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**Named one of the best books of 2015 by The Economist**

North Korea is one of the most controlled and isolated societies on earth, but what is it actually like to live there? How do you make money in a failed economy? How do you have fun under a violent, repressive dictatorship, and how does the secretive and infamous prison camp system work? Read this book to find out.

North Korea Confidential explains how the devastating famine of the 1990s became a catalyst for a network of black markets which have created a new generation of North Korean capitalists. From skinny jeans, to home-made booze, where there’s a market for it, today's North Koreans can probably buy it.

In seven fascinating chapters the authors explore modern North Korea today for the ordinary "man and woman on the street." They interview experts and tap a broad variety of sources to bring a startling new insider's view of North Korean society—from members of Pyongyang's ruling families to defectors from different periods and regions, to diplomats and NGOs, to cross-border traders from neighboring China. The resulting stories reveal the horror as well as the innovation and humor which abound in this fascinating country.
Tuttle Publishing
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Praise for


“James Pearson and Daniel Tudor have shown that we don’t have to rely on intelligence leaks and disinformation in trying to fathom North Korea. There is solid information out there, which they have brought together and augmented with solid personal insights and first-hand reporting, worked into a readable and informative guide to real life in the DPRK. It’s a useful addition to a small number of good modern works on North Korea.”

—Martin Uden, former British ambassador to South Korea

“Pearson and Tudor have expertly distilled a deep study of North Korea into a comprehensive yet highly readable account of the economic, informational and social forces that make North Korea go round today. From the differences in fashion trends in Pyongyang and Chongjin to the co-operation of regime officials and private market traders, North Korea Confidential is stacked with insight and details. For anyone seeking to understand North Korea beyond the headlines of the Kims and missiles, this book is a must-read.”

—Hannah Song, CEO of Liberty in North Korea (LiNK),

an NGO working with North Korean defectors

“Tudor and Pearson’s timely book goes a long way to counter the lazy stereotypes that provide the staple of global commentary on North Korea. This beautifully-written account of daily life shows that North Koreans of every age routinely bypass government restrictions as they participate on a day-to-day basis in self-interested market-driven activities. Young North Koreans watch South Korean movies, listen to K-Pop, copy South Korean fashions and like young people everywhere, find ways to meet up with partners outside the restrictions of parental supervision. The authors do not minimize the authoritarian nature of the North Korean state but they make a hugely important contribution in taking seriously the difference between government policy and the reality of daily life. This book is a must read.”

—Hazel Smith, author of Hungry for Peace: International Security,

Humanitarian Assi; stance, and Social Change in North Korea

“The book isn’t just invaluable for expanding our view of North Korea beyond the cliche, soda-straw view of Pyongyang and showing us the gritty, anarchic country in which most North Koreans live, or at least survive. By explaining how thoroughly capitalism has already penetrated North Korea, it should cause experts to question the long-held assumption that ‘communist’ North Korea is destined to be reformed by capitalism. Indeed, North Korea Confidential shows us a North Korea that has settled into a new set of contradictions—already capitalist, yet as repressive and militarized as ever, a command economy bifurcated between the Inner Party and everyone else, where the rich are getting richer and the poor aren’t.”

—Joshua Stanton, human rights campaigner, blogger and media critic

“This book is a fascinating insight into the DPRK by two leading British journalists. Pearson’s and Tudor’s extensive research draws on a range of sources to analyse aspects of North Korean society that are so often hidden from view. A compelling read for anyone with an interest in real life in the DPRK.”

—Scott Wightman, British Ambassador to South Korea

“Books on North Korea continue to flow off the press. Some are polemics, some are alarmist, but this work by two journalists looks at real life. In fluent and measured terms, it depicts how the majority of North Koreans really live. Its focus is on those who wheel and deal outside the official system who have become the new elite in the North. Their new wealth may be precarious and small by the standards of their neighbors but it is real and it is transforming the North. Well worth reading.”

—James Hoare, former Charges des affaire at the

British Embassy in Pyongyang




Private Markets, Fashion Trends, Prison Camps,

Dissenters and Defectors

TUTTLE Publishing

Tokyo | Rutland, Vermont | Singapore

Published by Tuttle Publishing, an imprint of Periplus Editions (HK) Ltd.

Copyright © 2015 by Daniel Tudor & James Pearson

Front cover’s photos: soldier in tower © Joseph A. Ferris III; girl near the door © Joseph A. Ferris III; girl talking on the phone © Roman Harak; man talking to the street vendor © Flickr: Xevair; billboard advertisement © Daniel Tudor; street vendor © Daniel Tudor

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or utilized in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without prior written permission from the publisher.

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The Tuttle Story

“Books to Span the East and West”

Many people are surprised to learn that the world’s leading publisher of books on Asia had humble beginnings in the tiny American state of Vermont. The company’s founder, Charles E. Tuttle, belonged to a New England family steeped in publishing.

