Northern Exposure

What is North Korea’s game? Months of belligerent moves, then a series of conciliatory gestures over the summer, were capped off with the September announcement that Pyongyang was back to enriching plutonium. To find out what it all means, and what the U.S. should do, Columbia’s Michael B. Shavelson spoke to Charles K. Armstrong, the Korea Foundation Associate Professor of Korean Studies in the Social Sciences and author of the forthcoming Tyranny of the Weak: North Korea and the World, 1950–1990.

Interview by Michael B. Shavelson Published Fall 2009
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Columbia: Has that brinksmanship benefited North Korea?

Armstrong: Let’s go back to the beginning. In October 1994, the U.S. and North Korea signed an agreement for North Korea to freeze its nuclear program and the U.S. to lead a consortium to give energy aid to North Korea. Things stalled after that, until North Korea staged missile tests in ’97 and ’98, which created a defensive crisis and panic. This spurred the administration to return to negotiations and to work on the missile deal, which made considerable progress in the second Clinton administration. So, yes, it has worked to an extent, but it occurs within a very risky pattern of behavior.

Columbia: What is life like today in North Korea?

Armstrong: It’s difficult to get a clear picture of everyday life of ordinary people in North Korea. Even the NGOs and the humanitarian agencies that visit North Korea have limited access, although access is much better now than it was 10 years ago. The general sense we get is that life is quite spartan. People are not starving as they were at the end of the 1990s, although malnutrition is still a problem, especially in the more remote areas. The 10 percent or so of North Koreans who are privileged to live in Pyongyang lead a pretty good life, relatively speaking. They have enough to eat, and adequate housing, but outside of that, life is pretty grim.

The industrial infrastructure has largely broken down. Food production is still far from sufficient to feed the people. North Korea is still dependent for perhaps a third of its food on outside aid from China primarily, and also from Western donors. The state distribution system collapsed for much of the country in the late 1990s, though it has picked up to some extent. In the past the citizens were primarily dependent on a ration system to get their food, but now many citizens, most of them in the countryside or towns, get their food from markets. The informal bottom-up marketization of the North Korean economy began in the early 1990s because there was simply no other way for people to survive other than to sell goods on the market.

Columbia: Does the government tolerate this informal market economy?

Armstrong: It did for 10 years. Then in the summer of 2002, the authorities decided to formalize it and put into place laws that allowed people to buy and sell on the markets. A lot of large ones were set up in Pyongyang and elsewhere, where farmers could bring their goods. Prices were lifted on certain staples, such as rice. This had positive and negative consequences. It allowed for much more freedom of flow of goods, and access to more people, but it also created inflation and a dramatic rise in prices for ordinary people. Also, the North Korean government allowed for certain goods to be purchased in foreign currency, including dollars, so people who had access to foreign currency — members of the elite — were able to do better. That went on for a while, and then in 2005–2006, the government started clamping down. A year or so ago, for example, the government instituted a law that no woman under the age of 59 could work in a market. This meant that there were no more of those young, energetic, entrepreneurial people staffing markets. So, the government is very ambivalent about economic reform. Officials see the advantages of greater production and access to consumer goods, but they don’t want to open the country up to foreign influences, corruption, and what they think is excessive materialism.

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