2003 February 02 Sunday
North Korea In The 1980s

To get a sense of how much North Korea is changing it helps to look back and see what it was like before it lost the support of the USSR. A Russian (then Soviet) exchange student named Andrei Lankov wrote up some of his experiences in North Korea in the mid 1980s. (another and probably original web page for the article can be found here).

However, glossy pictures do not show one important detail: most of this central quarter is surrounded by a high metal fence with gates guarded by stocky girls with AK rifles and in military uniform. These quarters are North Korea's Forbidden City, a place where the governing elite of North Korea lived. The impressive high-rise apartment complexes were built for these privileged few, luxurious Mercedes awaited them in the mornings, their children attended the exemplary 1st Secondary school, as well as the attendant exemplary kindergarten and nursery. In this closed quarter there were special shops and other establishments needed to provide the cadres with a comfortable life. As a foreigner, I was not allowed inside this quarter, and ordinary Koreans were never let in. However, the presence of affluence and power was often felt around the perimeters. It could manifest itself in the shape of a huge Mercedes passing by or by groups of teenagers, the offspring of the cadres, taking a lazy walk along the street. They wore imported clothes or suits a la Kim Chông Il. Their faces virtually radiated contempt for the poor and undernourished lesser orders. Even the compulsory badges of Kim Il Song were used as a "fashion statement": the golden youth wear the badges at the very tip of their lapels.

The communist utopia had a very well developed class system. Its private markets date back to the early 1980s and therefore are not a recent response to the economic crisis:

In the 1960s, when all private trade, as well as tending private plots of land, were forbidden, private markets also disappeared from the cities. Economic reality, however, turned out to be stronger than ideological constructs or administrative bans and semi-legal markets started to emerge again. Not without reluctance, the authorities were forced to relax the initial restrictions, and some time around 1980, the markets (and private kitchen gardens) began to make a gradual comeback.

However, in the mid-1980s markets were still seen as rather inappropriate for the capital of a "socialist paradise". They were as something to be shamed of, so they were pushed to the margins of the city, away from the official and highly symbolical space of central Pyongyang. Most markets were located in places more or less hidden from view, inside residential blocks or on small streets, while the main city market was set up under a huge viaduct at the easternmost part of Pyongyang, as far from the city centre as it was physically feasible. All markets were rather small, surrounded by high walls and always crowded with people. In some places, there would gather groups of suspicious-looking people. Obviously they were selling prohibited items. Often, these groups would consist solely of men: self-made spirits were also popular in Korea. On the whole, many items unavailable in shops could be easily found in these markets, however in comparison to the then Soviet markets with which the author was very familiar, the assortment of goods was not impressive, to put it mildly. It was also remarkable that there was not much food for sale -- just some apples, meat, ducks and chicken, soybeans, home-made sweets, occasionally -- fish and potatoes. There was neither rice or grain sold (at least, openly) in the markets. Prices were exorbitant: a kilo of pork in 1985 cost some 20 won, or about a third of an average monthly salary, and a chicken would cost 30-40 won. Obviously, food at such prices could be bought only by the few and only on special occasions. About two-thirds of the vendors were selling not food but all kinds of consumer goods: clothes, imported -- mostly Chinese -- medicines, tobacco and various consumption goods. More expensive goods, such as tape recorders and cameras, could also be bought here, but were not put on open display -- perhaps, their trade was prohibited.

Small-scale trade was also conducted on the streets. In the early 1980s the old regulations were relaxed, and trade was not so strictly prohibited. In the mid-1980s, few signs heralded a dawn of the North Korean private trade. In the evenings, female vendors often could be encountered at the subway stations, squatting in a traditional Korean pose and selling home-made pins, combs or hairpins. There were few buyers, but, apparently, these women managed to make some profit from their modest businesses.

Upper class North Koreans spend their state transportation dollars on the finest in German and Swedish automotive luxury.

There were few buses in Pyongyang, with full timetables only on weekdays. At weekends there was a bus service in the mornings and the evenings only. The main reason was the constant shortage of petrol. The vast majority of the North Korean bus fleet consisted of old Czech Skodas from the 1950s, although sometimes a Hungarian Ikarus-260 could be seen (and their number grew by the late 1980s).

Besides old Soviet-made trucks, many Japanese vehicles could be seen in Pyongyang, though about half of all truck parks consisted of Soviet-designed vehicles built in North Korea: Sûngni (a carbon copy of the Soviet GAZ-51), Chajuho (Soviet KrAZ-256) and their later modifications. Most Koreans were not aware that these cars were built under licenses from the Soviet Union, since the official ideology of "self-reliance" did not approve of spreading such information. Among other automobiles, there were many Volvos and Mercedes, usually quite expensive, used by high level cadres as their chauffeured transport. Sometimes, Soviet-made cars could also be seen, however North Korean officials obviously preferred to spend the state money on Mercedes and Volvos rather than on the much cheaper but awkward Soviet-made Volgas and Moskvichs.