Immediately after WWII, Tuttle served in Tokyo under General Douglas MacArthur and was tasked with reviving the Japanese publishing industry. He later founded the Charles E. Tuttle Publishing Company, which thrives today as one of the world’s leading independent publishers.

Though a westerner, Tuttle was hugely instrumental in bringing a knowledge of Japan and Asia to a world hungry for information about the East. By the time of his death in 1993, Tuttle had published over 6,000 books on Asian culture, history and art—a legacy honored by the Japanese emperor with the “Order of the Sacred Treasure,” the highest tribute Japan can bestow upon a non-Japanese.

With a backlist of 1,500 titles, Tuttle Publishing is more active today than at any time in its past—inspired by Charles Tuttle’s core mission to publish fine books to span the East and West and provide a greater understanding of each.



Thanks and Acknowledgments

Chapter 1 The North Korean Markets: How They Work,

Where They Are, and How Much Things Cost

Chapter 2 Leisure Time in North Korea

Chapter 3 Who Is in Charge?

Chapter 4 Crime and Punishment in North Korea

Chapter 5 Clothes, Fashion, and Trends

Chapter 6 Communications

Chapter 7 Social Division

EPILOGUE Will North Korea Collapse?



Did you know that the average North Korean lives off the proceeds of capitalism? Or that at least half of all North Koreans have seen South Korean TV dramas and movies, and listened to South Korean pop music? And did you know that North Korean soldiers spend more time working on private construction projects than on plotting the destruction of Seoul?

These days, “Pyongyangology” has become a cottage industry, inspiring the creation of a huge number of books, newspaper articles, and documentaries. Unfortunately, there are few accounts of how North Korea really works today, with regard to both the Pyongyang elite and the average citizen. It has become natural when dealing with North Korea to focus entirely on Kim Jong Un, geopolitics, or the regime’s nuclear weapons program—but to do so is to miss the huge amount of internal change taking place, both at the top and bottom of North Korean society.

It may surprise the reader to learn that North Korea is now quite a dynamic place. The average North Korean breadwinner makes a living from private trade; people have official jobs in state-owned factories, but are able to bribe their way out and conduct business of their own. Women close to the Chinese border wear skinny jeans, in spite of their illegality. Most young adults in Pyongyang possess cell phones, and when they seek out romantic liaisons, they have the option of renting someone’s home for an hour or two.

Rich and poor alike do, indeed, enjoy listening to South Korean pop music, in utter contravention of the government’s wishes. And as throughout the rest of Asia, North Koreans are becoming addicted to South Korean TV shows, obtained from China on DVDs, USB sticks and micro SD cards. In most cases, anyone arrested for possessing South Korean media will simply end up paying a bribe and walking free. This is because North Korea has become an extremely corrupt society over the past two decades or so. In fact, the most money-hungry North Koreans are to be found among the elite—those whom one might have assumed to be the most ideologically “pure” members of society.

The typical account of North Korea is written with admirable sympathy for the nation’s long-suffering citizens. Such accounts, though, tend to strip those very same people of agency, reducing them to dehumanized caricatures—the brainwashed Kim Il Sung worshipper, or the helpless victim of the state security apparatus, for instance. The latter certainly does exist, and thus, we do present a chapter on what constitutes crime and punishment in North Korea. However, it is important to remember that the average North Korean’s chief concerns are more ordinary: just like people anywhere else, North Koreans are concerned with making money, raising their children well, and occasionally having a little fun. Increasingly, North Koreans are able to satisfy these needs beyond the umbrella of the state.

The main cause of North Korea’s recent social change is actually a tragic one: the famine of the mid 1990s, in which at least several hundred thousand people perished. The famine greatly weakened the bond between the state and the people, forcing the average North Korean to fend for him or herself. As a result, the government is now just one part of a quasi-capitalist market economy, rather than the sole coordinator of economic activity that it once was. Time and again throughout this book, the reader will notice the influence of the famine as an agent of social and economic change.

Throughout Korean history, there have been examples of calamitous events leading to huge social upheavals, and eventually, unexpected progress. From the ashes of the Korean War (1950–53), for instance, rose a generation of meritocratic and extremely determined nation-builders in South Korea. The authors believe that North Korea’s greatest tragedy, the famine, will one day be seen as a similar spur to progress.

One Caveat

Reporting on North Korea presents a huge journalistic challenge. There is a lack of reliable statistics about the country. The opportunity to canvass “the man on the street” in Pyongyang on his opinion of Kim Jong Un—and getting an honest answer—comes up very rarely (though the probability is greatly increased when one shares a bottle of soju with a North Korean living abroad). However, we have done our best to present as accurate a portrait as we can, by talking to experts who we trust (some well-known, others less so), and to sources drawn from different sections of North Korean society. Such sources include elite members of Pyongyang society still very much on the “inside”; defectors of different ages, geographical origin, and year of departure; diplomats and NGO workers; and, traders and other border-crossers places like Yanji, a Chinese town forty minutes drive from the North Korean border. We also make use of text sources in English, Korean, and Chinese. As a general rule, we decided to consider reliable claims made by three or more separate and credible sources. The reader may, of course, have different criteria.

