North Korea Turns To Private Markets In Effort To Avert Second Famine
The collapse of the North Korean economy continues apace:
SEOUL — Bowing to reality, the North Korean government has lifted all restrictions on private markets — a last-resort option for a regime desperate to prevent its people from starving.
In recent weeks, according to North Korea observers and defector groups with sources in the country, Kim Jong Il’s government admitted its inability to solve the current food shortage and encouraged its people to rely on private markets for the purchase of goods. Though the policy reversal will not alter daily patterns — North Koreans have depended on such markets for more than 15 years — the latest order from Pyongyang abandons a key pillar of a central, planned economy.
With November’s currency revaluation, Kim wiped out his citizens’ personal savings and struck a blow against the private food distribution system sustaining his country. The latest policy switch, though, stands as an acknowledgment that the currency move was a failure and that only capitalist-style trading can prevent widespread famine.
“The North Korean government has tried all possible ways [for a planned economy] and failed, and it now has to resort to the last option,” said Koh Yu-hwan, professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul. “There’s been lots of back and forth in what the government has been willing to tolerate, and I cannot rule out the possibility of them trying to bring back restrictions on the markets. But it is hard for the government to reverse it now.”
Ironically, though, it may well be the private markets that came into being in the wake of the mid-90s famine that end up saving the North Korean people from another disaster:
In the mid-1990s, amid a total collapse of the central planned economy, somewhere between 3 and 5 percent of the population — perhaps 1 million people — died of starvation. Meanwhile, North Koreans increasingly turned to small markets for trading and buying supplies.
In part because of that, the hermit nation now maintains a stronger line of defense against starvation — one that did not exist during the famine.
Compared with the peak of the food crisis, in the mid and late ’90s, “the actual amount of food — less is available now,” said Kim Heung-gwang, a North Korean defector and president of a group called North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity. “But back then, the food circulation industry wasn’t as built up. Even though the absolute amount of food is less now than it was 15 years ago, I think the starvation problem will be less significant.”
For the sake of the people, one can only hope that this turns out to be true. However, this news does provide one possible answer to a question people have been asking for several weeks now.
What does North Korea want ?
I’m guessing food might be at the top of the list.
Photo via MSNBC depicts children at an unidentified North Korean kindergarten in 1997.