It has been several months since the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea celebrated its 70th anniversary. The celebrations included an elaborate military march and a revival of the artistic ‘mass games’ display after a five-year hiatus. Ranging from confident goose-steppers bearing heavy weaponry to young girls performing patriotic dances in beautifully ornate costumes, the parade was charged with political and social tension. The military display lacked the usual parading of missiles in order to avoid tension with the U.S., an event Donald Trump believed to be “a big and very positive statement from North Korea”. This, Trump claims, was a tribute to his developments with normalizing relations with the country after the 1950-53 Korean war. The celebrations were also an attempt to instil patriotism into the growingly conscious population. In hindsight of the extravagant celebrations, one can reflect upon the changes North Korea has faced, whether by force or through a shifting climate within the population and how these changes have affected North Korean civilians.
Following the famine which killed hundreds of thousands of North Koreans throughout the 1990s, and still leaves 41% of the population undernourished, North Koreans were forced to rely on more than just their state-issued food farmed in failing co-operative farms. ‘Jangmadang’ markets were set up, composing of legal and illegal markets owned by North Korean housewives selling whatever they could grow in their garden, produce, or buy on the black market.
At first, only small stalls were permitted, and selling in them was socially frowned upon, and would likely give the stall-owner a poor ‘songbun’ (the North Korean feudal system). Eventually, as the government rations decreased and payroll dropped, the Jangmadang markets became a vital lifeline for many struggling North Koreans. Although they were illegal, many were forced to unlearn a lifetime of propaganda which denounced capitalism in desperation for food and income. Initially, the markets were too large to destroy and too many people relied on them for survival, and even after Kim Jong Il attempted to eradicate the markets, they survived. What resulted was a new generation of North Koreans known as the ‘Jangmadang Generation’ – one which never existed in a North Korea where the government supplied all of their needs. This generation is more aware of life outside of North Korea, partially due to the flow of illegal media from China and South Korea, and therefore less inclined to follow the strict patriotic teachings of their government.
Trade with China, mostly illegal trade, has brought some foreign awareness into North Korea, particularly among the youth. This includes an awareness of foreign trends and social expectations, which many teenagers begin to emulate as an escape from the strictness of the regime. Yeonmi Park, a human rights activist of North Korean origins, describes her return to her hometown: “the city seemed livelier and more prosperous now, because of legal and illegal trade with China. And the young people looked and acted so different. Older girls straightened their wavy hair with a cream called “Magic” that was smuggled across the border. Some were even dyeing their hair and wearing jeans, which was illegal”. This growth in prosperity and access to commercial products, despite the failing food distribution system, acts as a symbol to the outside world that North Korea is covertly finding recovery in illegal trade. North Korean teenagers are able to see the difference in living standards through this trade, confronting them with the truth about the propaganda they are given. The disconnect between daily life in North Korea is more and more at odds with the propaganda, therefore making it less effective.
The 1990’s famine brought a surprising shift to the North Korean economy. Many workers were being paid negligible amounts, and at times the factories did not have the raw materials to produce the products, thus making their state-issued jobs redundant. Although most North Korean men still kept their jobs on paper, bribery became commonplace to allow the men to escape from their jobs in order to find food for their families. Meanwhile, women drastically gained responsibility during the famine, since mothers were expected to supply food for the family. What resulted was that women became the face of the workforce, owning the majority of Janmadang stalls and aiding illegal trade and smuggling. While this may not be seen as a privilege for most women, it has brought forth a small amount of control in a society which systematically disempowers women.
North Korea is commonly known as ‘the hermit kingdom’. Not only are North Koreans extremely rarely allowed outside of the country, but foreign reporters are under strict surveillance. There have been many tales of reporters and journalists or foreign officials visiting Pyongyang, and the entire city illuminating for the few days that they are there, then power being shut off quickly after departure. This, however, was most drastic during the height of the economic crisis. Foreign visitors are supervised with guides during their visit, ensuring that they do not stray from the lively parts of Pyongyang, and feeding them diluted versions of North Korean propaganda.
Most of the information outsiders have of North Korea is from defectors, propaganda, and journalists. It is extremely difficult to paint an accurate picture of North Korea because there is not sufficient information which can be confidently supported that it comes from a non-biased source. It is difficult to estimate to total deaths which resulted from the famine because the surveillance was at its strictest during the time and North Korean officials will deny the severity of the crisis. Even defectors express feeling guilt towards deserting their country and many miss many elements of life there.
My great-grandmother was given the opportunity to visit North Korea once while working for the Swedish government. While she cannot recall the exact details of her visit, one thing struck her which she is still able to recall. She remembers driving past a field which blasted propaganda slogans encouraging the farmers to work harder for their great leader. One thing is undeniable of many North Koreans – they are terrifically hard workers. They have endured inexplicable violations of human rights and horrific famines. Despite their hardships, Korea has a beautiful culture with strong family ties. It is unfair to reduce North Koreans to their hardships. North Korea is modernizing, although mostly within the population. The country is beginning to recover from its economic failures and the capital is beginning to resemble a booming urban landscape. U.N. sanctions are inhibiting large amounts of growth, however, for the time being, there seems to be an iota of hope that North Korea will find its place in the modern world.