We do not, therefore, offer this book as the last word on North Korea, and so we politely ask the reader not to have such expectations. After all, one would not take as the last word a short book claiming to tell you the whole story of today’s USA, either. Our hope is that you will consider North Korea Confidential an informative introduction to the real story of modern North Korea—that of not just the leadership, but also the dramatically changing lives of 24 million people who live there.

Thanks and Acknowledgments

Many wonderful people were kind enough to share their time and insight with us during the writing of this book. Unfortunately, some of them would get into trouble if we thanked them for that here. But those who we can thank publicly are, in no particular order:

Michael Madden, Shirley Lee, Sokeel Park, Jang Jin-sung, Andrei Lankov, Chris Green, Matthew Reichel, Curtis Melvin, Simon Cockerell, Andray Abrahamian, Monique Macias,

Those who we have not thanked above, you know who you are, thank you.

Also the authors wish to thank the following friends, coworkers, and relatives who provided support or tolerated canceled appointments and the like, or who are just nice people to whom we wish to express our appreciation.

Daniel’s thanks: Mum and Dad (and all my family), Kang Kyung-nam, Kang Se-ree, Ku Min-jeong, Kim Bo-yeon, Yoo Je-hoon, Ku Young-shik, Chun Su-jin, Kim Jong-hyuk, Lee Seung-yoon, Jung Young-sun, The LFG family, Kim Namhoon, Lee Yoon-hee, Yoon Sun-oo, Kim Yong-moon, Han Sang-hyuk, Lee Ji-eun, Sung Ki-wan, Song Jeong-hwa, Moon Jung-hee, Park Soo-jin, ‘The Korean’, Tom Coyner, Lee Jaewoong, Lee Seong-hee, Sohn Mi-na, Song Ji-na, Bobby McGill, Yang Sung-hoo, Kim Hee-yoon, staff and patrons of The Booth (our fine craft beer establishment!), David Maltby, Kwon Yong-ho, Andrew Barbour, David Chance, Naomi Rovnick, Tyler Cowen, Michael Freeman, Ryan Anderton, Geoffrey Cain, Jung Yoon-sun, Park Jae-uk, Lee Seul, Lee Yoojin, Lee You-kyung, Chris Backe, Kang Jeong-im, Ji Bae and family, Zachi Schor, Guy Biran, Cho Young-sang, Andrew Salmon, Cho Sung-moon, Pyo Chul-min, Heo Eun-sun, David Pilling, Lin Lin, Krys Lee, Kieran Ridge, Hannah Bae, Darren Long, Chico Harlan, Bill Miller, Antti Hellgren, Robert Koehler, Ambassador Vishnu Prakash, Dennis Vartan,

James’ thanks: Mum, Dad, and the extended Pearson-Mantle family and friends; Hyojin Kim; Doris Carding; David Chance, and the Reuters Seoul Bureau, especially colleagues Jack Kim and Ju-min Park, and Darren Schuettler and Sebastian Tong in Singapore; the Department of East Asian Studies at Cambridge especially John Swenson-Wright, Mike Shin, and Barack Kushner; Korea and China folk at SOAS especially Jim Hoare, Michel Hockx, Xuan Li, Jaehee Cho, Jae Hoon Yeon and Kyung Eun Lee; all at the British Association of Korean Studies, and the British Korean Veterans Association; the Korea Foundation in Seoul; at NK News Chad O’Carroll and Gianlucca Spezza; a special mention to Simon Cockerell, Curtis Melvin, Sokeel Park, Michael Madden, and old friends near and far of whom there are far too many to mention.

The following English language sources were invaluable to us. The keen reader may note that they collectively represent a wide range of the ideological spectrum on North Korea analysis, but all individually possess very strong merits, and thus we recommend them for anyone seeking to know more about how North Korea works:

Books & Publications

Collins, Robert. Marked for Life: Songbun (2012)

Cumings, Bruce. Korea’s Place in the Sun (2005)

Haggard, Stephan & Noland, Marcus. Famine in North Korea (2009)

Jang, Jin-sung. Dear Leader (2014)

Kang, Hyok. This is Paradise! (2007)

Kretchun, Nat & Jane Kim. “A Quiet Opening: North Koreans in a Changing Media Environment,” InterMedia (2012)

Lankov, Andrei. North of the DMZ (2007)

Martin, Bradley K. Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader (2004)

McEachern, Patrick. Inside the Red Box: North Korea’s Post-totalitarian Politics (2011)

Myers, B.R. The Cleanest Race (2011)


38 North website (

Daily NK website (

New Focus International website (

NK Economy Watch (

NK Leadership Watch blog (

NK News website (

North Korea Tech (

Rimjin-gang/ASIAPRESS (

Sino-NK (

Both authors also tweet about North Korea:

Daniel Tudor @danielrtudor

James Pearson @pearswick

A note on the romanization of Korean

North and South Korea differ on the romanization of Korean. Where possible, the authors have used North Korean convention in the romanization of North Korean names, places or concepts. South Korean convention is used for South Korean names and places, and for expressing spoken sentences in Korean. So Kim Jong Un (not Kim Jeong-eun) lives in Pyongyang (not Pyeongyang).

