Women in the Markets of North Korea

It is a challenge to report on North Korea without talking sometimes about the hardships in the country. On this blog, we generally try to focus on fostering greater understanding of this place so different from our own, and to do that we often play up the “good news” or choose lighter fare to cover, since so many sources focus instead on the negative. We try to provide a picture of hope.

But, to deserve the respect of our readers, sometimes we have to cover difficult issues. We’ll touch on some such issues in this post.

A new report by the Peterson Institute for International Economics examines the advantages and disadvantages of being a woman in North Korea. It used a detailed survey of refugees living in South Korea to build a picture of life inside North Korea over the past ten or twenty years.

A woman sells snacks at a roadside stand on April 21, 2012. Photo credit David Guttenfelder / AP Photo.

One of the most prominent features of gender inequity in North Korea is the role of women in private markets. Women tended disproportionately to be shed from government or party jobs, which along with the military are deeply biased toward men; women also tend generally to be less likely to hold a job in general. Continue reading

The Kaesong Industrial Complex and FTAs

 

Since taking an international trade class at Wellesley this year, I found myself paying more attention to trade-related news, especially businesses between the two Koreas. It wasn’t all that unapproachable and boring as I thought it would be before taking the class; now that I understand some of the terms and basic concepts behind international trade, reading about current events became a lot more enjoyable. One of the news items that caught my eye recently was the Kaesong Industrial Complex and its status in the Korea-China FTA.

Last month, South Korea and China started their process of free trade agreement (FTA) negotiations. China, which is currently South Korea’s largest trading partner, obviously has a great impact on Korea’s economy. In this sense, the decision to give preferential tariff on goods produced in designated outward processing zones (OPZ)* such as Kaesong Industrial Complex as part of the Korea-China FTA carries significance. This acknowledgement means that items partially or wholly produced in Kaesong by South Korean businesses would be categorized as South Korean in origin. This is meant to offer bigger business opportunities for corporations, which will contribute to peace between the two Koreas. Continue reading

In the News – What’s unknowable about N. Korea

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In the News – What’s unknowable about N. Korea

By Tong Kim

As the inner group of the new North Korean leadership is inaccessible, it is impossible to know how and what decisions are made in the North. We only learn about them after they are officially announced. We struggle to understand what led to the decisions and to figure out what the meaning of them is, often without reliable evidence and only through speculative deduction.

Few people outside the leading group knew about the death of Kim Jong-il in December before it was announced. Before Pyongyang’s July 16 announcement, nobody in the South or elsewhere knew there would be a sudden dismissal of Vice Marshal Ri Young-ho as the chief of the KPA General Staff, who was designated by the late leader to solidify military support for Kim Jong un’s succession.

Nobody knew that unknown four-star General Hyon Young-chol would be promoted to vice marshal the day after to replace the powerful Ri, who was stripped of all positions “due to poor health.” We feel the futility of expensive intelligence services. Only in the wake of the announcements have some “experts” eagerly espoused a theory of a “power struggle.”

When Pyongyang announced at 11 a.m. July 18 that there would be “an important announcement” to be made at noon that day, nobody knew what it would be. President Lee Myung-bak called a special national security meeting to watch for any possible emergency development in the North. He may have been given a wrong assessment.

Following the news of a military power shakeup in Pyongyang, Lee was quoted as saying: “From various indications, we know unification is not very far. Unification indeed is nearing.” The insinuation of this statement and its timing turned out to be hollow.

In the meantime, a familiar practice of speculation began. Some believed the North might announce a further change of the power structure. Others thought it might declare a plan for a third nuclear test or other military provocations. There was also concern about the impact of the unknown announcement.

To the disappointment of those who were looking for clues leading to the unraveling of the North Korean regime, the announcement was about adding a new title of “marshal of the DPRK” to Supreme Commander Kim Jong-un, who was a general while some of his subordinates were vice marshals.

Kim holds four other titles: first chairman of the National Defense Commission (NDC), first secretary of the Workers’ Party, chairman of the party’s Military Central Commission (MCC), and standing member of the five-member Politburo. Kim’s promotion to marshal was recommended concurrently by all these three commissions and the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly.

We still don’t know the real reason for firing Ri, who was a politburo member and the vice chairman of the MCC. But most believe it was not because of a health problem.
Ri and Vice Marshal Choe Ryong-hae, director of the General Political Bureau, a member of the NDC and also vice chairman of the MCC, were regarded as two pillars of power supporting Kim’s system.

