A Review of “North Korea Confidential”

Over the last decade and half or so, the world has increasingly enjoyed the hallyu, or Korean Wave, phenomenon coming from South Korea. Holding a copy of North Korea Confidential, it occurred to me that the Korean Wave also applies to the North in a certain way. The book in my hands got there because it supplied a demand – a quickly growing and non-specialized demand for detailed information about life in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

The focus of Daniel Tudor and James Pearson’s book is precisely that – what are the demands of North Koreans and how do they go about fulfilling them? Many readers may be surprised to find that the answers are strikingly familiar – have good work that supports the family, get the kids into a good school, have some nice things at home like a TV, DVD player and rice cooker, and some nice things for oneself like trendy clothes, a watch and most importantly in the DPRK, a cell phone.

Central to the above question is the recognition of two factors in the DPRK of today. First, the social contract between the state and the citizens has fallen apart. That contract came down to “don’t question us, and we’ll provide for you.” Tudor and Pearson go over the basics of this, laying out the causes and effects of the “Arduous March” of the 1990s – a period when a series of events led to the breakdown of the state food distribution system and Koreans had to find ways to provide for themselves. Thus the jangmadang, or marketplace – which operates under minimal state control – began to play a central role in everyday life. Indeed, the private market is now the primary source of income for most of the population. In the provocative opening the authors ask “…did you know that North Korean soldiers spend more time working on private construction projects than on plotting the destruction of Seoul?”

Second, official narratives hold increasingly less influence over North Koreans’ attitudes on how to live and how to view the outside world. The authors illustrate how the growing use of portable Chinese-made DVD players and the ability to have one’s radio modified to be able to pick up foreign broadcasts facilitate this. Most notable perhaps is the USB stick. It is often lamented that the DPRK does not enjoy general internet access, yet the people have developed a half-analog internet of sorts that operates via widespread USB swapping. The sticks are loaded with foreign content (the most popular being South Korean and American TV shows, music and movies) and are passed around among friends and family to be enjoyed in the after-hours.

“’Communist,’ and ‘collectivized’” write the authors, “are utterly outdated labels for a North Korean economy that now heavily relies on thriving, person-to-person market exchanges in which individuals buy and sell private property for the purpose of generating profit. Private trade has become so prevalent in recent years that it permeates all levels of society, from the poorest through to the Party and military elites. But as with sex in Victorian Britain, there is a double standard with capitalism in the…DPRK: while everybody does it, few publicly admit to its existence.”

Lest one conclude that a Smithian libertarian underground is forming in the DPRK, it should be noted that private property and trade are still technically illegal, and that crossing certain lines will land you on the wrong side of the authorities. So, how does this situation continue? One of the words you will see most frequently in this book is bribe. Bribery has become the grease that keeps the gears of North Korean society turning and the authors give example after disheartening example of where it is used – from getting a Youth League official to look the other way if you are wearing jeans, to getting entry into Pyongyang from the provinces, to buying your way into office (well, that last one can be forgiven, surely).

Some interesting things are also happening in the social arena. The rise of the cell phone now allows traders to keep in touch with importers and wholesalers everywhere, which has led to some uniformity of prices across the country. Private gatherings of 4-10 people are viewed with suspicion, but with more people travelling to do business, there are more opportunities to be in close quarters with people you may never have met otherwise. Private transportation using rented dump trucks and hitching rides on trains have given people places to socialize, tell stories and rumors, make business deals, express opinions and pass along news from abroad. For those in love (or lust), Tudor and Pearson outline what it takes for young couples desiring some private time to rent someone’s house or apartment for a few hours.

As William Gibson said; the future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed. While those in Pyongyang and the northern border areas have access to information and technology, those in the interior do not. The authors break down who are sunjinhae, or pure, naïve country bumpkins, and who are the kkaen saramdeul, or “’people who have woken up’ or ‘the enlightened,’ i.e., those who know the ‘reality’ of North Korea.” Funnily enough, you could say that in the rest of the world the sunjinhae are those who still subscribe to the perception that North Koreans are all starving robots blindly marching to every word of Kim Jong Un, and the kkaen saramdeul are those who see that that is an outdated view (by, say, reading this book).

Tudor and Pearson don’t offer much in terms of predictions for the future, but they include “a brief historical diversion” where they describe a period of the 17th century when Korea experienced similar social shifts as a tributary to the Chinese Qing Dynasty. The ruling class lost some of its power, and the lower classes who were more skilled in trade and the trades began to move up and merge with the upper classes, thus moving Korea into “a new period of enlightenment and prosperity.” This seems to be the most likely course the modern DPRK will take as well.

Reading this book is like talking at a bar to a guy who goes there a lot and knows what’s up. The writing is economical, accessible and packed with relevant, interesting information. My only complaint is that there are some poorly placed footnotes throughout the book which throw the flow off a bit and could have gone right in the main text. Nevertheless, North Korea Confidential is bound to change the way you see the country for good.


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