Chapter 1

The North Korean Markets:

How They Work, Where They Are, and How Much Things Cost

“Communist,” and “collectivized” 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 Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK): while everybody does it, few publicly admit to its existence.

Though markets in some form have always existed in the DPRK, the declining official role of the state in economic activity means that private trade has never been as widespread—or necessary—as it is today. The reason for this is simple: the state can no longer provide for the people in the way it once could.

As we shall see, the horrific famine of the mid-1990s was the turning point. Regular, government-supplied food rations all but disappeared during this period, and never fully returned. The lesson that survivors took from this experience was one of self-reliance—not the self-reliance of Juche ideology, but rather self-reliance through by-hook-or-by-crook capitalism. Private property and private trade remain illegal, but for post-famine North Korea, there is but one real economic rule: don’t follow the rules. Sixty-two percent of defectors surveyed in 2010 stated that they had engaged in work other than their official jobs before leaving North Korea, and a thriving gray market that uses unofficial currency exchange rates is now the de facto way of setting prices, even for the elite.

The Breakdown of the System

From the foundation of the DPRK in the 1940s, North Korea was almost food self-sufficient for many years. Under the Public Distribution System (PDS), farmers turned over a majority of their harvest to the government, which then redistributed it to the wider population. During the earlier and middle years of Kim Il Sung’s rule North Koreans were not wealthy, but they at least did not starve en masse. Older Chinese living near the DPRK border have been known to remark that they envied the living standards of North Koreans in the 1960s and 1970s.

The North Korean economy, in fact, performed quite well throughout the late 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s. The North’s command economy was stronger than the South’s state-capitalist model on a GDP per capita basis until around 1973. This was partly due to historical circumstance: due to its proximity to Manchuria and China, the colonizing Japanese (1910–1945) had elected to industrialize the northern part of Korea, whilst using the south as an agrarian “breadbasket.” Thus, the North had a head start over the South in the form of superior infrastructure. This, combined with a general fervor to rebuild a battered and divided nation, helped drive the North Korean economy in those early years.

There was one other crucial factor in that initial success: Soviet and Chinese aid. Throughout the Cold War era, North Korea was able to exploit the rift between China and the Soviet Union by cleverly playing the two against each other. In this “love triangle” relationship, North Korea would carefully seek benefits from both Beijing and Moscow, turning its weakness as a “shrimp between whales” into an asset. This strategy, which is echoed in the regime’s continued ability to exploit the concerns of China and the United States to its advantage, resulted in a steady flow of aid, helping bolster the people’s food rations. North Koreans, though, were not told that foreign aid put food on their table: the government allowed them to believe that it all came from the munificence of Kim Il Sung.1

Against the expectations of many, the DPRK managed to survive the collapse of the USSR in 1991. This was partly due to increased Chinese aid, and the fact that the people still generally trusted in the regime.2 However, the decline and then total cessation of Soviet help—plus growing economic mismanagement under Kim Jong Il—began to put the PDS in jeopardy. Gradual decreases in the amount of food distributed were instituted, with 10 percent reductions in 1987 and 1992, for instance. But it was not until the early to mid-1990s that the system began to completely break down.

The economic situation was already extremely fragile, and North Korea was already entering a food deficit by 1993. Things were ultimately exacerbated by a series of devastating floods in 1994 and 1995, which destroyed around 1.5 million tons of grain and ruined much of the nation’s infrastructure. Around 85 percent of North Korea’s power generation capacity was lost as a result. The PDS came under unprecedented pressure: between 1994 and 1997, the basic ration was cut from 450 grams of food per day to a meager 128 grams. In the same period, the PDS went from being the main food source for a majority of the people, to a resource that only six percent of the population could receive.

The result was a serious famine between 1994 and 1998 that claimed the lives of between 200,000 and three million North Koreans.3 The state refers to this calamity as the “Arduous March,” the name of a legendary wartime campaign said to have been waged by Kim Il Sung as a young guerrilla fighter. It may be seen as darkly ironic that the North Korean state’s greatest failure—and the one that effectively ended the socialist economic system that Kim Il Sung “marched” to build—has been dressed up in such terms.