We rely almost exclusively on open sources and their analyses to understand what’s going on inside the North. We determine the power ranking of those closely associated with the leader by spotting where they stand in line for group photos and even from the order of names in the list of a state funeral committee. We observe who accompanies the leader and how often for visits to military units and other places. We follow membership and ranking of civilian and military leaders in key organizations.

Since Kim Jong-un became the leader of the North, there have been some significant changes in the power relationship between the competing agencies, shifting toward a balanced position between the party and the military. Under the military-first policy of Kim Jong-il, KPA generals were given more political and economic benefits than the civilian leaders.

Some observers are looking for positive signs revealing that North Korea is moving to reform its policy and moderate its behavior. They are inclined to believe Kim Jong-un is shifting from a military hardliner policy of confrontation to an economic policy of feeding the people. These observers make a plausible argument that with the latest development, Kim has completed the consolidation of his power base to rule in his own style, without pressure from a particular individual or group.

During the seven months Kim Jong-Un has been in power, many suspect that his leadership has been unstable because of his unproven leadership ability, young age and inexperience, lack of respect from the military establishment and the North’s chronic economic difficulties. Some of them still believe he may not last very long. But we don’t know.

North Korea specialists are like “blind men trying to assess an elephant.” As an observer, I must confess that I am also a blind man, despite having visited the North 19 times and met with North Koreans for more than a decade elsewhere in the world. I still don’t know what the North Koreans have in mind. I read writings by other blind men mostly for amusement and to stir my imagination.

From a historic perspective, North Korea was always part of a dynasty ― except for the 36 years of Japanese rule. The people survived several cycles of “seven years of famine,” fought back massive invasions by the Mongols and the Japanese and overcame a fratricidal war. The North is not likely to collapse soon. What’s your take?

The writer is a research professor of the Ilmin Institute of International Relations at Korea University and a visiting professor at the University of North Korean Studies. Reach him at tong.kim8@yahoo.com.

Original Article

In the News – North Korean Economic Reform: It Could Work Very Well If They’ll Let It

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In the News – North Korean Economic Reform: It Could Work Very Well If They’ll Let It

It’s extremely difficult to get hard facts out of North Korea: we’re all peering through a cloudy looking glass dimly at whatever rumour we can find. The latest is that there is going to be some move towards economic reform in thecountry. My belief is that it would work very well: if only they allow it.

Impoverished North Korea is gearing up to experiment with agricultural and economic reforms after young leader Kim Jong-un and his powerful uncle purged the country’s top general for opposing change, a source with ties to both Pyongyang and Beijing said.

The source added that the cabinet had created a special bureau to take control of the decaying economy from the military, one of the world’s largest, which under Kim’s father was given pride of place in running the country.

I say this for two reasons. The first being the obvious one that it’s actually terribly easy to produce economic growth when you’re starting from the low point of economic autarky and rigid communism. As China found when it first started to get rid of the stupidities of Mao’s time, just allowing the peasants a little land and the freedom to market their produce gets things moving very nicely indeed. From the low base at which they’re starting 5% or more economic growth a year isn’t the result of actively doing anything at all. It will come purely from ceasing to stop people doing what they already wish and know how to do.

The second reason comes more from personal experience. When I was living in Russia in the 90s I had some interaction with a number of North Koreans. The most absurd two meetings of my life come from this period. In one I tried to explain to three North Korean Generals why it was necessary for me to have a Letter of Credit before I shipped something to the country. The idea that I did not trust the State was just a concept that couldn’t be got over to them. That I might want a guarantee that I would get paid, over and above well, just trusting that I would, could not be squeezed into their minds. That little attempt at international capitalism by myself ceased when others were convinced about the financing need but Standard Chartered, the country’s bank in Singapore at the time, refused to raise the LoC for the needed $250,000. Imagine: a country not being considered credit worthy for a mere $1/4 million.

The other was going into the North Korean Embassy there in order to hand over a bribe commission payment over another little adventure. Walking past the mural of Kim Il Sung to hand over $10,000 in cash was just too bizarre. I should perhaps point out that all of this took place back when it was legal to trade with North Korea: also when it was legal for an Englishman to bribe pay a commission to an official of a foreign state.

What I took from that second experience was that, while perhaps a little uninformed about the details of capitalist practice (unlike the Generals, who were entirely ignorant) there were indeed North Koreans in the administration who were entirely competent at the basic idea and indeed eager to take part in it. Which leads me to the conclusion that at least some of them, if given the freedom to do so, will start doing that capitalist and market thing of buying and selling and producing. It’ll be fairly red in tooth and claw I’m sure but absolutely any other economic system would be, will be, better than the abject penury that the country is stuck in now.

