The New York Times’ Andrew Jacobs had a very good feature this week on the contradictory information coming out of North Korea. Jacobs managed to get to four North Koreans in Dandong. All were in the Chinese border city on two-month visas that allowed them to visit to relatives. The interview subjects are examples of the new labor-export strategy that we covered in May, with the visas providing a way for the regime to tax remittances. All four said they overstayed their visas in order to work, in part to “repay black market loans that financed the official paperwork.”
The basic storyline of the interviews—which take place through a Church-based network—is the disillusionment with the regime that comes with seeing developments in China first-hand. The story describes those deemed loyal enough to secure a visa—in one case a party member from a large city—who are nonetheless living hand-to-mouth. Rising food prices, corruption and inequality are all complaints.
Yet another theme of the interviews is what I have called the Pyonyang Illusion. Evidence from foreign visitors continues to mount about the changes in Pyongyang; Rudiger Frank’s observations and photos at 38North provide an astute look. But Jacobs’ subjects are from outside the capital city, and some are farmers. The changes in the countryside are much less evident, a point made by my colleague Marc Noland yesterday. The DailyNK reports information from a “well-placed Japanese source” about internal debates on the reform that went up to Kim Jong Un himself about whether the modest incentive reforms were enough given malnutrition in the countryside. Take it with a grain of salt, but the underlying point is crucial: the reforms may be oversold not only among the hopeful abroad, but quite possibly within the leadership as well. Not a good sign: if the reforms do not yield the anticipated results, they are easily reversible. Yet as Jacobs’ subjects note, cynicism does not translate into political action in the face of acute–even debilitating–poverty; the interviewees report an overwhelming focus on just getting by.