Starvation gripped society on a horrific scale. Inland, rural areas were worst affected, but mass deaths from famine happened in every part of the country, including in towns and cities. The government had failed the people, and crucially, everyone had to fend for themselves. Even professors at Pyongyang’s prestigious universities had to turn to low-level market activities, simply to survive.4 Some would join their wives outside busy train stations or colleges, selling cheap broth made from flour and water. Other members of Pyongyang’s lesser elite circles took to selling their household possessions at knockdown prices in makeshift market stalls.

Thus, the famine sowed the seeds of marketization in North Korea. Only the core elite can now live on food handouts.5 Just like the university professors who became street hawkers to survive, the majority of today’s North Koreans have learned to lead an economic double life in order to make ends meet. Though born out of tragic necessity, this is a development that is today having a significant impact on the lives of ordinary people, making their situation more tolerable.

Crucially, the famine also empowered North Korean women to aspire to be more than just homemakers, many becoming the real breadwinners of the North Korean family unit. It is mostly women who run market stalls, sell food, engage in small-scale import–export, or rent out the family home by the hour to courting couples. All this, in turn, is having a dramatic impact on the role of women in society, and even on the rate of divorce. Traditionally, the north of Korea was considered more “macho” than the south,6 and even after the arrival of Communism—which is theoretically supposed to pursue gender equality—a North Korean woman was typically seen as some man’s daughter, wife, or mother. Today, she may have independent power. In the past it was rare for women to use banmal, the informal level of Korean speech, toward men, although men would often use it when speaking to women; this convention is now weakening.

Won (and Yuan) for the Money

The DPRK government has a complex and difficult relationship with this new economic order. The eradication of capitalism in North Korea would greatly increase the possibility of another famine, given the failure of the command economy and the PDS. Furthermore, many government insiders are now using trade as a means of generating personal wealth, as we shall see later in this chapter. If full market reform were pursued though, it would result in huge social and economic changes that could threaten the government’s position. There are, indeed, reform-minded public officials in North Korea, but there is also a natural fear of change at the top. For a member of the elite, full economic liberalization may eventually lead to exchanging a privileged existence for prison, death, or more prosaically, the life of a taxi driver in Seoul.7

Keen, then, not to go down either the controlled Chinese or chaotic East European routes of abandoning political ideology in favor of economic reform, the government has gone to great lengths to control the rise of private market activity. There are occasional crackdowns on marketplaces, for instance. And in 2009 came the bluntest move of all. That November, it was announced that the national currency, the North Korean won, would be redenominated via the cancellation of the last two zeroes on every banknote. A 1,000 won note needed to be exchanged for a new 10 won note, and so on. Citizens were given one week to trade in their old zero-heavy notes for new ones. Similarly, a bank deposit of 100,000 won became 1,000 won at a stroke.

Though one may speculate over the government’s motives, the measure essentially functioned as a cash grab, transferring wealth from private traders to the state. Why? Because each person was only allowed to convert a maximum of 100,000 won (around US$30–40 at the time, according to black market rates). Anyone holding a sum greater than that—as someone engaged in business naturally would—saw their savings wiped out.

The outcome appears to have been anger directed against officials of a severity not seen in North Korea for a long time. Though the 100,000 won limit was raised to 150,000 won in cash and 300,000 won in bank deposits, it appears that this did not halt public discontent: the Chinese Xinhua news agency reported “collective panic” among North Koreans, and other media reports claimed that piles of old notes were being burned in protest against the redenomination. If true, the latter would be particularly telling, as the destruction of 100, 1,000, and 5,000 won notes necessarily involves the destruction of images of Kim Il Sung.

The anger of ordinary traders would no doubt have been compounded by the fact that the real elite of North Korea tend to hold their assets in other currencies, particularly the Chinese yuan.8 Even prior to the redenomination, the North Korean won was not a currency in which people placed much trust, and so those with the opportunity—such as officials conducting quasi-public, quasi-private business with Chinese counterparts—kept their earnings in foreign currency.

But again, the long-term result has been to push North Koreans even further beyond the orbit of state economic control. Ordinary people now increasingly seek out the yuan and other currencies as stores of wealth. They have learned not to trust the government and its currency, the won. At the same time, they have learned that trading and saving in yuan can shield them from the consequences of future government depredations and incompetence. As a result, a majority of market transactions in North Korea are now estimated to be conducted in foreign currencies, with the yuan being the most favored.9

It is hardly surprising, then, that the unofficial, gray market value of the North Korean has been sinking. Though there is an official government-set exchange rate of 96 won per US$1, the “real” rate is around 8,000 at the time of writing—and that number has increased dramatically over recent years, with the declining trust in the Won. Tellingly, even North Korean banks are now moving much closer to the black market rate, often changing at rates that slightly undercut the black market prices. In the Special Economic Zone of Rason, Golden Triangle Bank was even exchanging US$1 for 7,636 won in mid-October 2013. There are also reports that workers at a handful of large, state-owned enterprises, such as Musan Iron Mine, had their wages increased from 3–4,000 won per month to 300,000 won per month in September 2013, to reflect the won’s real value.