Original Article

In the News – Seoul central bank: North Korean economy logs 1st growth in 3 years on agricultural boost

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In the News – Seoul central bank: North Korean economy logs 1st growth in 3 years on agricultural boost

SEOUL, South Korea — The central bank in Seoul says North Korea’s economy grew for the first time in three years, thanks to a boost in agricultural production.

The Bank of Korea in South Korea said Sunday that the North’s gross domestic product grew 0.8 percent in 2011.

The bank credits favorable weather and more use of fertilizer in boosting crop production in North Korea. It estimates the North’s gross national income at $28 billion – compared to $1 trillion last year for South Korea.

The bank provides annual estimates of the North’s economy by analyzing data gathered by South Korean government agencies. Pyongyang has not publicly released detailed economic data for decades.

The United Nations says North Korea continues to face chronic food shortages affecting two-thirds of the population.

Original Article

In the News – Lee: N. Korea’s economy should first stand on its own before unification

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In the News – Lee: N. Korea’s economy should first stand on its own before unification

SEOUL, May 22 (Yonhap) — South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said Tuesday North Korea’s economy should first get on its feet before the two Koreas become unified again, stressing that Seoul never wants the communist neighbor to collapse.

Lee made the remark in an interview with CNBC television broadcast in Singapore earlier in the day, stressing that the international standoff over Pyongyang’s nuclear programs and other issues can be resolved if the regime opens up and works together with the outside world.

“It is not that we wish something will go wrong and North Korea will collapse because it will give South Korea a great burden,” Lee said in the interview. “If North Korea goes together with the international community, its economy can stand on its own and it would be most desirable to have a peaceful unification after that,” he said.

North Korea has relied on outside aid to feed its people since the mid-1990s.

Regarding the eurozone financial crisis, Lee said debt-ridden Greece should accept austerity measures demanded by the International Monetary Fund in exchange for a bailout package, saying South Korea went through harsher measures when it accepted humiliating IMF bailout loans during the 1998 Asian financial crisis.

“Compared with South Korea, I think the level now being demanded for Greece is reasonable,” Lee said. “I think Greece, including its government, businesses, workers and people, should voluntarily accept this.”

On Monday, Lee instructed officials to make thorough preparations to stave off any negative fallouts from the fiscal crisis amid concerns that Greece may not meet the terms of its bailout and drop out of the eurozone, a scenario that could destabilize the entire European market and beyond.

 

Original article can be found here.

In the News – Kim Jong Un Bashes ‘Pathetic’ North Korea Fun Park

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In the News – Kim Jong Un Bashes ‘Pathetic’ North Korea Fun Park

North Korea leader Kim Jong Un publicly rebuked officials for the “pathetic” management of an amusement park in Pyongyang in an effort to bolster his image five months after taking power in the totalitarian state.

Kim toured the Mangyongdae Funfair in the capital and pointed out a broken pavement and chipped paint on rides while plucking weeds, the official Korean Central New Agency said yesterday. Improving the facility should be “an opportunity to remove outdated ideological views from officials’ heads and end their old work-style,” KCNA quoted him as saying.

Kim, believed to be under 30, became head of the country after his father Kim Jong Il died in December, inheriting an economy isolated through global sanctions and wracked by malnutrition. His condemnation of the conditions at the amusement park may be the latest effort to shore up his power base by reinforcing an image as an engaged leader, said analysts including Park Young Ho.

“This is Kim’s blatant effort to appeal to the public as a young leader thoroughly engaged in improving the people’s economic lives,” said Park, of the state-run Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul. “The strong words he uses to censure the officials show just how desperately he’s trying to gather public support.” Continue reading

In the News – North Korea opens nation’s biggest power station

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In the News – North Korea opens nation’s biggest power station

nkoreapowerstation2

HUICHON CITY, North Korea –  North Korea on Thursday unveiled one of its biggest construction projects in recent years: a massive hydroelectric power station that is expected to provide the nation with much-needed electricity.

The opening of the Huichon Power Station in Jagang Province, north of Pyongyang, was the first big ceremony in a month of celebrations timed for the April centenary of the birth of late President Kim Il Sung.

