The Pyongyang Illusion

November 5, 2011 7:00 AM

We have emphasized repeatedly that Pyongyang is not North Korea. Visitors there are often struck by signs of affluence, the availability of food in the markets, cell phones, and stylishly-dressed women. And the Chinese love to say that “things are not that bad,” meaning that the country is not in the grip of wholesale famine as in the mid-1990s; it's almost a perverse point of pride—a fraternal bond--that the North Korean leadership can impose as much suffering on its population as Mao did.

We call this phenomenon the Pyongyang Illusion. First, it is not even clear that Pyongyang is doing all that well. Facing obvious constraints on extracting more grain from a depleted countryside, the leadership has been forced to rely on imports to provision the city. But repeated stories from Goodfriends note that foreign trade officials are struggling. Imports have not been adequate during the pre-harvest period to avoid diminished rations in the city, even to officials.

Not only is Pyongyang not North Korea, but Pyongyang’s well-being may be inversely correlated with the fate of the rest of the country, as resources are poured into the city at the expense of everyone else. National holidays are often accompanied by the distribution of personal gifts to show the regime’s largesse; important anniversaries in 2012 have clearly been a major focus of the regime (a list of the major ones is appended below). Naturally, Pyongyang is at the front of this patronage queue. But showering the city with goodies will have immiserizing effects elsewhere. Projects such as the ambitious effort to build 100,000 new housing units may fail but such failure has consequences too, as labor and materials are mobilized for white elephant inefficiencies. One explanation for the severity of the great famine was similar efforts on the part of Kim Jong Il to circumvent the plan in the early 1990s with projects that bore his personal stamp.

All of these difficulties were compounded over the summer by what appears to be a large-scale purge in the form of "inspections." From the perspective of the regime, rooting out “corruption” is logical, but that corruption was associated with the functioning of the market economy.

Hazel Smith, who has spent a lot of time in North Korea, recently returned after an eight-year absence and filed a skeptical travelogue for CSIS's PacNet. As she summarizes, the regime “continues to treat the market in which every single North Korean has been embedded for over a generation as if it were a temporary, ancillary, and unwelcome phenomena that will in some future scenario be eradicated, when North Korea resumes its rightful place in the world as a ‘prosperous and strong nation.’” We have had our disagreements with Prof. Smith in the past, but her assessment seems spot-on to us. Pyongyang Illusion.

National Holidays of Significance

  • October 10, Party Foundation Day, celebrating the founding of the Korean Workers’ Party.
  • Janury 8. Kim Jong-un’s birthday; it will be interesting to see if it is celebrated publicly.
  • February 16. Kim Jong Il’s birthday. Soviet records say it was February 16 1941; North Korea celebrates it from 1942. This could have been differences in how ages are accounted or a falsification to align his birthdate with his father’s. In any case, this is 70. A two-day holiday.
  • April 15. Kim Il Sung’s 100th birthday, obviously a big one. Also known as the Day of the Sun, another two-day holiday.
  • April 25. Military Foundation Day, also moved to correspond with the founding of Kim Il Sung’s guerilla movement in 1932; again, stars are aligned around a number of decadal celebrations (70, 80, 100).


Ray Cunningham

The "Pyongyang Illusion" is certainly more acute during the construction this year in preparation for 2012. While traveling to other parts of the country it becomes evident that the only changes seen are cleaning and restoration of monuments and new "2012" propaganda murals. For most who go for the short tour Pyongyang becomes the center of the experience. The real North Korea lies elsewhere - in the farms and fields, in the smaller towns and in the more remote areas where life is at a standstill. While many more people are selling at the crossroads and more vehicles are moving, there has not been change outside the capitol.


+1 for use of "immiserizing"

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