Black market pricing of the won is even becoming common in ordinary shops and restaurants. For example, a toy shop in Pyongyang prices basketballs at 46,000 won each; clearly nobody believes a humble basketball is really worth over US$400. Somewhat similarly, a department store selling such well-known Western products as Pepperidge’s cookies, Hershey’s chocolate, Ferrero Rocher, and Ceres grape juice, prices all of them at the official rate, but refuses to accept North Korean won.10 The same is true of an entire Adidas store, stocked with sporting goods brought in from China (presumably without the knowledge of Adidas), at prices that would be extraordinarily generous if they could be bought in Won. The low won prices quoted are simply an indication that one must pay for these items in foreign currency, at a dollar price that reflects their real value.11

The dual valuation of the North Korean won does result in some interesting bargains, though. Public transport is still provided at a price reflecting the official rate, which means journeys are sold for much less than they are really worth. A trip on the Pyongyang Metro, for instance, costs five won. That is a mere five US cents even at the official exchange rate—and at the real rate, it is as good as free.12

Unfortunately, the same is true of salaries. All workers, officially at least, are employed by the state—and they are paid in accordance with the official value of the won. Civil servants, for instance, usually earn in the range of 1,000–6,000 won per month. At an official rate of 96 won per US dollar, that would already be bad enough—but when one considers the “real” gray market exchange rate, even a highly-ranked official is being paid less than US$1 per month.

Under a communist system of theoretically free healthcare, education, food, and housing, such a salary would not be as awful as it sounded. But as we know, the state can no longer effectively provide for the people (though admittedly, elites are still given some rations). Thus, the worker and his family must look for other ways of making money, usually in the market or by offering services of some kind. The result is that, in North Korea, everyone from the miner to the schoolteacher lives an economic double life of sorts, with many engaged in cash-in-hand jobs or market activity in their spare time to generate income.

This phenomenon has extreme negative consequences for the ability of the country to function properly. Because people are paid virtually nothing, they have very little incentive to do much actual work. Police live for opportunities to extract bribes and many state employees will make extra cash by purloining workplace property, or using it for their own ends. A factory worker earns around 2,000 won per month, and thus it is no surprise that there are many reports of state-owned factories being stripped of anything made of metal, or of workers taking factory products and selling them privately. At the official exchange rate, a factory worker would not even be able to afford a pack of cigarettes with a month’s salary, let alone the lighter with which to light them.

Inside the Jangmadang

Just as North Korea has two exchange rates, it effectively has two economies: the “official” economy (where people work in state jobs and are paid a state salary) and a “gray market” economy, where people earn money in ways that are not strictly legal, but widely tolerated. The latter is the one that really counts in today’s North Korea.

The term used for the illegal, yet tolerated, markets in North Korea is jangmadang, an old-fashioned Korean word that literally translates as “marketplace” (South Koreans go to the sijang, a word also used in China) and has its roots in old-fashioned Korean farmers’ markets. Jangmadang can often be seen at the busy intersections of narrow, muddy residential streets in rural North Korean towns or, on occasion, in specially-constructed buildings designed for market activity. Such buildings can even be seen on Google Earth; the clearest example of this was the blue roofed Chaeha-dong market, in the city of Sinuiju near the Chinese border. Unfortunately, the building was eventually pulled down, but this does not mean business in Sinuiju is over—trading has simply moved to other parts of town.

People setting up stalls in the jangmadang are required to pay a stall tax to Party cadres in order to keep their slots—thus making the state complicit in marketization. In some large markets, there are even electronic registration systems in effect, to keep track of who has paid their stall tax. And traders looking for new customers often transport their goods by hand over mountain paths, across rivers, and through muddy valleys or dusty tracks in order to avoid the prying eyes of government officials who may try to stop them or, more likely, demand a cut of the profits.

The typical jangmadang stall-holder is a lower or middle class ajumma (a middle-aged, married woman). Though Korean culture has been male-dominated since neo-Confucianism stamped its imprint on the Joseon dynasty (1392–1910)—with the ideal woman considered the one who lived as a hyonmoyangcho (“good wife, wise mother”)—it was often the case among the peasant population that the women were the market traders, not the men. In South Korea today, poor old ladies sell vegetables and rice-cakes on street corners, and appear en masse outside metro stations with baskets full of umbrellas on rainy days. It is no surprise, then, that jangmadang traders in North Korea are usually female.

There is an additional reason that the ajumma dominates the jangmadang. In North Korea, adults are assigned to work units, to serve the state in return for pitiful salaries. Married women, however, are exempted from this. This means they are free to work as market traders. They can therefore earn significant multiples of what their husbands make, turning them into breadwinners and challenging the traditional Korean husband–wife dynamic.