The power station on the Chongchon River, which had been under construction for more than three years, was a favored project of late leader Kim Jong Il. Kim had visited the project at least five times before his December death. Continue reading

Prospects of an Open Economy in North Korea

One of thousands of statues of Kim Il Sung in North Korea? Nope, this is a statue of Mao Zedong in Chengdu, China (photo from ArianZwegers)

Since Kim Jong Il’s death many articles have explored the likelihood of an open North Korea. Everyone hopes that the recent change in person in North Korea’s leadership might be synonymous with a change in governance. The media attention might also be the result of attempts to capitalize on more exciting angles on North Korea, but let us explore the possibility that maybe we are sensing something about to happen; maybe the change in leadership might herald a new day for North Korea.

The Atlantic has an interesting piece on the historical precedent in China of movement from Communist dictatorship to economic opening. China in 1976 was in a similar position to North Korea’s in 2012, coming off of the death of Mao Zedong to his hand picked successor, revealed only just before his death: Hua Guofeng. The thought is that Kim Jong Un is a near-perfect analogue to Hua Guofeng Continue reading

In the News – U.S. official: No evidence North Korean leader is dead

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In the News – U.S. official: No evidence North Korean leader is dead

A photo released by North Korea's official news agency on Thursday shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, center.

A photo released by North Korea's official news agency on Thursday shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, center.

(CNN) — The U.S. intelligence community has found no evidence to suggest North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is dead, a senior U.S. official said Friday following posts on China’s version of Twitter that claimed Kim had been assassinated while in Beijing.

U.S. intelligence officials have been looking into such rumors for more than a week, according to the official, who has direct knowledge of the latest U.S. analysis. Continue reading

“Why are you here?”: The Quintessential Question about North Korean Human Rights

The Interns this summer for the Ministry of Unification, especially the foreigners, were always met with some intrigue as to how we learned about the issue of North Korean Human Rights, Unification of the Korean Peninsula, and why we decided to get involved. Since many of us had learned about the issue through our Korean friends or student organizations back in the states, I had not realized what a unique position we were in as American ambassadors on the topic due to the specificity of the issue. However, to other interns and me, it hadn’t seemed like such a niche topic at all. Rather, it was something that was connected to American history and was a general area of interest for those committed to protecting human rights and liberties. I had only formally learned about North Korea in the context of it being a national security threat to America, but it also seemed to be, equal to Africa and other regions that are the center of charity and social entrepreneurship against poverty and starvation, an area that deserved attention for the low living standards of its citizens. Continue reading

A Talk With Professor Andrei Lankov

CHRISTINE LEE

As a study abroad student through the CIEE program, I was recently privy to attend a talk on North Korea by Professor Andrei Lankov, one of the world’s most renowned scholars on North Korea, a current professor at Kookmin University and even a past attendee of Kim Il sung University.

Professor Lankov’s goal was to introduce and talk about the North Korea regime in one hour or less, and in that time he addressed many off-hand questions I’ve wondered about in the past. Let me share with you what I learned!

1. Current Leadership and the Heir.

One question I’ve always had is why nothing happened to Kim Jong Eun, the third son of Kim Jong Il, when he was studying abroad in Switzerland. He attended classes, met professors and interacted with students to some degree, right? Here was a chance for the regime to end and for North Korea to drastically change! However, Kim Jong Eun wasn’t touted as Kim Jong Il’s son but rather posed as the son of an ambassador. He had personal bodyguards around him all the time, had limited interaction with others around him, and of course, being in Switzerland, was protected (since Switzerland is a neutral country).

And even though many would say that North Korea isn’t even close to collapsing, or changing, or to being an open country, the leadership of North Korea is so old that something potentially good and unexpected can happen soon. The advisors to Kim Jong Il aren’t getting any younger. The average age of the leaders is about 78 years old. This may be a very important factor in how strong the regime continues to be in the next five or ten years. Continue reading

Kim Il-sung happened

DAISY CHANG

If you’ve read Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, you know how influential geography can be on the success or failure of a civilization. Honestly, I haven’t read the book myself, but I did read an article by Diamond summing up the whole book in three pages and, summing up three pages into three words, geography is destiny. He may not put it that strongly, but for example, looking at Europe, the similar climates stretching over the east-west axes facilitated human development whereas Africa and Latin America’s North-West axes hindered them. Other factors included proximity to coasts, domestication of animals, and the geographic susceptibility to disease. There were many other arguments, better explained and stated more clearly, but this is not a book review (but do go read it if you have the time and tell me about it).

Continue reading