Dueling Headlines


Marx meets hermeneutics in a Pyongyang construction site

Marcus Noland (PIIE)



Catching up on some back reading this weekend, I was struck by the juxtaposition of two headlines in one of the daily news compendia that I receive:

Colossal shopping complex close to completion in Pyongyang,” and

North Korea upgrades its prison camps to add crematorium and six more guard towers.”

The two struck me as two sides of the same coin: accounts of improvement in the North Korean economy (regardless of what the Bank of Korea says) with some revenues devoted to improved shopping for the donju as reported by JH Ahn at NK News and other monies invested in the tools of repression per James Rothwell’s account in The Telegraph of an Amnesty International report. Perhaps Donald Trump isn’t the only world leader focused on infrastructure. 

The positive spin was reinforced by another JH Ahn piece, “North Korea launches online hub for B2B product sales.” Ahn writes that “it is possible the website’s developers have borrowed major parts of its user interface from Microsoft’s Windows 8 and Naver” but I’m less struck by the reverse engineering (isn’t that how South Korea got its start?) than the institutional innovation of facilitating an online decentralized market within the context of the North Korean system.  VICE Media ran a photo essay on North Korea’s ascendant 1 percent (apparently the pictures illustrate this year’s NK News calendar—maybe Chad will run a Cyber Monday sale) and another, competing, photo essay of the North Korean noveau riche appeared as well.

Only Yonhap stood out with “N. Korean trains virtually out of service due to power shortage: report” citing Radio Free Asia (RFA) which in turn based its reporting on an account by Japan’s Asia Press. Maybe the drought killed the hydropower. Or was it floods? Anyway, none of the three are known for a pro-Pyongyang slant.

Perhaps Donald Trump isn’t the only world leader focused on infrastructure.

So setting aside the train schedule, what does it all mean? The essential Daily NK took a stab at interpretation with “Kim Jong Un's fearpolitik and marketization policies eroding public sentiment.” The problem is that the piece is a summary of a recent conference in Seoul, and it is not at all clear if the commentators have some unique insight into underlying social dynamics in North Korea. According to an RFA piece based on the proverbial single unnamed source, “North Korean Leader Called ‘Pig,’ ‘Incompetent,’ by Residents in Capital.”  Not so says one of my neighbors: Kim Jong Un is really popular with young people, but when pressed her methodology appeared to consist of ESP. (You know the old joke about political scientists (Steph Haggard and Cullen Hendrix excepting): the plural of anecdote is data.) 

More intriguing to me were two stories, one in Daily NK, “Loanwords frequently appearing in the Rodong Sinmun” and “North Korea's Prison Camps Continue to Cast Dark Shadow” in The Diplomat. (OK, so the latter is a bit of a cheat since it is a reprise of the Amnesty report.) Unfortunately, the first does not report any textual analysis of Rodong Sinmum that would establish that the use of loan words is actually on the rise; it simply cites an unnamed source in North Hamgyung province asserting this to be the case, and then describes the political meetings held in response hectoring people not to use such terms. If it were indeed the case that the use of foreign loan words is on the rise (even in a prominent official publication!) one might interpret this development as evidence of shifting material conditions (in a Marxian sense) with the hectoring and the looming prison camps the regime’s attempt to resist.

That would be an interesting story.

And apart from issues of political stability, is this dynamic sustainable in narrow economic terms? The papers are full of rumors about an alleged deal in the UNSC to limit or close the “livelihood exemption” in response to the September nuclear test.

Watch this space.

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