There are, though, plenty of people with official jobs who engage in trading as well—it is not impossible for men to join women in trading, but rather, just a little more difficult. Sometimes, people disappear from their work unit for months, on the pretext of having to receive medical treatment; what they are really doing is trading in another part of the country. Everyone knows this, but nobody truly cares. The trader merely reports back to their local unit at the end of the period, and submits to a “self-criticism” session or pays a bribe before resuming their regular job.13

But what do jangmadang traders sell? As may be expected, there is a focus on the basics. North Korean cigarettes go fairly cheaply, but more sought-after Chinese and Russian cigarettes can cost anything from ₩2,000 (US$0.25) to ₩20,000 (US$2.50) depending on the brand. A bar of chocolate costs around ₩3,000 (US$0.38), and a kilogram of rice costs around ₩5,000 (US$0.63) Imperialist American Coca-Cola is very much available, and goes for ₩6,000 per can—about US$0.75, not far from what it would cost in a supermarket anywhere else. Cans of Chinese beer, such as Tsingtao or Harbin, cost ₩4,000 (US$0.50), pots of instant noodles are ₩7,000 (US$0.88), and a tin of instant coffee from China would set you back around ₩10,000 (US$1.25). But due to the extreme volatility of the North Korean won, all these prices may be wide of the mark by the time you read this book.

The image of the middle-aged lady peddling cigarettes and noodles from a little stall is hardly a sophisticated one. But the economic nous of the wholesalers they buy from should not be underestimated. Rice traders, for instance, (illegally) monitor foreign radio in order to find out in advance about aid shipments into North Korea.14 If a shipment is on its way, the market price of rice will fall due to the expectation of increased supply—and the race is then on to sell up before everyone else finds out. A big incoming supply of fertilizer will have a similar impact on the market, as it will have the effect of increasing rice production. Rice is as crucial to North Korean life as it always has been, and thus its price is the subject of great attention. The state still does not produce enough rice15 and has to depend on aid or imports to make up the deficit.

Jangmadang trading is now commonplace all over the country. Even in Pyongyang, where state control and loyalty to the government are strongest, virtually every family will have members involved in such activity. The occasional tour guide—a person who undoubtedly has the trust of the regime—too will admit to foreign visitors that they have family members involved in jangmadang activity, or at least that they shop at them. Even if one is not selling goods, one may be involved in transporting them, sourcing them, or greasing the palms of officials to allow everything to continue. While one ajumma may be the public face of the business, her relatives and friends will likely be helping out behind the scenes. They may also have a “share” in the business: many jangmadang stalls are paid for by people clubbing together to raise the stall tax and buy the stock.

It can even be dangerous to not be a trader. Middle- and high-income families that are not known to be actively engaged in business are at risk of being investigated by the authorities. Such a family would be assumed to have a less “tolerable” source of income, such as cash transfers from defector relatives living in South Korea. There have actually been many instances of people informing the authorities about neighbors who have money but no obvious business interests. This has led to the ironic situation of some North Koreans being observed pretending to be engaged in capitalism in order to avoid suspicion.

Following the Money Trail

But what of those less tolerable sources of income? There are around 24,000 North Korean defectors living in the South—equivalent to 0.1 percent of the North Korean population—and many more living in China. Though their lives are often hard and involve “starting again” at the bottom of the social and economic ladder, the money they can save even through basic, menial labor can actually make a significant difference to the lives of their relatives back in North Korea.

It is estimated that transfers to the North from defectors in the South amount to around US$10–15 million per year. This is not a huge sum overall, but if one considers it on a per-family basis, its potential impact should certainly not be overlooked. Typically, a defector who sends money home will transfer one million South Korean won (just under US$1000) per year; in a country as poor as North Korea, such an amount goes a long way.16 Furthermore, according to a Database Center for North Korean Human Rights survey in 2011, 12.5 percent of those who send money hand over more than five million South Korean won each year. Transfers have also certainly helped some people get started in the growing gray economy. Scarce wonder, then, that it is now seen as desirable to have defector relatives, where it was once deemed a disgrace—though any feelings of pride will not be expressed too openly.

There is no official system for the transfer of such funds into North Korea. Transferring money between South and North is illegal in the eyes of both countries (though the South is much more willing to turn a blind eye when the cash flows in a northward direction). However, there are well-established networks of agents who have devised quick and efficient ways of getting the job done—for a fee, of course. For the privilege of sending money to relatives in North Korea, a defector will expect to pay a commission of up to 30 percent. So for every million South Korean won sent, perhaps only 700,000 won will reach the intended recipient.

The size of the fee reflects the risks involved, and the relative scarcity of the service. Generally, the first step involves a defector finding a broker in South Korea, selected on the basis of personal recommendations from other members of the defector community. The sender will hand over money to the broker, who then wires it to an account in China. Another agent, possibly an ethnic Chinese living in North Korea (known as hwagyo),17 checks that the money has arrived, through mobile banking on his Chinese smartphone. Chinese mobile network signals can be picked up in border towns, so this can be accomplished without the agent having to leave North Korea. The money in the Chinese account is left untouched, and the agent simply picks up the equivalent cash from a stash of yuan already held in North Korea. If the recipient lives locally, the agent may pass on the cash himself;18 if not, then another agent—this time an ethnic Korean—will be on hand to deliver it anywhere in the country.

