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Beyond the Golden Couples of Pyongyang

By
07 March 2012


It’s not likely that an Occupy Pyongyang movement will set up tents in Kim Il Sung Square anytime soon. Protest, after all, is virtually non-existent in that society. But the same widening inequalities that plague the United States and the global economy can also be found inside North Korea. What was once a relatively equitable society, albeit at the low end of per-capita GDP, has been experiencing a rapid polarization in wealth. The implications of this widening gap on North Korean government policy—as well as on international policies promoting human security inside North Korea—are enormous.

The headlines coming out of North Korea these days are a study in contrasts. On the one hand, four separate international nutritional assessments in 2011 found chronic malnutrition that, according to the UN, affects one in three children under five. Although 2012 is the year of kangsung daeguk—an economically prosperous and militarily strong power—the overall statistics tell a different story. The North Korean economy, which had recovered somewhat by the beginning of the new millennium from its near collapse in the mid-1990s, contracted in both 2009 and 2010, according to South Korean sources. Pyongyang has been unable to wean itself from dependence on Beijing’s food and energy assistance, and, out of necessity, has negotiated lopsided deals with China over access to mineral wealth and ports. Farmers have been forced by the lack of fuel and spare parts to rely more heavily on manual labor. Workers steal from their factories to supplement meager salaries. The inability of North Korea to revive its agricultural and manufacturing sectors has adversely affected the larger bulk of the population, the broad class of workers and farmers who have relied on employment in state enterprises and state farms as well as food from the public distribution system.

But there is another set of news stories about North Korea. The number of cell phones in use in the country, for instance, just recently passed the one million mark—out of a population of roughly 25 million—only three years after the initial launch of the 3G network. Private markets have expanded throughout the country, with two mega-markets that can now serve up to 100,000 people a day. Someone, a lot of someones, is using these phones and shopping in these markets. Indeed, signs of a thriving nouveau riche are everywhere in Pyongyang—fancy pizza places, more cars on the roads, imported plasma TVs—and there is much talk of “golden couples,” namely a husband in government with an entrepreneur wife. Even part of the official economy is prospering. The center of the capital city is busy with new construction, and the enormous, 105-story Ryugyong hotel is set to open this spring after a 23-year delay, with plenty of space for offices. The government has put resources into the IT sector, with some notable achievements in software development, but as in the West, these investments will not likely produce large-scale employment.

A large part of North Korea, in other words, has slipped back into the 19th century of manual labor in the fields and hardscrabble, subsistence living, while a relatively small elite is living in the 21st century of smart phones and espresso drinks. Although such a two-tiered society is not uncommon in the developing world, North Korea once prided itself on breaking free from this model of stratified development. True, the regime traditionally maintained a rather complex political hierarchy based on perceived loyalty to the system, but this neo-Confucian system is giving way to a more familiar economic class system. To the two aforementioned classes must be added a third. The human rights situation within North Korea remains abysmal, as an estimated 150,000 people languish in political prison camps under atrocious conditions. This represents a third class of people in North Korea: political untouchables.

Any policy toward North Korea must somehow take into account these three groups of people: the prospering, the struggling, and the incarcerated. Human rights groups such as Amnesty International have devoted much energy to this latter group, using name-and-shame tactics to shed light on the predicament of those deprived of all rights. Humanitarian organizations tend to focus on the lower half of the middle category, those who have plummeted through what little remains of the country’s social safety net. Development organizations devise projects for the upper half of the middle category, those who can work in various manufacturing and agricultural ventures such as goat farms or forestry projects. And the business community negotiates with its North Korean counterpart, an emerging entrepreneurial elite.

A human security approach offers one method of integrating these very different target communities in North Korea by looking at interlinked strategies that can lift all boats. At the very least, as a recent conference on the subject at Chatham House in London demonstrated, such an integrated approach asks the right questions. Will economic investments and capacity-building projects that favor the new elite eventually trickle down? Can emergency humanitarian assistance meet the basic needs of the most vulnerable so that they can eventually participate in North Korea’s new economy? What engagement strategies can hope to reach the people who barely survive in facilities far from the eyes of international observers?

Addressing Human Security

The concept of human security, promulgated by the United Nations Development Program in 1994, broadly covers economic, food, health, environmental, personal, community, and political security. As formulated by Lincoln Chen, then at the Center for Population and Development Studies at Harvard University, “human security can be said to have two main aspects. It means, first, safety from such chronic threats such as hunger, disease and repression. Second, it means protection from sudden and hurtful disruptions in the patterns of daily life—whether in homes, in jobs or in communities.” The concept was developed further by the Commission on Human Security, chaired by Sadako Ogata and Amartya Sen, which issued its report Human Security Now, in 2003.

A group of North Korea experts, NGOs, policymakers, social entrepreneurs, businessmen and more gathered at Chatham House recently to think through how the concept of human security could be applied to the DPRK. They pooled their knowledge of the varied projects currently going on inside North Korea—teaching English, building Green houses, creating joint ventures with North Korean entities—with the objective of combining efforts and reaching more North Koreans at all levels of society. The group began by acknowledging that the name-and-shame approach, however meritorious the intent, has had limited effect—as far as we know—on improving real existing human rights inside North Korea. The Chatham House gathering investigated how dialogue and diverse levels of engagement could eventually achieve the same ends by addressing a wider set of political, economic, and social issues.