The class system in communist North Korea extends to train travel.

Railway carriages looked dirty and worn-out, often with broken windows. At night, they were very dimly lit, if at all. Not surprisingly, during our rare trips around the country, officials supervising us stopped any attempt to examine them closer, or even look into the windows. Nevertheless, it was possible to see something. Inside the carriage one could see hard wooden benches crowded with people. Many of them had to sit or lay on the floor, using old cloth or paper to provide a semblance of cleanliness. There were also carriages with soft seats but these were few and reserved for medium and high officials. Another type of carriage had sleeping compartments. However, these vehicles could only be used by foreigners and the high level cadres, while common folk could never purchase the tickets to ride in such opulence. These carriages were much similar to the Soviet ones: in each compartment there were 4 berths and a small table with a lamp. Perhaps, they were even produced in the USSR or under the Soviet license.

Most passengers travelled in the common-class carriages. Given that Korea is a fairly small country this might not seem such a huge problem. However, trains moved at a speed of about 20-30 km an hour and thus even a trip on a short trip would mean a whole night spent on a tough bench or simply on the floor.

Keep in mind that while people in Pyongyang had TV sets the rate of TV set ownership was much lower in the rest of the country (and surely still is). The highest living standards in North Korea are found in Pyongyang. What would be interesting to know is what percentage of the TV sets have the ability to switch to non-government channels. Kim Jong-il watches CNN. But how many other people in North Korea do? Hundreds? Thousands?

By the mid-1980s, most families in Pyongyang had TV sets which were made in Japan, the USSR, China, or North Korea (on Japanese or Rumanian licences). Imported TV sets often had a Korean inscription meaning that they were most probably made on special orders from the DPRK. In shops, a black-and-white TV set cost 700-900 won, yet, apart from money a special order was required to purchase a set. Such an order could be received at one's workplace but only after years of waiting. The most prosperous also had tape-recorders, either bought in hard-currency shops or on the black market, or brought back from abroad. Even at university, where mostly children of the elite of all ranks studied, very few people had tape-recorders, hardly more than one out of ten students. Fridges were practically unknown; one had to be a high cadre to own a fridge. Fridges, of course, could be seen in the windows of the First Department Store, but they could be bought only by coupons which were practically impossible to get even for a low level cadre, let alone commoner. Interestingly enough, in 1980, the delegates of the Sixth KWP Congress were presented with huge modern fridges, as "gifts from the Great Leader", with an inscription in big letters "Paektusan", after a politically symbolic mountain on the Sino-Korean border where, according to official mythology Kim Il Song spent his wartime years (in real life, he was in the USSR back then). Nevertheless, the more observant soon saw in an out-of-the-way place another inscription - "made in Japan", although this in no way lessened the value of the gift.

Since the 1980s the size of the private market has grown. This does not necessarily constitute a threat to the regime however. The regimes in China and Cuba have both allowed larger private sectors and yet have not been overthrown.

The oil crisis led to the number of cars shrinking even more. On the other hand, the tram made its appearance (or, rather, reappearance, since it had existed before the Korean War). People now dress with more variety than before and the time of service jackets and Mao suits has passed, although there are still compulsory badges with portraits of Kim Il Song, recently supplemented by that of Kim Chông Il. The famine which began in the countryside after 1995 had forced the authorities to weaken their control on the people's movement within the country and tolerate more private trade. Markets are much bigger now, and they keep growing, although the prices are still too expensive for many commoners. People are more engaged in money-making, and are subjected to slightly less indoctrination. However, the portraits of Kim Il Song are still present at every square where amplifiers transmit the dulcet tones of endless military marches...

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2003 February 02 10:34 PM  Korea

John Moore said at February 3, 2003 5:21 PM:

It never ceases to amaze me how the "communist" societies rapidly develop rigid, dynastic caste systems. It doesn't seem to matter where they start... a Korean culture or a Russian culture... the result is quickly the same: government enforced privileged strata which exclude all but the power elite, their secret police and the higher level bureaucrats which operate the system.

Even more amazing is the ability of the western left to ignore this institutionalized class system, while busily condemning the far more flexible and temporary economic strata in the free market societies.

Anonymous said at January 23, 2010 3:17 PM:

North Korea was highly confuscious, and more warped by its low level of development at the time of revolution, hence its reputation as the most stratified. Even so, the difference between the wealthiest stratum and the lowest in the country was only a factor of 7 or so; in the U.S., it's a factor of about 250.
Also, I'm not sure what you mean by "the left". Any Marxist left was systematically destoyed after the war, e.g. Mcarthyism, or deluded by the general barriers of access to influence in our society. It never ceases to amaze me how those locked out of any wealth in society would identify with their bosses over their co-workers, family, etc.

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