The complete picture of North Korea

“North Korea Confidential: Private Markets, Fashion Trends, Prison Camps, Dissenters and Defectors” by Daniel Tudor and James Pearson

Beyond Kim Jong Un and his predecessors, beyond the secretive nature of the hermit kingdom, beyond the missile launches and the occasional butt of a joke on the internet, there are 24 million ordinary North Koreans with common concerns just like people anywhere else in the world to make money, raise their children, and have a little fun every once in a while.

This book gives a rare glimpse into what this world really looks like, with impressive details and a tone of writing that switches back and forth between what feels like a Lonely Planet travel guide and The Economist in-dept investigation.

The authors, Daniel Tudor (The Economist’s Korea correspondent) and James Pearson (Reuters’ Korea correspondent), gather their research materials from interviews with Pyongyang’s government insider, diplomats, NGOs, cross-border traders and defectors, as well as written accounts in Korean, English and Chinese. And if that still doesn’t convinced you, they only use reliable claims made by 3 or more separate and credible sources to produce an honest view on the reality of life in North Korean society today.

The book started out by introducing the structure of the economy, where there are practically 2 functioning types of economy in North Korea: 1. The government controlled, which serves as the front or the face of the ruling regime that international observers see from outside, and 2. The real underground capitalist economy that consist of black markets and network of bribes that actually runs the country.

It is very interesting to read about how despite the oppression from the central government, capitalism can spring up naturally underground. For instance, while the average North Korean breadwinners still have official jobs in state-owned factories, they also increasingly make a living from private trade using business stalls in the black market, or Jangmadang, which interestingly are paid by people chipping in together in a shareholders kind of scheme.

Another fascinating observation is the market mechanism for the black market prices, as the authors describes, “Rice traders, for instance, (illegally) monitor foreign radio in order to find out in advance about aid shipments into North Korea. If a shipment is on its way, the market price of rice will fall due to the expectation of increased supply—and the race is then on to sell up before everyone else finds out. A big incoming supply of fertilizer will have a similar impact on the market, as it will have the effect of increasing rice production.”

Moreover, in an utter contravention of the government’s wishes, thanks to these black markets people can now enjoy listening to South Korean pop music, as well as watching South Koreans TV shows obtained from China in the format of DVD, Micro SD card, or USB stick. And when they do get caught in possession of these goods, unlike in the olden days when they will be severely punished, today they simply pay a bribe and can walk away free.

Indeed, while it seems that the country looks like a dictatorship with an iron fist rule and strict law enforcements, in truth corruption is rampant and it is what makes the underground capitalist economy works, where Chinese Yuan, US dollar or even a pack of cigarette act as the currency of choice for bribing the officials (and quite often they became familiar with one another and treat the bribes as normal fee money). In other words, the real North Korea is a society governed by unofficial cash and connections.

The main shift towards this more lenient North Korea is actually a tragic one: the 1990s famine where several hundred thousand people died. It weakened the bond between the state and the people, which then forced the average North Korean to survive on themselves without the help of the government. As a result, the government is now just one part of a quasi-capitalist market economy instead of the sole coordinator of economy that it once was.

And actually, even the government itself has unofficial illicit businesses, using complex smuggling techniques pioneered by drug trafficking organisations to conceal the movement of small arms, nuclear weapons or missile component, as well as luxury goods, and using a complicated financial countermeasures to mask its transactions from international watchdog and to make their way around international sanctions. All of which involved complex corporate ecosystem of foreign-based firms and individuals, as well as the North Korean embassy.

Moreover, what’s happening in the economic front is also happening in the political structure, where today Kim Jong Un does not actually impose an absolute power that we thought a dictator would have. At least not like his father Kim Kong Il. And instead, they have an incredibly complex structure inside the party. As per the authors, “Viewed from the outside, the government of North Korea appears as a monolith in which all power is invested in Kim Jong Un, an omnipotent boy-tyrant who threatens the world with nuclear weapons, and executes his uncle—while still enjoying the adulation of his brainwashed subjects. Internally, however, what lies beneath the uniformed and “single-hearted” image of the state is a collection of competing factions and power-brokers who jockey for political control, influence, and money.”

And this shadow power structure was actually set up by Kim Jong Il, in the form of Jojik-Jidobu (or Organization and Guidance Department – OGD). As the authors remark, “those who consider the execution of Jang Song Thaek [the uncle] to be Kim’s work would do well to know that the OGD had far more to gain from it. At the same time, the OGD is no ordinary organization—it is headless, and to further add to the confusion, some of its members are not even “real OGD.”

