in maintaining their status quo. In that sense, they’re not very different from political elites anywhere in the world, though they are willing to use more brutal means than most to maintain that status quo.

By putting North Korea in its proper cultural, regional, and historical context, North Korea Confidential provides a vivid, concise, and useful account of a country that has generated much heated commentary but much less accurate reporting. The book should put to rest the notion that North Korea is a black hole. And like the distant star it attempts to describe, North Korea Confidential offers considerably more light than heat.

Los Angeles Review of Books, April 10, 2015

 


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