Friday, April 17, 2015

Women and Money, the North Korean Dream

North Korean defector Yeonmi Park has written previously that she is part of the Black Market Generation North Korean defector Yeonmi Park has written previously that she is part of the Black Market Generation – millennials whose loyalties are not with the Kim regime due to the fact that her generation can’t really remember a time when the government provided for the people. She argues that people today view the government as an obstacle of wealth as opposed to a benevolent dictator. Reform failures and activities manifesting as a result of those failures indicate Park is spot on with her analysis.
Hye Yeon Park of Global Prosperity writes that the 2009 currency revaluation of the North Korean won was a measure for the government to collect private wealth that was accumulated outside of state-sanctioned markets. Following the botched revaluation, the use of US dollars and Chinese yuan has greatly increased. This growth in the use of foreign currency has spawned private markets that are once again outside of Pyongyang’s state policies. The North Korean won has plunged by 99% on the black market in North Korea and traders in the border town of Hyesan were seen in a video released by the Daily NK quoting prices and accepting payment in yuan.

Sokeel Park of the NGO Liberty in North Korea stated that the 2009 currency reform taught the North Korean people “conclusively” not to trust the government. This only reiterates Yeonmi Park’s point that the Black Market Generation of today recognizes the value of private markets as a necessity for survival. As of 2002, no more than 10% of the North Korean population had access to foreign currency. Today, numbers reach as high as 50% in some areas. As such, the Kim regime may even come to depend on the emergence of these markets and the foreign capital generated therein for its own survival.

In order to maintain control, the regime needs to keep its elite happy. This is normally done through economic benefits and access to luxury goods. As hard currency has slowed to a trickle and more and more people are becoming less trustful of the ability of the government to provide for their needs, a small financial elite has emerged from the underground markets commanding respect from the people and exercising a bit of leverage against the state. These people are called “Money Makers.” Money Makers are a group of financially-privileged “family members of the Jochongryon (the pro-Pyongyang federation for ethnic Koreans living in Japan),” overseas agents, or descendants of Kim Jong-Il’s inner circle who make loans to small businesses. According to New Focus International, the activities of Money Makers are paving the way towards the North Korean goal of economic self-sufficiency, though this method runs contrary to its autarkic Juche ideology. Regional economies can’t even function properly anymore without these Money Makers because even one Money Maker can provide a money line which supports a large number of political elite. As international sanctions continue to cripple the regime’s financial activities, activities of these Money Makers have become a necessary evil in order to keep the elite satisfied and happy. Ironically enough, as the reliance on and influence of these Money Makers grow, state authority will only be eroded by these capitalist measures. This again echoes Yeonmi Park’s argument that rising generations in North Korea will only view the state as an obstacle to wealth and prosperity. What will be interesting to watch is whether or not power struggles or factions will emerge out of the growing power of these Money Makers. It seems indeed like a catch-22 for the North Korean state which strongly relies on the co-opting of its elites to keep the Kim family in power. Without money or luxury goods to buy silence and cooperation, the cohesion of the elite will surely crumble. Yet, it seems the most efficient way to keep the proverbial gravy train chugging is to turn a blind eye to these private banking practices which run afoul of state ideology and, incongruously, deteriorate the iron grip the state has on North Korean society.

Perhaps equally as interesting in North Korean economic activity is the emergence of women as the bread winners in their households. As Dr. Bronwen Dalton, Director of the Cosmopolitan Civil Societies Research Centre at the University of Technology in Sydney, notes, the constant surveillance placed on men has allowed women to be more engaging in the black market. “Boys are seen as an economic burden whereas girls have a greater capacity to contribute to the family economic unit.” The grassroots capitalism has led several women to earn a living on the black market in order to avoid forfeiture of their wealth to the state. Dr. Kim Seok Hyang of Ewha Woman’s University confirms Dr. Dalton’s statement by explaining that women are less likely to get caught because the North Korean authorities will assume whatever a woman is doing is not important, hence the lack of surveillance and monitoring. Lending more credence to this analysis is Dr. Andrei Lankov who states in his recent book “The Real North Korea” that: 

In North Korean society at large, the relative power of women increased dramatically after the collapse of the state Socialist (sic) economy. In the 1990s males were expected to continue attending their non-functioning plants, while women, who were – or could easily become – housewives, were free to engage in the manifold activities of the nonofficial economy. As a result, women became the major bread-winners in the majority of North Korean families.

In addition to rival influence growing in the aforementioned Money Makers, there has also been an organic shift of economic power towards women in North Korea for over twenty years, now. This has unsurprisingly led to an increase in the number of women running small businesses. As the Choson Exchange’s Women in Business Workshop found, female-led businesses in North Korea fill market needs and have become increasingly important since the 1990s. The Choson Exchange, reflecting Yeonmi Park’s statements yet again, argue that the younger generation who has “barely experienced” the dated public distribution system “is pushing to develop their own careers in business… and are more eager to secure a share of the increasing wealth they see around them.”

While these market activities and the role of Money Makers may be necessary for the short term survival of the North Korean state, they will turn out to be detrimental for its survival in the long run. With the rise of Money Makers and capital activity leading to more and more private enterprises involving more and more women, the likely result is a catalyzing corrosion of state power. Money Makers will be seen as indispensable as the rise of market activity will only lead to further demand for their capital and resources and the influence of money will spread faster than the state can regulate it. As women in North Korea come to understand their value and importance of their role in market activity for the survival of not only themselves but also their family and perhaps even society at large, demand for equal rights and standing will likely ensue. As the Money Makers garner more influence and respect from the people, clashes with the state elite for reform will likely arise as they would want to ensure the health and longevity of their investments. Additionally, the weak financial institutions of North Korea will only further highlight the need for these Money Makers who can act more efficiently as financiers than the state. The exposure of the state’s ineptness will likely trigger a type of brand-loyalty defection from the state to the private market, resulting in the beginning of the end of the North Korean nightmare.

#NorthKorea #YeonmiPark #MoneyMaker #HumanRights

No comments:

Post a Comment