Even though North Korea under Kim Jong-un is one of the world’s most secluded and least free country, contrary to popular belief, it has actually witnessed rapid economic marketization and privatization in recent years.
And thanks to economic reforms initiated by Kim, small private enterprises and individual entrepreneurs have continued to expand their business operations across the country. Today, even “capitalist products” like the convenience store has become increasingly commonplace in North Korea.
I remember when I visited North Korea a decade ago, my cell phone was withheld by customs at the airport to make sure that the local population wouldn’t have access to any foreign high-tech communication device. However, 10 years on, as many as one-tenth of North Koreans have their own cell phones.
And North Korea even produces its own cell phones, which are sold under the brand name “Arirang”, and some North Koreans believe the “Arirang” cell phones have better quality than those made in China.
On the other hand, North Korea has also witnessed an online shopping boom ever since Kim took power. Most North Koreans enjoy daily access to the internet, despite the fact that the “internet” they are using is more like an “intranet” by common standards, since it is completely sealed off from the rest of the world.
Apart from the virtual world, North Korea under the young Kim is also catching up fast in terms of “hardware”. For example, the first ever subway train made in North Korea came into service on New Year’s Day in 2016 and has been well on its way to replacing all second-hand and obsolete coaches imported from East Berlin.
Moreover, according to media reports, work on the unfinished Ryugyong Hotel in Pyongyang, whose construction began during the Kim II-sung era but has stopped since the early 1990s, will resume soon. Meanwhile, the skyline of the capital city has been increasingly dominated by skyscrapers ever since Kim came to power.
At the same time, the young Kim has introduced theme parks, amusement rides such as the turbo drops and 3D movie theaters, which have become the favorite weekend hangouts for many North Koreans.
Moreover, on the orders of Kim, Pyongyang has been putting a lot of effort into enhancing the country’s “soft power” by aggressively promoting specialist tourism. One example is the Pyongyang marathon held recently, which has proven highly successful.
In fact, North Korean authorities claim that by 2020, the number of foreign tourists visiting the country is likely to hit two million a year.
However, if anything, the idea of “growth” in North Korea is nothing more than a relative concept.
It is because no matter how fast GDP growth has ben, under the rule of Kim, the average annual income of the North Korean people still stands at a mere 1.5 million won, or US$1,330, which is less than 5 percent of their southern counterparts.
Besides, there is a huge gap in the standard of living between residents of Pyongyang and those living in other parts of the country, as the new infrastructure and fancy buildings I just mentioned are overwhelmingly located in the capital city, whereas the rest of the country has remained largely underdeveloped.
However, the trick is, limited improvement in the overall living standard of the general public under a social environment where freedom of information is strictly prohibited might turn out to be more in favor of the consolidation of the Kim regime than any huge improvement in the living standard of the people along with sweeping liberalization in society.
It is because by giving his loyal subjects a taste of material comforts, Kim may manage to create an illusion among the average North Koreans that they themselves have very much become part of the “vested interests” in society under their great young leader.
Such illusion could turn the North Korean people into skeptics of social change and staunch supporters of the regime, for fear that once the status quo is gone, their “vested interest” will also vanish.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Oct. 26
Translation by Alan Lee
[Chinese version 中文版]
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