This past summer I spent a few days in the Changbai-Hyesan corridor, one of the deeper pockets of the Chinese-North Korean frontier. I had a chance to witness some of the mobilization going on at the time for the 150-day struggle campaign, an effort by the regime to increase production in anticipation of a.) a difficult winter, b. )a possible announcement of a successor to Kim Jong Il, and c.) the negative impact of international sanctions.
Now a.) has arrived, and North Korea is in the midst of a brutal winter. A few days ago, amid temperatures that dipped down to negative 26 degrees Celsius, a large group of North Koreans assembled in front of the palatial Kim Jong Suk Arts Hall in downtown Hyesan, just across the river from China. Underneath the shadow of this monument to the power of the arts and the Kim family, with its chandeliers and large portraits, the North Koreans were asked to use their bodily power to haul fertilizer (e.g., human shit) to farms outlaying the city, as far as 16 kilometers away. Kids aged 15 and up, and older folks under 60, were ordered to participate, hauling the fertilizer by sled and getting frostbite along the way.
It is hard to imagine how difficult life is at the moment in the northern reaches of the DPRK. Winter produces a different society in any country; so too in the DPRK. The only solace, perhaps, is that working in the fields becomes impossible. But the relentless nature of the mobilization is exhausting to watch, let alone participate in. These are people with phenomenal endurance. I begin to imagine a line of continuity between American portrayals of the Chinese people in the horrific 1930s, the emphasis on uncomplaining toil that was made in the long retreat from Japanese power, and wonder if we may someday see the North Korean people as heroic, if tragically so.
But no need to worry, according to the Workers’ Party of Korea: Mid-level officials are assured via the rumor mill that China will be infusing large amounts of food aid into the DPRK, forestalling any need for a revolution.
China must fear something fierce, because Chinese traders have certainly got the worse of the recent currency revaluations in the DPRK, and now the North Korean public security organs are talking even more stridently about executing folks who trade in Chinese Yuan near the border. Good Friends’ most recent report, based upon cell phone contacts inside North Korea, states:
Illegal Foreign Currency Trading will be Punished Severely
In the morning of December 28, the news of public notice released by People’s Safety Agency regarding the ban on foreign currency use was delivered to all citizens. The residents were asked specifically that “You should report immediately when you see people using foreign currency while engaging in trading inside their vehicle, smuggling, secret trading, and illegal border-crossing.” People were warned that those who get caught by the security agency while using foreign currency illegally can receive the penalty of capital punishment depending on the seriousness of crime. With the release of public notice, the law enforcement agents actively engage in enforcement activities, whereas the money traders find themselves not being able to do business any more. Beginning January 2, the security authorities started their enforcement operations “based on the decree on foreign currency circulation.” Composed of Party officials and law enforcement agents, the enforcement taskforce will crackdown on companies and individuals using foreign currency and thoroughly investigate the source and the circulation route.
and this one from North Hamgyong, not far from where American Robert Park walked across the border:
Crackdown on Foreign Currency Use Begins in Hoeryung
As soon as the ban on foreign currency use was announced, the crackdowns took place nationwide. On December 30 in Hoeryung, North Hamgyong Province, the sugar merchants who were exchanging Renminbi and US dollars were caught by police officers in plain clothes. Caught along with them was a woman in her sixties from Sanup-dong who came to prepare for the New Year’s Day holiday while trying to exchange 2 bills of Renmminbi (200 Yuan). The confiscated money was worth 1,140 NK won since the rate is 570 NK won for each 100 Yuan. The merchants and the elderly woman visited the police station and asked for returning at least some of the confiscated money. The officers said, “The enforcement was done based on the new law. You’d better get out before more issues are raised.” The woman begged for the money to buy holiday food with tears, but the police officers pushed her away outside the door. She refused to leave and implored them on bended knees. However, the police officers kicked her out of the room and closed the door. The woman wailed, “I need to buy holiday food to feed my grandchildren without parents. What should I do?” but the police officers never responded.
The currency revaluation not only enables stories like this (arrested for 200 lousy yuan), it indicates North Korea’s fundamental disinterest in economic reforms along the Chinese model.
All kinds of models and historical precedents are tendered about North Korea: The DPRK is the new East Germany, it is Koguryo, it is a replica of the Yamato system, it is a mini-Stalin state….But no one ever, ever compares the Workers’ Party of Korea to the failed Guomindang in China in the late 1940s.
It’s worth recalling that for all the political repression levied by Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists/Guomindang in, say, 1947 (and recalling the fact that they were in a civil war), the main pillar of their loss of allegiance by the population was runaway inflation and the inability of people who played by the rules to earn a decent living and feed themselves. And massive infusions of foreign aid (American in the case of the Guomindang, Chinese in the case of the Workers’ Party of Korea) can also have inflationary impacts.
North Korea Economy Watch has a comprehensive update and list of links on the currency issue.
As for North Korea trying to make nice with the United States, this new year’s push could very simply be tactical: it keeps the aid coming from South Korea, opens the door to more aid from the U.S., and, perhaps most important of all, keeps the Chinese able to convince themselves that their gradualist approach with North Korea is bearing some fruit.
Chinese netizens and civil society groups, in the meantime, are quiet so far as criticisms of North Korea go. Though the country is next door, and shows signs of great ferment, we see nothing in the least akin to the Twitter-centered movement by Chinese netizens to support protesting Iranian students.
More likely than not, as Chuck Kraus and I argued in the Journal of Korean Studies last year, revolts against the Korean communists will come from the northern tier of the country in yet another example of “peripheral influence.” In the meantime, the North Korean revolution will not be televised, and it sure as hell won’t be tweeted by frostbit hands longing for the warmth of red Mao-faced bills in Hyesan.