A market economy and new business class have emerged in North Korea since the 1990s even though their government will not acknowledge it publicly, a panel of experts said Wednesday.
Speaking at a luncheon hosted by the Center for Free Enterprise in Yeouido, Seoul, professor Andrei Lankov of Kookmin University said that the populace was forced into adapting to a new market economy after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Following the collapse of its main benefactor, there are sources that suggest that the North’s industrial output was halved by 2000 compared to what it had been in 1990, and that half a million to 1 million North Koreans perished, he said.
Unlike in former communist countries where the government chose to adopt capitalism or the people demanded it, “in North Korea it was just a way to stay alive,” he said.
“Only top officials survive on salary,” he added.
Walter Klitz of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Liberty said that in his periodic visits to North Korea he has seen the effects of the new market economy on the populace, as those in some rural areas of the nation are relatively well off.
“They don’t have a food problem, they have a distribution problem,” he said. Furthermore, he has witnessed traffic jams in urban areas apparently spurred by increased economic activity, something unheard of just a few years ago.
This also indicates that sanctions imposed on the North have been bypassed, particularly through increased investments from China.
The increase in this market activity, however, does not mean that the nation is no longer a planned economy, as the main institutions are still in place, they said. For example, laws against activities such as traveling outside of one’s home county or exchanging foreign currency are no longer enforced.
The North Korean government attempts to contain such market activity, but no longer attempts to clamp down on it since the botched currency reform of late 2009, Lankov said.
Furthermore, the presence of this new business class ― primarily made up of women because men are required to keep up appearances at their state-approved jobs ― does not mean the nation is more prepared for reunification than before. Lankov said that North Koreans who have succeeded in business would likely be swamped by competition for the South, and much of the nation would form a “permanent underclass” should unification take place.
“You would see much of North Koreans disadvantaged and never recover,” he said.
After each member of the panel made their remarks, they took questions from guests, with many questions relating to the succession process from current leader Kim Jong-il to his son and heir apparent Kim Jong-un.
Lankov said that he does not like to talk about succession often.
“I don’t know anything about Kim Jong-un, period,” he said. Whether or not he is more reform-minded than his father or grandfather, though, may not matter.
“His logic … will be much more defined by the political situation than by his own inclinations,” he said.
Another panel member was Donald Kirk, Korea correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor. In response to a question comparing the unification of the two Koreas to East and West Germany in 1990, Kirk called a comparison between North Korea and East Germany “fallacious.”
“East Germany was the most powerful economy in Eastern Europe,” he said. “It was not a starving country. It was certainly not a failed state.”
By Rob York (firstname.lastname@example.org