Part 2 excerpt
Indoctrination is relentless and pervasive. This starts in early childhood, as children enter school. They are taught explicitly to idolise the Kim dynasty, to rote learn and internalise the regime’s position of history while fostering a militaristic outlook. This is across all subject matter, from history to the formulation of mathematics exercises. Extreme even by the standards of authoritarian countries, the extent to which North Korea has been successful in this indoctrination is remarkable. Besides this, the country runs a system of kwanliso, penal camps – to use a more common descriptor, its gulags. It is into these that presumed enemies of the state – men, women and children alike – are deposited; A report by the International Bar Association claimed that the camps perpetrated ten out of eleven of the crimes against humanity listed in the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.that in North Korea, three authoritarian streams of history converged: Korea’s own monarchical tradition, Japanese militarism, and Soviet (Stalinist) Marxist-Leninism.

Part 2 can be found here.

But is the society set in stone…?

Does all of this capture a monolithic and immutable reality?

The rigid controls on its population notwithstanding, North Korean society has had to absorb a number of shocks that have challenged its system. For all its pretensions of independence, North Korea was a recipient of Soviet aid – until the latter’s capacity to dispense it failed. Combined with droughts and flooding, not to mention the non-responsiveness of its governance regime, between 1994 and 1998 the country was hit by an apocalyptic famine. Tight controls on information make numbering the dead difficult but estimates range from the hundreds of thousands to the millions (of a total population at the time of some 22 million). The dislocation caused by these crises prompted a number of responses.

One was outright criminality on the part of the state, in the form of trafficking in narcotics and counterfeit goods as a means of securing hard currency. Some of this activity seems to date from the 1970s, and it unclear just how extensive the operations were, with some analysts suggesting that they may have been a desperate survival measure by unpaid North Korean diplomats. In the event, this has had reverberations in South Africa, as in 2016 when the political counsellor at North Korea’s embassy in Tshwane, Pak Chol-jun, was asked to leave the country after being apprehended in Mozambique with a cargo of rhino horn and a large sum of money.

It appears that the North Korean state has exited this business, although it has left a legacy of politically connected criminality, as some of these networks continue.

Another, for the bulk of the population, was to survive outside the confines of the state-imposed order. Leaving the country, smuggling goods and trading where possible boomed, enabled by widespread corruption, as state officials often saw their own lives battered and looked for opportunities where they were to be found. Perhaps the most lasting impact has been the growth of jangmadang, or ‘market grounds’.

The attitude to these has been ambivalent. Darren Zook has argued that changes in the country’s constitution to acknowledge some rights in trade can be interpreted as a post-facto acceptance of the reality (and in view of circumstances, the necessity) of some private enterprises. Estimates by the news and activist website Daily NK in 2017 put the number of officially-recognised markets in the country at 387, which would in turn suggest something over 600 000 stalls – and that of the country’s 25 million people, some 4 million rely on markets for a living. The insularity of the country has in some small ways been cracked by the infiltration of foreign commercial and entertainment products and by contact with the outside by smuggling and by the use of mobile telephones in border regions which can connect to Chinese networks.

This was followed by the emergence of a sort of ‘entrepreneurial’ class – the Donju. This means, loosely, ‘masters of money’. Typically linked in some way to the state, they have become wealthy through business activities. As one recent analysis has argued, ‘the Donju can be seen as both a product and driver of marketisation.’

Cumulatively, these developments have seen some changes in North Korea. On a somewhat superficial level, Pyonyang and some other urban centres have taken on the appearance of some level of prosperity – more colour, more fashionable clothes, restaurants and entertainment venues. A team of North Korea officials even visited the French Riviera for ideas about developing the tourist market. More substantively, some foreign investment has landed, with some legal adaptation to recognise this. Even the Songbun categorisations have reportedly been amended to recognise the presence of businesspeople. The growth of markets has attracted the attention of scholars and analysts who have asked whether this might offer a prospect of building a species of civil society, which might ultimately constitute the rudiments of demands for reform. This is the theme of a recent paper by Justin Hastings, Daniel Wertz, and Andrew Yeo and published by the Washington-based National Committee on North Korea, entitled Market Activities & the Building Blocks of Civil Society in North Korea.

In broad brushstrokes, it probes the notion that markets are building networks and relationships of trust and cooperation – this would be a modest start to fostering a civil society. This would still be at a considerable remove from the robust civil societies that articulate demands and counterbalance state power in democracies, but it would be a start. South Korean scholar Hyung-min Joo, who specialises in the study of communism, has referred to the markets aiding a challenge to the status quo through Malbandong, or revolution by mouth. One is not speaking here of sedition, but more subtle forms of in-group communication which dissents from the required line.

Optimism deferred?

That being said, it is quite possible to overstate the impact of all this. The market activity on which many North Koreans depend is very low level, and remains policed by the state. These are survivalist activities and are unlikely to breed the sort of substantive autonomy from the state that would suggest a nascent ‘middle class’ with demands for political freedom, or even the start of a process several steps away from this. Similarly, more lucrative opportunities, which demand official sanction, are entrusted to those with political connections – these are the Donju. Neither (limited) internal marketisation, nor contact with outside economic agents is likely to be a prompt for reform.

Economic pressure on the regime, whether as a consequence of its own failings or through international pressure owing to its nuclear ambitions, have had a limited impact on it.

Indeed, it has evidently been able sufficiently to bypass sanctions to keep its elites bound to the regime. It has even been suggested that its kwanliso have been roped into the effort, by using forced labour to produce hard currency-earning goods, such as coal. A report by the US Rand Corporation observed: ‘Although the Kim regime labours under international sanctions, it receives enough resources and funding from sanctions evasion activities that it can pursue limited showcase economic projects in tourist resorts and add to its military capabilities at the same time. The showcase projects in special economic zones can help keep the elite cadre economically satisfied.’

Meanwhile, the pervasive ideological control remains. That the daily experiences of North Koreans may not tally with official propaganda does not necessarily mean that the latter’s influence is no longer powerful. Having created a world within which a particular form of morality dominates, North Korea’s government retains a strong sense of domination over its people. (South Africans might recognise in this the dictum of Steve Biko that ‘the most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.’)

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Terence Corrigan

Terence Corrigan is a project manager at the Institute of Race Relations, South Africa’s oldest think tank promoting individual and societal freedom. Readers are invited to support the IRR by sending...

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  1. FANTASTIC article! Very informative, VERY interesting, and genuinely enlightening. I was stationed in S Korea 94-97, Osan AB, 31 SOS. That was a VERY interesting period to put it mildly. Very tense moments. I was also stationed in S Korea, 89-92, 8th TFW, Kunsan AB, for one year, then up to Osan AB, for two years, 51st FW. THAT was another interesting time on the Korean peninsula, and throughout the Pacific region. Tense times indeed.

  2. I wonder if anyone has considered, however fanciful and outlandish the thought, that President Trump might have planted a seed in Kim’s head, to let capitalism grow slowly but surely? Is it possible Trump might have truly broken thru to Kim, the gargantuan benefit to opening up and have a far more free economy? A more open country? They can’t hide their citizens from the outside world anymore. Kim can still stay in power, but by dramatically improving the people’s lives, he would gain earned respect and power. He can’t stop progress. If President Trump is reelected, I could imagine Trump and Kim making some kind of deal. The Hermit Kingdom can’t hide forever.

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