A couple of North Korea stories recently caught my attention and while I well know that any information that comes out of the country has to be taken with a whole shaker of salt, the dynamic between the two really put into stark contrast between the haves and have-nots in that country. Nothing against the Occupy movement, but honestly “the 99%” of the US knows absolutely nothing about repression and wealth inequality when compared to 99.9% of the DPRK populace who don’t seem to even have the strength to complain, much less a Facebook account to complain on.
First lets take a look at the haves. From the AFP we have this report of a new luxury goods department store opening in Pyongyang. This would appear to mesh in with reports of massive construction and rejuvination projects around the capital in preparation for the 2012 celebrations commemorating the 100 year anniversary of the birth of the “Eternal President“. The store is said to sell a wide variety of goods from clothes and furniture to food and medicines. High-end brands such as Chanel and Armani are also available, although according to Chanel no permission has been given to act as a distributor. It’s likely safe to assume that the purpose of Potongkang is to provide a non-black market source of goods for the Pyongyang elite and also generate the hard currency needed by the nation for its Pyongyang projects, which have been chronically underfunded.
As said above, the current construction boom in Pyongyang is racing towards the 2012 celebrations, to provide proof of North Korea being a “great and prosperous nation”. Despite other pressing needs in the country, it would seem these projects are consuming all available resources, including drafting students and military as construction workers. Around the city, new apartment high-rises have sprung up along with parks, theaters and other public venues (although not likely actually open to the public). Even the iconic eyesore Ryungyong Hotel (류경호텔) is at least superficially near completion, almost 20 years after work originally halted. Combine this with the stories of increased cellular, and even smartphone, availability and even brief nudity on government controlled TV and it seems life is getting better for the haves, or at least they can have more.
On the other side of the equation, we have reports from Yonhap among others of the realities of the other side of North Korean life from face-to-face interviews. Civic groups Greater Korea United and the Committee for the Democratization of North Korea conducted the interviews with 14 North Korean citizens in a Chinese border city in August and released the results and some video clips this week. Lowlights include the currency reform and chronic food shortages already discussed on this blog. Additionally we have word of a growing drug problem in the North with widely available “ice” (methamphetamine) which has become a replacement cure-all for the necessary but nearly impossible to obtain medicines for any number of diseases. Like the South, there is also a growing number of suicides in the nation, although I dare say North Koreans have much better reason to consider it. Undoubtedly these interviews have been presented with the specific agenda of painting a bleak picture, and thus garnering further support, but the hard evidence does tend to back it up. First off, photo-manipulation aside, the North was completed ravaged by flooding over the summer. Given the resources devoted to the capital it is doubtful that any real reconstruction efforts have occurred. Also, massive inflation is continuing unabated, if not outright created by the regime, with the staple price of rice nearly doubling since last month.
As someone with a genuine interest and concern for North Korea, I do sometimes have to fight the urge to simply ignore the stories, given that they essentially all say the same thing without any real solutions in sight. Without a doubt, this is a broken nation and in my mind the absolute worst regime in the world by decent measure. How it will continue to limp along, I do not know, the big question being do we help the people (and as a result support the system), sit back and watch, or actively hasten its demise.
Also on the topic, take a look at this Fareed Zakaria piece for CNN on the chances of a popular uprising in North Korea:
Word comes from Yonhap that the Kaesong Industrial Complex is under threat by outrageous workers demands, to replace the currently provided Choco Pies as snacks with cold, hard cash (which may have better nutritional value anyways) or perhaps instant noodles (which most certainly does not). Of course the authorities can see these demands are not truly from the workers, but rather with the strings being pulled by the heartless North Korean regime who fear the spread of capitalistic ideals through mass-produced snack cakes. Turns out up to 10 pies a day are given out to workers (with up to 6 million being delivered to the complex each month) and some of the South Korean labeled sweets are finding their way to high prices on the black market. Some observers go so far to claim that the Choco Pie has become a symbol of the success and prosperity of the South, something the media has termed a “Choco Pie Revolution”. Undoubtedly fearing the spread of such ideas, Pyongyang recently failed to respond to an offer of millions of dollars in flood aid from Seoul, in apparent protest of the massive amount of choco pies that would be included thus heading off the possibility of a “Choco Fall” of riots demanding democracy (or a glass of milk). Managers at the complex have obviously come to understand the power of social change within the confections, as they denied the request for change.
So if it wasn’t obvious, I feel Yonhap might be giving the power of the Choco Pie a bit too much credit. While the little cakes are a nice snack, I don’t see the masses flying banners of empty snack wrappers invading the capital anytime soon. Really this story is nothing new, just a continuation of ongoing thread of chocolate-covered capitalism slowly taking over the North (see this Marmot post from 2009). The problem I personally have with this train of thought is that it’s not average Nork that is consuming the pies (among other SK goods) but rather the upper-crust who are likely well aware of their country’s failings, but unwilling to risk losing there place in it. If a Choco Pie goes for nearly $10 on the black market, as the media has claimed, I doubt the common man is giving up a couple days income for the privilege of eating one.
Of course no mention of North Korea and Choco Pies would be complete without looking back to the 2000 Chan-Wook Park domestic blockbuster 공동경비구역 JSA (Joint Security Area) and one of the better scenes from that film (not quite a classic, but well worth a viewing). In it, the unlikely group of North and South soldiers are having a friendly hangout in the former’s sentry post with DPRK Army Sergeant Oh (Kang-ho Song) happily stuffs his face with a Choco Pie while bemoaning the inability of his nation to produce such a treat. This leads his Southern counterpart Sgt. Lee (Byung-hun Lee) to suggest he defect and eat all the cakes he wanted. The first broach of this taboo subject causes the suddenly silent Oh to indignantly spit the mashed up pie into his hand and loudly proclaim his dream to one day see his great land produce a confection of such high quality, before returning the mass of chocolate and marshmallow to his mouth. The scene really sets the tone for what is off-limits in the unusual relationship being forged between the soldiers which has further meaning later on. Most likely anyone who even watched the film even in passing had this highlight stick with him, so perhaps this is the source of the “Choco Pies of freedom” meme. Just as the snack failed to pull the soldier across the border, however, so to is it unlikely to really cause fear in North Korean leadership.