North Korean socialist economy defines the mechanism of allocation, distribution, and the production of services, goods, and resources in the country with defined regulations and policies about administrations and policies. Socialist economies in other nations have thrived over the recent years as compared to North Korea’s economy. China, for example, implemented massive administerial and policy reforms that had breathed more efficiency into their socialist’s state structure at a time when North Korea was the leader in market reforms and was considered as the Asian miracle. In the book Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, a chronicle of interviews from refugees/defectors from the remote port industrial city of Chongjin, Barbara Demick depicts a state of failure in the economy where thousands languish in abject poverty vulnerable to disease and hunger. She writes about society isolated from the modernization of the world, about a nation pushed to its extreme by the tightly controlled flow of information and factors of production. This paper affirms that the breakdown in the North Korean socialist system of distribution created after the Korean War is one of the most remarkable developments of the last few decades.
Demick reinforces this thesis in her book Nothing to Envy as she records the stories from defectors such as Mi-ran and her boyfriend, Jun-sang. Throughout the book, Demick reveals great deal of information about North Korean society living away from the elites in Pyongyang. She brings out the stories of a group of people that would suitably be defined as the common citizens. Nothing to Envy brings details of society that are otherwise limited by the restrictions of information flow by the state and the limitations imposed on the physical mobility for both natives and foreigners within the country. Through the interviews, Demick builds a grisly picture of the 1996 famine that has been considered the worst famine in the century and that is estimated to have killed millions in the Korean peninsula (Lee 21). Demick seeks from the defectors the information about life and society after the death of Kim II Sung and the subsequent deterioration of the economy characterized by closure of production lines and well as communication and transport disruption. Starved by sanctions, for 15 years since 2002, North Korea has largely remained unchanged, where biting shortages of electricity, food, and other commodities remain widely prevalent.
The breakdown of the economy in the 1990s systematically crippled the government’s ability to fend for its citizens, and as a result, individuals decided to break away from the traditional work units and foraged for food through small businesses. Demick records accounts of how competitive compulsive weeping rallies became standard shortly after the death of Kim II Sung. This depiction reflects deteriorating society contrasted against personal loyalties; thus, one character compares love with liberty and lie in the words of a Hungarian poet. In 2002, the government partially decriminalized entrepreneurship, albeit characterized by a frequent clampdown on spontaneous markets reasserting its statist heavy industry economy (Demick 56).
DPRK Economic Problems after the Korean War were precipitated by the government’s policy that was pillared upon three guiding policies such as military economy independent development, massive industry priority development, and self-sufficient national economy. Socioeconomic experts view these policies as the greatest stumbling block for the economic success, sustainable growth, and long term potential investment attraction of North Korea. Andrea Lankov in a commentary for Radio Free Asia states why North Korea’s continued pursuit for heavy military dependence and particularly pro nuclear policies is adversarial for its economic reforms policy. Lankov argues that North Korea is less likely to attract investments from Western Europe and asserts that the only veto country willing to invest in North Korea may be China. The founding regime’s shortcomings in policy prioritization were further postulated by its bias towards a ‘Songun’ military first politics that attracted most of its economic problems. The collapse of the North Korean economy was precipitated by a host of factors; comparatively, in the 1960s, the living standards in North Korea were better than those of South Korea. This was facilitated by the flow of aid from the Soviet Union and other friendly nations in Eastern Europe. This aid was passed on the back of North Korea’s strategic geographical positioning, its role in WW II, and the subsequent Cold War. Further, the North Korean government in the years around 1960 implemented a bold but misguided borrowing spree that saddled the country with debt that it has not been able to pay to date. The disintegration of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War led to diminishing aid from the friendly countries. As a result, the government would not meet its obligation to the country’s citizenry (Rinehart 45). North Korea’s nuclear arming policy contravening the non-nuclear proliferation agreement further isolated the country from the globe, attracting sanctions from the United Nations and anti-nuclear arming countries, especially the European Union that contributed a junk of famine aid in the 1990s. Consequently, North Korea has been a closed, stratified, immobile, and totalitarian country that has transformed the once viable Spartan country into a place of vagabond children hunting frogs and stealing fruits (Joung 62).
In 2000, the incumbent regime led by Kim Jong II sought to implement a two-pronged strategy to improve the country’s weak economic position. The two fronts for his policy approach were the improvement of the country’s policies, both economic foreign. Progress in improving diplomatic relations stalled after the Western countries, particularly the USA, had become reluctant to engage Pyongyang diplomatically. Nevertheless, the government at the time decided to continue with its efforts to improve economic performance in the republic. The regime signaled approval for profit-oriented production as opposed to the traditional usage value, establishing a basis for the economic activity at different levels. Internal economic policy reforms were bolstered by the overtures to friendlier nations such as Russia and China as complimentary efforts. Two years later in 2002, the government implemented economic reforms. These reforms were characterized by the official recognition of informal markets, the increase in legally recognized land acreage that individuals would engage in agricultural production for a profit, the increased delegation of decision-making authority for agricultural and industrial production under local production units, and an increase of government price and wage ceilings to almost the black market level. Surprisingly, political meddling has not allowed the policies to function effectively (Demick 101).
