Joseph Park is 31 years old, a defector from North Korea and a prophet of the revolution. In his former homeland the revolution in question is already under way and, to borrow Gil Scott-Heron’s memorable phrase, the revolution will not be televised because this time it’s going to be marketised. As Joseph tells it the whole process may well now be unstoppable. All this and virtually no one outside North Korea has even noticed it’s begun.
Joseph has come a long way to tell his story and, while his personal history is fascinating, it’s his extraordinary revelations about the hidden life of North Korea that will truly astonish you, because this is a story you won’t have heard anywhere else.
I meet Joseph on a warm July evening when he gives a talk at MadLab (Manchester Digital Laboratory) – an eclectic community organisation of ‘geeks, artists, designers and hackers’. The room is full and from the looks of the audience they’re mainly under 30. Geek chic and pre-talk devotion to smartphones is much in evidence, and judging from the calibre of the many questions they ask they’re a pretty smart bunch.
Joseph himself, youthful and ever smiling, could easily pass for just another byte young thing in Manchester’s Northern Quarter, but his journey to hipster town has been a tad more complex than most. However, he hasn’t flown halfway around the world just to tell us the story of his life; he’s come to tell us about a grassroots economic movement that’s already begun dissolving the foundations of the world’s most authoritarian regime. Let’s start with that life story.
Joseph Park was a trader from early on. His first encounter with micro-capitalism came when he was just six years old, watching his father make deals with Chinese traders: hard cash for dried fish. This was Joseph’s first lesson in economics. A few years later he learnt his first lesson in politics when he arrived home from school and found two olive drab coloured lorries parked outside the family home. A neighbour, a kindly woman who had often been in their house, had betrayed them to the State and now its uniformed servants were exacting revenge for his father’s acts of economic independence by taking away everything the family owned.
When Joseph was 13 he read Daniel Dafoe’s great classic Robinson Crusoe and dreamed of sailing the world as captain of a great trading ship. Sadly, and somewhat predictably, his childhood dream foundered on the reality of Stalinist absolutism. For me this is a memorable detail, illuminating not only the power of literature to fire the imagination, but also the failure of the average totalitarian mind to comprehend it. One can’t help but imagine the narrow minded board of dogmatists who foolishly approved Robinson Crusoe for public consumption in the People’s Paradise:
“What’s it about?” asks one.
“It’s the story of a man shipwrecked on an island and his efforts to make his own furniture”, answers two.
“It will encourage the workers to make do and mend. Very well, approved then,” pronounces three.
There was evidently no Captain Beatty on that particular committee, thank God.
By this time the good ship North Korea was sailing full speed into a severe economic storm. Although its command economy inevitably impoverished both its people and its government, until the fall of the Soviet Union the country had at least been able to trade with the Eastern Block; consequently the people had just enough to eat, the army had enough tanks to play with and the ruling Kim family could continue to live in ghastly Le Corbusier-like splendour in the capital Pyongyang. But after the wall came down, after the kind of overpriced, outdated tat that rolled off the production lines in the State-owned factories was no longer marketable at any price, and after the Chinese started to ask for cash payments for their manufactures and foodstuffs, after all this one of these three key staples of North Korean life was bound to give. And so the people began to starve.
Reliable statistics about North Korea are inevitably hard to come by but the famine is said to have claimed up to 3.5 million lives. Its horrors, along with the enormous scale of the Government’s economic failure, were naturally kept out of the Government-controlled media. But Joseph saw all this for himself. By now he was criss-crossing the country by rail as part of his involvement in the illegal network of trading which was spreading out from its heartland along the Northern border with China and Russia. This is where North Korea’s market orientated underground starts, in the so called special economic areas which were set up with the intention of fostering State sponsored trade, thereby earning desperately needed foreign currency for the Government. In truth, this was in part merely the recognition of existing economic realities because the illegal trade in all manner of commodities had been growing for some time.
“The people in the border cities did not starve in the famine. They had already learned how to trade, how to survive,” Joseph tells us. “But the further south you went the deeper the dependency on the Government became. People here relied entirely on the Government for the basics of life. Here they starved, and they died like flies.”
He goes on to illustrate the point with the story of an aunt who lived in the far south of the country, in a village built around a large communal farm that mostly produced apples. The apples were all taken by the Government and shipped to the capital. As the villagers had no experience of trade, and no links to any economic underground, they were unable to fend for themselves when the Government stopped feeding them. Nearly all of them died.
