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NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 83 (December 3, 2009)

All Headlines 11:44 December 03, 2009


The Rise of Personal Discussion & Individualism in North Korean

By Lee Woo-young (Professor at the University of North Korean Studies, Seoul, Korea)

North Korea's prolonged economic crisis, referred to by its regime as the "March of Hardship", has had an enormous effect on the lives of its citizens. The shortage of food has led to the collapse of the distribution system, meaning that the people of North Korea must fend for themselves and can no longer depend on the state. Due to such circumstances, collectivism, which acts as the basis for the North Korean socialist state, has weakened and fostered an environment where individualism can grow.

However, for individualism to have an actual effect on the society and politics of North Korea, it must spread and become a social trend. Additionally, personal or private discussions, aside from public discourse, must occur freely among the citizenry. For this to happen, private spaces must first be built to accommodate such personal discussions.

Private spaces are quite different in nature when compared to what are known as individual or family spaces. Personal discussions that occur in private spaces generally differ from the state's official discourse and also present an opportunity to spread more widely ideas about individualism. From this point of view, the expansion of markets and growth of private business in North Korea can be seen as a positive development towards fostering personal discussions. Even though the markets have not been legalized, they do not follow socialist principles.

In the case of North Korea, the food service sector, which has grown since the food shortage, is fast becoming a space for personal discussions. One North Korean defector tells the story of a woman who ran a restaurant out of her house. This was an unregistered business with no signage, but drew a considerable amount of customers. Unlike simple financial transactions where things are bought and sold, in a restaurant there is the possibility for conversations about various topics as patrons sit and eat together in an enclosed space. And since the restaurant itself is unregistered, the owner her customers may share a feeling of fellowship and possibly express their concerns and opinions to each other about the ruling government.

The increase in individual land ownership can also be seen as an important factor in the creation of private spaces for personal discussions. Since 2000, the government has allowed individuals to cultivate enough land to be self-sufficient, and agriculture thus has been sustained by individuals and families. Some individuals even miss work to farm and, in most cases, the farming is done in groups. AS the amount of time spent on farming tends to be quite lengthy, it could also foster inter-personal bonds.

Retail stores seen in Pyongyang and other large North Korean cities may play a similar role. Externally, the store maybe affiliated with an organization or a larger entity, but in reality it is a private business where goods are bought and sold. Compared with a restaurant, there is less time for interaction, but it takes place nonetheless.

Additionally, while most stores are leased by a government agency, a number of capable individuals have reportedly procured space or are building their own stores. Unlike at a government-run retailer, haggling is possible at an individually owned store, and such places may allow for deep and meaningful personal discussions.

Newly created recreational facilities such as pool halls and game rooms could also be utilized as spaces for personal discussions. While traditional games and recreational activities are based on the ideals of being in a group, newer facilities appear to be based upon preferences and income. The increasing number of individuals running pool halls shows there is clearly a demand for this kind of space.

For personal discussions to grow, unofficial social networks must be also created among the citizenry. In this context, the growth of unofficial markets and other areas where people can drawn income, which developed during the first "March of Hardship" in the mid 1990s, must be noted and observed.

Social networks appear to be chiefly formed through business ties. They are especially tight between North Koreans who buy products from abroad (mainly China) and those who sells the goods at the market. Even though this kind of distribution process was legalized through the July 1 economic reforms, it still contains many illegal elements, and because of this a sense of fellowship is built. The fact that many businesses are run by families also means that business networks often encompass elements of the personal and private

Where unofficial business activities thrive, most find it easier to choose someone they can trust, such as a family member or close friend, with whom to go into business -- in order to lower risk. As such, society has begun to place greater importance on kinship. Relationships formed by blood ties are traditionally considered part of the wider social strata, but can also develop into more personal ties.

As the market becomes more active, it also becomes more specialized: there are buyers, restaurateurs, delivery people, wholesalers, retailers, etc. As specialization takes place, social orders develop, and the introduction of a "wealthy" class may create a social order increasingly similar to that of a capitalist society.

The wealthy entrepreneurs who made money by adapting to the economic crisis live a relatively distinguished life. They purchase expensive goods such as televisions and refrigerators and compare products to see which is better as if they were competing against each other economically. They also communicate with each other over topics of mutual interest such as their children's education.

It must be noted that the wealthy specifically do not build networks only through the unofficial market; there have also been instances where wealthy groups or individuals have invested in official public businesses -- purchasing fertilizers or improving facilities for factories and farms. For example, North Korea's Heungnam Fertilizer had long had problems with holes in its steel pipes, leftover from the Japanese colonial period. However, with the help of relatively wealthy investors, the steel pipes have been replaced with stainless steel pipes. (Interview with a North Korea defector - November 6, 2005)

In unofficial business, illegal behavior such as bribery is crucial. This kind of behavior also creates a relationship between entrepreneurs and government officials; often there is a chance that such a relationship will develops when a government official is not receiving enough from the state to live comfortably. Recently a symbiotic relationship has also been forming between merchants and the wealthy. These relationships are certainly illegal, but they have formed nonetheless because they are logical and perhaps even natural.

The increase in the number of North Koreans who earn foreign currency also creates an opportunity for the introduction of a new social class made up of those with shared experiences. Due to the current financial conditions facing the North, many organizations have been competing against each other to earn foreign currency. The increasing number of North Korean restaurants in China, North Korean construction companies in the Middle East, and North Korean doctors practicing in Africa -- all of these groups represent a trend of outward expansion. The members of these groups communicate with each other not just politically but socially. Due to their experiences abroad, they lead vastly different lives than most of their compatriots.

Though not an economic factor, the rise of the so-called "new generation" -- North Koreans in currently in their 30s -- has also had an impact on the formation of social relationships. As a generation that did not experience the war and grew up after the industrialization of North Korea, they appear to think along more pragmatic lines. While the older generation is ideology oriented and emphasizes traditional relationships stemming from agriculture, the new generation, even those working in the Labor party, seem to hold beliefs different from those in their forties and older. These differences lead them to form a separate social network with a unique communication structure.

The quote "all for one and one for all" describes appropriately North Korea's emphasis on collectivism and nationalism. However, with personal interest acting as a medium, personal discussions appear to be expanding as the official state discourse deteriorates. The stimulation of personal discussion itself signifies that the concept of individualism is not only spreading but it could potentially develop into greater social awareness.

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