Demick depicts a situation in 2003 DPRK, for example, with the country in the 21st century. Nothing to Envy records a return to the firm broad market controls by the government, featuring merchants restrictions based on age, places, and time of merchandise exchange, restrictions on individual service businesses, and trading firms subjected to extensive restructuring. In 2009, the impositions on markets peaked with the government reverting the established markets to farmers markets, currency redenomination, and the imposition of exchange ceilings for new currencies, which weakened the markets financial basis. Defectors continued to report widespread crackdown on private businesses by the government to maintain its traditionalist centrally managed economy. Demick documents the effects of the marketization and 2009 currency revaluation through her interviews with the defectors. One of the characters, who at first believes in the socialist ideals, is forced to feed her family by starting various businesses. (Demick 148)
Transformation in the North Korean economy characterized by the limited market liberalization and other profit-oriented policies has had a far-reaching impact on typical North Korean citizens. Demick explores the implications of this transformation on her interviewees through questioning their attitudes, thoughts, and experiences during and after their life in North Korea. The change affected the North Korean citizens in various ways with different results. Transformation, for example, allows the factory worker Mrs. Song to engage in petty business to feed her family, without which her family would have starved (Demick 220).
Transformation also affected the everyday citizens’ aspirations. Demick records Jun- sang’s experiences, who is born to a family of returnees from Japan, and the young man’s family is at the bottom of the established social strata in the country. Jun-sang is forced to work hard to alleviate his family from their demeaning social status that would be impossible without the limited reforms. Evidently, the transformation has had a direct impact on the ordinary citizens (Joung 69).
The transformation also affected the citizens’ attitudes largely; for example, for Dr. Kim the economic reforms affected by Kim Jong II were an indication of her beloved country getting back on a path of transformation. Even faced with low wages for a professional, she is optimistic that the economy would recover in due time, and the facilities at her clinic would be replenished and enable her to fulfill her duty to the masses. This optimism, even though not realized, is a direct result of transformational agenda implemented at the time by the government that promised a better DPRK (Demick 20).
Male and female defectors in the book Nothing to Envy reflect varying impacts of transformation in their daily activities and aspirations as well as the attitudes of the citizens. Whereas the attitudes, aspirations, and day-to-day operations of the different refugees do not have a commonality in most cases, it is assumed that their lives have been affected by the direct behavior of the economy. Similarly, transformation has an effect on all of them, as it influences the economy they are dependent upon. The comparison of how different genders are affected by the market transformation can best be understood from scrutinizing its effect on Jun-sang, and Mi-ran. Mi-ran is optimistic about the outcome of the social changes her aspirations are to return to her native country to see her family. These aspirations are similar to those harbored by Oak-Hee who aspires to reunite with her sisters. On the other hand, the desires of the male gender seem to remain unchanged, focusing on a total overhaul of the economic structure as the ultimate solution to North Korea’s problems (Demick 49).
The attitudes harbored by the male refugees on the North Korean economy do not seem to reflect any optimism resulting from the transformation, and Jun-sang believes that the country’s economy cannot be rehabilitated by the implemented limited reforms. Kim Hyuck harbors the same sentiments as Jun-sang, and his attitude towards the socialist system of governance applied in his country is unchanged even by the transformation under Kim Jong II. On the other hand, female refugees seem to have adopted a lesser radical dislike for the system and the government in North Korea; there appears to be a common belief among them that the transformation would eventually bring the desired goals and the quality of life in DPRK would subsequently improve (Demick 66).
Both female and male defectors exhibit vast differences in how the change affects their daily activities. The common mantra among the defectors of both genders details the struggle to make ends meet. However, female defectors narrate how they struggled to feed their families through different means, apart from Dr. Kim and Mi-ran who maintain the status quo until the suffering and anguish are no longer bearable. Mrs. Song and Oak-Hee take actions to change their situations through the opportunities provided by the transformation. On the other hand, Nothing to Envy describes how men depended on the government rations, continued to work in their designated production units, and provided military service to the country despite the opportunity brought by the transformations in the economy.
In conclusion, it is evident that the collapse of North Korea’s socialist system is the epic development in recent years. The turn of events for the once vibrant nation seem absurd and avoidable. Nothing to Envy documents the difficulties that the common citizens in North Korea go through at the expense of military and continuation of the one dynasty family regime. While the defectors narrate emotional experiences of hardships, the government seems to be protected from these difficulties in the elitist Pyongyang. Even at the peak of economic dysfunction, the government does not seem to appreciate the difficulties faced by the nation. This reluctance to accept global assistance by dropping hardliner policies on nuclear weapons, total market liberalization, and the restriction on information, goods, and person mobility is fueled by the government self-preservation against an enlightened mass. The politics of the successive North Korean regimes have adopted the same policies repeatedly. Even the most progressive leader of the Korean peninsula countries shortly reverts to the ruling tactics used by the leaders before him. Political ambitions are prioritized over necessities; the needs of the masses have been replaced by the needs of the elite leading class that is focused on military strengthening. This military-oriented policy is reinforced by the propaganda of antagonism towards foreign countries propped up by the restriction of information free flow aimed at protecting the ruling class. These selfish actions have gone against the pillars of a socialist state envisioned to promote egalitarianism.