As Joseph talks I’m amazed at the freedom to travel he seems to have had – I’d always read that the restriction of movement was a key weapon in the armoury of the totalitarian. But he goes on to explain that while rail travel for adults was heavily restricted, and always required special papers, the under 17s were not subject to such conditions. And, by then, the train police had other things to worry about, what with half the country on the verge of starvation. Joseph tells us with a sad apologetic smile that in those days it was a regular occurrence for people travelling illegally on top of trains to be fatally electrocuted by the overhead power lines. Desperate times, desperate measures. And it was the legions of corpses littering the land beside the railway that finally convinced Joseph to leave his homeland. In a quiet voice he tells us “When I saw all this, I knew my country had no future.”
Turning 18 is a milestone in the lives of people the world over. It’s a significant chronological point in our civic life, marking our legal passage into adult life, and in North Korea it means you are called up to do your National Service. In post-war Britain we had compulsory military service until 1963 and it is still retained by many countries on the European mainland, with lengths of service varying between six and 18 months. In North Korea it is 10 years – yep, you read that right, 10 years. It’s little wonder that, on the day before Joseph was to have a decade of his life snatched away, he said goodbye to his family and swam across a river to China.
Joseph was now a defector and, as such, life in China without valid work and identity papers was precarious to say the least. As a defector, his status with many potential employers was little better than that of a medieval serf: at any time they could turn him over to the authorities who wouldn’t hesitate to send him back to North Korea and the cold embrace of the secret police. For a year he worked as a shepherd while covertly learning Chinese in order to better his prospects. Other jobs followed, among them factory worker and waiter, until in 2003 he was finally in a position to make contact with those who could help him reach the promised land, the South Korean Republic.
He is grateful for the welcome he received in South Korea and fulsome in his praise for the support the Government in Seoul gives to defectors. All are financially supported through their transition and encouraged to study and retrain. Joseph himself has flourished since making it to the South and this year he graduated from Konkuk University as a fully qualified veterinarian. There are some 25,000 defectors from North Korea in the world today and, although they mainly live in South Korea, they can also be found all over the globe. I was astonished to learn that there are more than 600 of them living in the UK.
They tend to be a hardy bunch, resilient and determined, which they had to be to escape in the first place. As a result, after their defection many of them build successful lives and quickly start sending money back to their families in North Korea. In doing so they are pouring petrol onto the smouldering economic fires that are beginning to illuminate life in the People’s Republic.
By Western standards, especially in these interesting economic times, the amount being sent back by the defector community seems modest with the latest estimate at some 20 million US dollars a year. But consider this; after the middle men have taken their 30 per cent cut every last cent of that money goes to ordinary people. It’s then spent in the black market, which in turn grows larger, thus expanding this free economic space and extending and deepening its reach throughout the country. Not only is the Government’s absolute grip on its citizens weakened with every dollar spent, it’s also fails to derive any direct economic benefit from this growing hidden economy.
In economic terms the Government is being replaced, a fact that the Pyongyang regime has already been forced to recognise. For example, back in the 1990s the State was forced to allow its citizens to establish small scale markets in which food could be traded, with no questions asked – and this is a country where hitherto you couldn’t even buy a potato outside of a State shop. Joseph outlines how these have grown in the years since, especially after 2002 when, under the pressure from UN sanctions (imposed because the Kim dynasty just can’t do without the atom bomb), they were forced to devolve some responsibility for the provision of basic services to local economic units. Thus the individual factory and collective farm began to have a role in feeding and clothing its workers. This was not a product of economic or political liberalisation, rather a tacit admittance by the State that they could no longer provide these services.
Even as Joseph is speaking this State approval of limited markets worries me. I was immediately reminded of a similar Soviet experiment in the 1920s. The New Economic Policy (NEP), as it was called, was introduced by the Bolsheviks in 1921 in an attempt to reverse the catastrophic damage done to the economy by the policy of War Communism. The NEP saw the reintroduction of money into the economy and the return of large swathes of agriculture, retail and small scale industry into private hands. The Soviet State retained control of the country’s infrastructure, foreign trade, banking and heavy industries. The NEP succeeded in stabilising the country and for the next seven years growth returned and the small scale entrepreneurs, who became known as the NEP men, did well. However, as soon as it became politically expedient to do so the Communists ruthlessly crushed this flowering economic movement and the NEP ended in collectivisation and mass murder. Could this, I wonder, be the fate that awaits Joseph’s fellow traders in North Korea?
What Joseph tells us next is truly shocking. He begins to outline how the regime’s reluctant withdrawal from the grassroots economy has led to the rise to the middleman, the agent of barter and hard currency. This middleman has become the go-between for the bureaucrats and officials and the traders and ordinary people. He tells us about the bribes, paid to officials of all kinds including the security forces, to secure permits and permissions. This facilitates yet more trade; bribes which officials have steadily become dependent on, and not just for whatever little luxuries might be available, but for the basics of life which the State is increasingly unable to provide, even to its loyal acolytes.
A young man called Ben asks the question that’s now on all our minds :“What’s the attitude of the police and the security forces to all this?”
