Communist country is often described as the Hermit Kingdom, but government minders like to show a different side.
In recent month, many North Korean families have faced the need to change how they spend their spare time. Indeed, in the last decade or so, a great number of North Korean families spent of their spare time watching smuggled foreign, especially South Korean, videos. Technically, this hobby has always been illegal, but the police were not very enthusiastic about enforcing such bans.
Things seemingly changed last year, though. In January 2012, Kim Jong-un, anointed North Korea’s hereditary ruler, ordered the creation of the so-called “114 teams”. These teams, consisting of political police and officials of the ruling Korean Worker’s Party, were charged with an important task: They had to make sure that the North Korean people would not watch South Korean melodramas and thrillers, or Hollywood blockbusters. In other words, their task was to put an end to the booming illegal market for the sale of foreign bootleg DVDs.
It took about a year for these groups to come up to speed, but since earlier this year, consumers have begun to feel growing pressure. The “114 teams” have arrested a number of people guilty of producing and selling DVDs of South Korean TV shows. According to some rumours, the least lucky market traders have even faced a firing squad, but such stories are almost certain to be exaggerations. Nonetheless, the mood inside the country has changed, and people are now quite reluctant to buy or swap illegal DVDs, so, as many North Koreans say: “We are losing touch with the latest hits of South Korean TV and cinema.”
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One might wonder why the North Korean government is afraid of harmless and non-political South Korean TV shows. Contrary to what is commonly thought, the North Korean government is not paranoid. South Korean movies and TV shows show North Korean people the daily affluence of their South Korean brethren, and this is exactly what the North Korean government wants to hide from its people. For decades, the North Korean people used to be told that the South was a starving US colony whose people lived in slumps and dressed in rags – and the entire world is not in much better shape. This propaganda line changed around a decade ago, seemingly because the North Korean people came to know that it was a lie thanks to South Korean and other foreign TV shows and films.
Still, the North Korean authorities do not want their people to become aware of the full extent of South Korean prosperity, since if they were to be, they might start to ask why North Korea – once the most economically advanced industrial nation in continental East Asia – found itself in such a sorry state. They might even start to think about who is responsible for such a turn of events. Needless to say, such improper questions might have grave consequences for the current North Korean elite.
Knowledge about South Korea is especially dangerous because South Korea speaks the same language and is officially considered to be part of the same nation.
Actually, the market is not the only place where the regime is clamping down. Over the past three years, the North Korean government has successfully all but closed the Sino-North Korean border, hitherto basically open for over a decade. There are also stories about the inflicting of punishment on people who were found guilty of various political deviations, too. In other words, it appears that the young North Korean leader wants to repair mechanisms of surveillance and control that were partially neglected by his late father.
Such trends might appear to be in contradiction with attempts to slowly reform the economy, to make it more flexible, profit driven and market-orientated. In agriculture, for example, North Korea has quietly moved from state-run “collective farms” towards a greater emphasis on household-based production (a move similar to what China did soon after the death of Mao, in the late 1970s). In industry, industrial managers have been given much more freedom in decision-making. The new government is tacitly admitting the existence of a large and growing private economy.
However, there is actually no contradiction between the slow liberalisation of the economy and the political crackdowns. It seems that North Korea is beginning to slowly move down the path of economic reforms that has been trodden by China and Vietnam before. However, it should not be forgotten that neither China nor Vietnam faced the threat of another country of similar size that spoke the same language and threatened their existence when they began to liberalise.
In a market economy, success is determined by efficiency, not by the ability to memorise the lengthy speeches of the Great and Dear Leaders. Therefore, to counter the allure of the South, to make sure that North Koreans do not do what East Germans did in 1989, the North Korean government has no choice but to increase political surveillance.
Like it or not, if the current elite wants to survive economic reforms then it has to fill the stomachs of its people with food and their hearts with fear. Unlike China, a reforming North Korea is likely to be a seriously repressive place, and the frenetic activity of the “114 teams” might be a sign of things to come.
Andrei Lankov is professor of Korean Studies at Kookmin University, Seoul. He is the author of The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia.