NORTH KOREA ECONOMY : Ingenious Countrymen Get By With a Little Help From Their Friends


How does a North Korean buy a fancy watch, leather shoes and Japanese cigarettes in a country where such things theoretically require foreign currency?

"I have a lot of friends," said a North Korean who has all three.

As in China, one cultivates friends not just for company, but to skirt regulations and get access to scarce goods.

Friendless North Koreans are worse than lonely: They are condemned to walk in flimsy plastic or cloth shoes and wait in long lines for the few public buses or trolleys that ply the broad avenues of this sprawling capital city. There are no private vehicles, and no bicycles are allowed downtown.

"I have friends who are (official) drivers," said the well-shod North Korean. "If I want to take my family somewhere, I ask them, and they say, 'Sure.' " That could mean a trip in a Mercedes-Benz or, at worst, in a Toyota, Nissan or Volvo, the only cars in North Korean official fleets.

There is much in North Korea to remind one of life in China, its socialist big brother across the Yalu River: slow service, careful checks of travelers' identification and lots of uniformed soldiers around, although most are simply walking or standing along the road.

As in China, interviews with officials often begin with a "brief introduction" that turns into an hourlong recitation of statistics and the official line. Officials give interviews in pairs: one who is introduced and who answers questions, and one who is never introduced but silently supervises.

China's separate currencies for local residents and foreigners confuse and annoy many visitors, but North Korea has three currencies.

Ordinary pink-and-green won can buy the bare necessities: the cabbages, eggplant and hard-looking apples and pears on display at a Pyongyang greengrocer's one recent morning.

Foreigners who convert Soviet rubles get red bills and have a few more choices. But only holders of blue money, changed from U.S. dollars, can buy Coca-Cola, Kirin beer, Japanese televisions and British cigarettes.

"Friends who are diplomats and traders give (blue money) to me," said the well-connected North Korean, puffing on a Japanese Mild Seven cigarette.

North Korea doesn't have China's hordes of youths openly trading the various currencies for illegal profit on the sidewalks, or the dozens of other symptoms in China of crumbling official control.

Chinese officials trying to reinstall past ideological unity after spring pro-democracy protests might well look to North Korea for reminders on how it is done.

Political slogans have faded from most walls in China in the last decade, as senior leader Deng Xiaoping stressed economic development over ideology. But signs every few hundred meters in rural North Korea still exhort, "Long Live the Great Leader Kim Il Sung. Long Live the Glorious Workers' Party of Korea."

North Korea never let its political education mechanisms rust, as China did. Prof. Kim Wonsok at the National Economic Institute said that in workplaces, "political work is as important as production work."

Perhaps most important, citizens in North Korea have not been allowed the sense of independence that comes from being one's own boss. Private businessmen were key supporters of China's protests, but private farm plots in North Korea are kept tiny and there is virtually no other private economic activity.

How far China has strayed from such basics of old-time socialist rule was illustrated by the comments of two ethnic Korean women who live just inside the Chinese border. They spoke of visits to North Korea much as overseas Chinese used to talk of visiting China: "You and I can sit here and say what we like about Deng Xiaoping," one said, "but they can't do that about Kim Il Sung."

North Korea is helped in its task of control by a smaller population--20 million people to China's 1.2 billion--and strong non-ideological unifying forces: a sense of outside threat, from South Korea, and the common goal of national reunification. Ordinary Koreans and officials spoke of these much more often than of juche, the official philosophy of Marxism and self-reliance.

In the 1950s and '60s, postwar reconstruction and the fear of U.S. or Soviet attack helped unify China, but the 1970s and '80s have seen increasing concern with individual goals.

But the North Koreans have not given up all personal happiness for the glory of the nation. Even in a brief visit it was clear that they still remember how to have a good time.

Accordion music could be heard coming from several homes. A youth with a guitar serenaded friends on the sidewalk one night in Kaesong City, near the border with South Korea.

And on a sunny afternoon, several dozen young men in dirty blue work clothes went carousing at the nearby Pagyon Waterfalls. Red-faced and a bit wobbly, they sang and danced down the road home.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World