Joseph smiles and says: “Right now, in North Korea, money is king.”
I ask him if it would now be possible, through such bribery, for an adult to secure a permit to travel openly on the railway as he himself did in his youth. Again he smiles and gives the same answer. We’re all floored. This is not the North Korea we recognise from media reports. But Joseph hasn’t finished. Next he begins to explain how these new emerging markets are helping to disseminate the very things that freeze the soul of every totalitarian – weapons of mass communication.
It’s estimated that there are more than two million mobile phones in North Korea, half of them illegally smuggled in. Business is being conducted on them, both internally and externally, and the large community of defectors outside the country have been in direct contact with their families for years. This is a tech smart audience at MadLab so it’s inevitable that with the mention of mobile devices someone asks about internet access. When Joseph tells us that, apart from right up on the Northern border, it’s completely non-existent the sense of disappointment is palpable. But our despondency is short-lived as he goes on to inform us that information of all kinds is recorded onto CDs, DVDs and memory sticks and sent south to be sold to customers, or given away to friends and family.
But it isn’t just news from the outside world that people are consuming. They are also watching films and South Korean TV, listening to music and following fashion, especially the young. And through these countless acts of defiance, through these wilful everyday choices, the people of the workers state are steadily growing used to acting as individuals and thinking for themselves.
Although the State has tightened up border security over the past couple of years, Joseph thinks that it’s already too late to stop the changes that are creeping across North Korea, let alone reverse them. He believes that this economic grassroots movement will increasingly render the authorities irrelevant until substantial change is forced upon the State. By his own estimate he thinks this will come within five to 10 years.
He may well be right. The communist dictatorship in North Korea has inadvertently brought about a unique set of economic and political circumstances. Essentially its own chronic ineptitude means that it has impoverished all but a few of its people; famine has almost destroyed the country once in recent years and the economy is so weak that there is the possibility that it might return to finish the job. The State cannot allow this to happen, not because it especially cares for its people, but because without them who will drive all those tanks? Who will march in all those pointless Pyongyang parades?
Thus economic need creates a new economic solution – an underground free trade network that is anathema to the prevailing State dogma, and worse still is a unique free space in a uniquely unfree land. With every passing year this network grows, aided by the added impetus of millions of dollars in hard cash sent in to their families by the 25,000 plus defectors. And because they have no answer to their systemic economic problems, and because no one is willing to extend serious lines of credit to them, the regime must tolerate this if it is to avoid famine and total economic collapse – and by extension a bullet in the head for the whole rotten ruling gang in the event of an uprising.
So in come the dollars, the consumer goods and the tools to communicate, both internally and externally. Out goes a steady proportion of the relevance of the regime in the lives of the people, along with their respect for, and fear of, its agents and agencies. The irony of all this is that the ineptitude and the stupidity of the Government leaves it increasingly dependent on the thing that is most likely to bring about its downfall. The growing reliance of both the State and its servants on the profits gleaned from its own corruption inevitably erodes not only their power, but also their ability to generate fear among the people.
Not everyone in the audience shares Joseph’s optimism, after all this is generation skint whose faith in capitalism and free markets has taken a battering of late. In their questions to him several people raise the spectre of the grim rise of the oligarchs after the collapse of communism in the former Soviet Union. But Joseph won’t be shaken from his faith in the power of increased economic freedom to change North Korea for the better, although he is no advocate of unregulated markets. “I don’t want us to get rid of communism only for my people to become the slaves of Samsung,” he says.
Joseph is a big fan of the Co-operative movement. The day before his talk he’d made a pilgrimage to Rochdale, its birthplace. Alas when he got there the Rochdale Pioneers Museum wasn’t very cooperative: it was closed. Nevertheless his admiration for this form of economic organisation remains undimmed and he ardently believes it to be particularly complimentary to the best characteristics of his people, as well as the most effective way to simultaneously teach democracy and business skills to a people long since deprived of both.
Joseph’s optimism is catching and by the end I think he has us believing that, when change comes to the peninsula, a unified Korea will be much more likely to follow the German post communism model than the Russian one. His revelations about everyday life in North Korea have stunned us, flying in the face of prevailing media wisdom on the subject which now seems hopelessly outdated and downright ill-informed.
Joseph came a long way to tell his story, to tell us about the young boy who read Robinson Crusoe and wanted to sail the world and instead travelled his country by rail only to see it starve; to tell us about an unfree country in which people are slowly, secretly learning how to be free; and to tell us about the shepherd, who lived in fear of deportation, and is now a vet who venerates the Co-operative movement. I’m glad I met him. I hope one day he will come back to Manchester and that when he does the Co-operative museum will actually be open.
What: North Korea’s marketisation: changing through grassroots capitalism
Where: MadLab (Manchester Digital Laboratory), Northern Quarter, Manchester