So what exactly is this “headless” organization? “The OGD has existed since 1946,” the authors explain, “but its role was reinvented following Kim Jong Il ’s accession to its directorship in 1973, when he began to use it as the main means by which to take control of the state. The OGD since then has risen to become the central hub of power in North Korea.” The OGD today consists of 9 deputy directors but no director since Kim Jong Il passed away and the succession of power to Kim Jong Un wasn’t completed before his father died (hence the OGD remains “headless”). The 2 most powerful deputy directors in OGD are Hwang Pyong So (in charge of military affairs) and Kim Kyong Ok (surveillance), with the rest are in charge of the Supreme Leader’s personal secretariat.

Even the generals fear the OGD, because military guidance comes through the General Political Bureau, and General Political Bureau answers to OGD Section 13, as ordained by Kim Jong Il in 1992 in a speech to senior officers. But the OGD does not issue policy, that’s the Supreme Leader’s job where his words is quite literally the law: “if Kim Jong Il said to an aide, “women should be made to wear traditional Korean dress,” then the aide would note this down, and it would become a policy.” But then it is the OGD that is processing and documenting the note and implements the new law to various branches of the state.

The authors summarize it pretty neatly: “Today’s DPRK is best considered a formally unstructured coalition composed of Kim Jong Un and his close relatives, senior OGD members such as Hwang Pyong So and Kim Kyong Ok, and any high-ranking military or party officials who have their trust. In that sense, North Korea has something in common with other countries. The DPRK has an identifiable figurehead, but behind him stand a layer of powerful people with interests and inclinations that do not necessarily always match. If a “hard-line” policy is followed by a “reformist” one, or a “rising star” is suddenly pushed out, it does not mean that “absolute dictator” Kim Jong Un is mercurial and unpredictable. It means that neither he, nor any one other individual, is in full control.”

Furthermore, the book is not all economics and politics as it clearly attempts to paint a balanced picture on North Korea as a whole. For example, there are chapters dedicated on fashion and leisure where once again shows the softening grip from the regime: while there are strict code for fashion and style, which is enforced by fashion police, women close to the Chinese borders now wear skinny jeans and can get away with it despite it being technically illegal to wear. And when anyone seek out romantic liaisons outside marriage, which is illegal in North Korea, they now have their version of South Korea’s “love motel” but in a more discreet place: at someone’s home for an hour of two. And like their cousins in the South, people in North Korea are big on drinking alcohol in social gatherings. Even Kim Jong Un himself is suspected as a drinker who loves to have parties, as well as a smoker who struggles to quit.

But there is still one area where most ordinary North Koreans cannot enjoy freely, even in black market: travel. As the authors explain, “It is illegal for DPRK citizens to travel to places outside of their region, except where permission is given. And even when permission is given, the terrible infrastructure makes the journey long and arduous. It is no exaggeration to say that North Korea had a better overall railway system 80 years ago; power cuts and breakdowns can make a single cross-country journey last a week.” As a result, the idea of foreign travel is still far away from reality, most cannot even travel to other region within the country simply because they’re not allowed to.

This evidently shows that North Korea is still a brutal regime that oppresses its citizens. This is reconfirmed in the crime and punishment chapter in the book that shows the cruelty of the regime, including the caste system based on your family’s loyalty to the Kim family and the infamous prison camps filled with some political prisoners, some real criminals like murderers, but some only there because of being blood-related with, for example, someone who gives a snark comment on the dear leader.

Yes, the brainwashing to worship the Kim family is true and still very much in practice today. What’s intriguing for me is how Kim Il Sung wasn’t even supposed to be the first dictator of North Korea, as the leader of the Korean Communist Party during the war was Pak Hon Yong, but Kim Il Sung somehow managed to eliminate Yong to eventually become the supreme leader. The book also shows that it wasn’t a smooth succession either from Kim Il Sung to Kim Jong Il, with plenty of in-fightings occurred within the family, just like Kim Jong Un notoriously killed his own step brother Kim Jong Nam to secure the succession.

All these infightings and loosening grip on power begs the ultimate question: with all these iron fist brutality and lesser control over the social and economic aspects of the country, will the regime stay on power for much longer or will it eventually collapse? The authors are doubtful about its demise because the key political control is still intact, while any challenge to it is met with extreme ruthlessness. And those powerful people with vested interest are not looking to undermine the system either, while with China’s massive support and interest for the regime there is little incentive for the US and South Korea to even contemplate attacking North Korea.

But if there is ever going to be a change in the country the authors suspect that it would likely begins from the underground capitalist system, like it’s already going on in a small scale. But the fact of the matter is, we just don’t know what the future lies for them. Thus, the country remains one of the most closely monitored and anticipated in the world. And thanks to this book we now have a better understanding over its complete picture.