As participants pointed out, certain strategies take the long view of cultivating North Korea’s political and economic elite in the hopes that this group will alter government policy from the top and create bottom-up demands for change. Several organizations, for instance, are currently working to expand English-language programs that, by their very nature, cater to an academic elite from grade school through university. In addition to providing a skill that can foster further engagement with international actors, such a curriculum could incorporate content on human security as a way to prepare this elite with a language and a philosophy of human needs that can substitute for an already discarded Marxist discourse. North Korea has signed several UN conventions on human rights, and the existing engagement with international institutions provides another opportunity for capacity-building, this time with North Korean officials. The incentive here, as with English-language programs, is that North Koreans receive a concrete benefit: technical training that can open the doors to development assistance to targeted communities (such as women, children, the disabled, and so on).

Other strategies address the middle category of development. The Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC), located just north of the DMZ and run by South Korean firms, now employs more than 50,000 workers. Importantly, these are not just elite workers. Over 80 percent of the Kaesong workers possess only a high school degree. The Fuller Center in the United States, meanwhile, has embarked on a project of building sustainable housing in North Korea, beginning with a model village outside of Pyongyang for a group of nursery workers. In addition to reducing the country’s overall energy costs if developed throughout the country, the project could immeasurably improve the living standards of average workers. Improved farming practices – crop rotation with green manure, low tillage techniques, rice intensification in paddy fields – could go a long way toward reviving North Korean agriculture and address the chronic malnutrition that has plagued the country for much of the last 15 years. China is heavily invested in mining operations in North Korea. International organizations could work with China on promoting best practices related to labor and environment that could improve the working conditions for North Koreans laboring in what is one of the most dangerous occupations.

Humanitarian relief, in the short term, can also help the most vulnerable North Koreans in this middle category by strengthening food security, the cornerstone of human security. This relief can also have a multiplier effect if connected with education (distribution of food in grade school) and infrastructure development (food-for-work programs).

The Third Category

For much of the last 20 years, individuals and organizations working on human rights could not get inside North Korea. That situation has marginally improved. The US Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights Robert King visited North Korea in May 2011 to assess the food situation inside the country. Lord Alton and Baroness Cox, two British parliamentarians who have not hesitated to discuss publically the sad state of North Korean human rights, have visited the country several times. “In every meeting with senior North Korean officials, we talked about the prison camps and other grave human rights issues,” reports Benedict Rogers, co-founder of the International Coalition to Stop Crimes Against Humanity in North Korea, who was part of their 2010 delegation. Pyongyang’s receptivity to such delegations is not universal. Vitit Muntharbhorn, the first UN Special Rapporteur on North Korean Human Rights, was never allowed into the country, nor has his successor Marzuki Darusman managed the trick either.

King and the British parliamentarians succeeded largely for two reasons. They have established over the years personal relationships of trust with North Korean counterparts. And they hold out the prospect of significant benefits that might accrue from a successful visit – humanitarian aid, commercial investment, and restarted nuclear negotiations. In exchange, North Korean officials endure the requisite conversations about human rights, particularly as they relate to the third category of political untouchables.

So far, neither side has gotten what it wants, neither a substantive inquiry into human rights nor a package of economic assistance. But engagement across political and ideological gulfs, particularly with North Korea, is not for people with attention deficit disorder. You’re either in it for the long haul or you might as well find other work. In the meantime, engagement strategies demonstrably improve the human security of many North Koreans in the middle category, such as the workers at the KIC who initially arrived at their jobs visibly malnourished and have recovered through meals in the cafeteria and consistent salaries.

The question remains whether the human security approach outlined above can ultimately reach this third category in a way that formal diplomacy and NGO advocacy have not. Those who adopt the elite strategy hope that the next generation of political leaders will absorb and eventually adopt a mindset consistent with international standards of human rights. Those who lean toward a development approach envision a new middle class that reduces the economic polarities of the society and eventually creates concomitant political demands that first address the specific interests of the new class and then eventually extend to all citizens. And humanitarian organizations aspire to provide foodstuffs even to those in the political camps, or at least to relieve the pressure on society at large such that more food is available for the most marginalized. In theory, an integrated approach can produce a positive feedback loop in which success with one segment of the population encourages success with another.

The current trends, however, are not promising. The North Korean government has worked with rather than against the trend toward greater inequality. Private markets, investments in the IT sector, joint venture restaurants and casinos: these changes improve food security for the fittest, for the rising entrepreneurial elite and the workers and farmers who already have a leg up. A successful human security approach pushes against such social Darwinism. It promotes economic development for all North Koreans.

Revolutions are generally not wrought by the wretched but rather by a rising economic class that demands political power commensurate with its growing economic clout (or that revolts when economic expectations are not met by the ruling power). Nevertheless, rising inequality inside North Korea will continue to erode the regime’s legitimacy if the broader swath of the population can only look on as a small elite plays with its smart phones. Of course it is not the job of outside actors, particularly NGOs, to bolster the government’s legitimacy. But to prefer greater inequality on the assumption that it will hasten regime collapse is as misguided a strategy as the old Marxist desire to “hasten the contradictions of capitalism” so that the economic system succumbs all the sooner to revolution. Capitalism is obviously still around, and so is the North Korean government. If we care about helping average North Koreans, we must devise strategies to help them now and not at some unknown point in the future under some imagined political system.

A human security approach can only work with the cooperation of the North Korean government, at all levels. There is no evidence that Kim Jong Un encountered the concept of human security during his brief sojourn in Switzerland. But if he and his current political entourage hope to create kangsung daeguk in 2012 or after, they would do well to work with outside actors on an integrated strategy that goes beyond the needs of just the golden couples of Pyongyang.

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Credit for photo of young North Korean girl: T.M. All rights reserved, used with permission.