One important feature of this system is the fact that agents also arrange phone calls between sender and recipient: the whole process is typically bookended by quick chats between family members. Agents are not just able to bring money into North Korea; they are also able to smuggle in Chinese cell phones, letters, and other items. Particularly in the case of North Koreans living near the border, it is a relatively simple matter to set up a short phone call to South Korea.19

Brokers are also quick. But again, North Koreans living near the border have an advantage here: there may even be a knock at their door within the hour of a relative in Seoul handing over a wad of cash. “It’s quicker than Western Union,” says one Seoul-based NGO worker who assists defectors. And they are more reliable than one might imagine. There are few reports of money going missing along the way, despite the necessarily illicit nature of the transfer process.

An Economic Border

But isn’t the border heavily guarded? How on earth does a Chinese smuggler cross into North Korea? Given North Korea’s totalitarian image, it would be natural to ask such questions. But the Sino–DPRK border is actually very porous. While the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)—fortified no-man’s-land at the 38th Parallel between North and South Korea—is a “proper” border in the eyes of North Koreans, the northern border is more of an economic divide. At the DMZ, hundreds of miles of barbed wire, fences, and landmines keeps North and South Koreans out of mutual reach. But Sino–DPRK border crossings—both officially sanctioned and otherwise—are commonplace. In 2012, around 130,000 North Koreans visited China legally, using permits granted by the government. Such permits may take months to obtain through official channels, or be granted straight away if accompanied by a US$50–100 bribe.20

That is not to say that one may cross the border at will. The average North Korean would run a grave risk by attempting to just enter China without making arrangements first. Particularly since the latter days of the Kim Jong Il era and the early days of Kim Jong Un, border security has been much tighter, making defections difficult and more dangerous. But for those with connections and/or money, matters are relatively straightforward.

Chinese traders and North Koreans doing semi-private business in China may cross—though the latter are more likely to fly in from Beijing. Chinese traders make regular crossings at border towns like Dandong, bringing with them all manner of items sought after by North Koreans. The South Korean “Cuckoo” brand of bapsot (rice cooker), for instance, takes pride of place in many high-income North Korean households. There is so much trade between North Korea and China that there are even goods made specifically for the North Korean market, such as televisions that run on very low power. And though the overall volume of trade is high, it is mostly conducted by small traders that authorities aiming to uphold UN goods sanctions would find it extremely difficult to monitor.21

It is also possible for ordinary North Koreans to bribe their way across the border. There is a well-established process whereby one family member makes it to South Korea, and starts sending money back home with the specific purpose of facilitating the defection of their relatives. Brokers with the right connections will, for a fee, physically take them across the border into China. In the “basic” defection package, the new defector will then be left to his own devices, most likely to make the long and perilous journey across China and into countries like Thailand or Mongolia via further illicit border crossings. But there are even “gold” packages (which may cost around US$10,000) that give the new defector an escort from their home all the way to Beijing, and the requisite false documentation to get them on a flight straight to Seoul.

Moreover, regional geography lends itself to simple border-jumping. For some stretches of the 320 mile (520 km) long Tumen River that marks the most northeastern corners of the border, the gap between the two banks becomes so narrow that passersby on the Chinese side can see washing hanging from the lines of North Korean houses. Even at wider areas, the relatively shallow depth of the river, its tendency to freeze over during winter, and its various rocky spits and sandbanks make crossing the Tumen a fairly easy affair, border guards notwithstanding.

The source of the Tumen is Paektusan, the most revered mountain in Korean culture, and the mythical place of origin of the Korean people. It was there that Hwanung, the son of Hwanin (the Lord of Heaven), was said to have descended to earth to establish Sinsi, the “City of God.” His own son Dangun later founded the first Korean kingdom, Gojoseon, at a city named Asadal near present-day Pyongyang. It is natural, then, that Kim Jong Il’s official propaganda would (falsely) claim him to have been born at Paektusan. But while Paektusan is as critical to the Kim family myth as it is to Korea’s creation myth, the river that flows from it is a source of opportunity for many North Koreans seeking a new life away from the DPRK.

Public-Private Partnerships

Much of the attention given to the “new capitalism” of North Korea centers on the ordinary people who are now able to make a living through jangmadang trading, small-scale import–export, and the selling of services (the fixing of bicycles, for instance). But bottom-up business in the DPRK is outstripped in size and scale by what might be cynically referred to as “public-private partnerships.”

Since the mid-1990s, the North Korean government has been in a state of almost complete economic failure. It maintains strong political control of course, particularly in Pyong-yang. But the central government cannot generate enough direct revenue or tax income to fund its myriad departments, ministries, commissions, and committees. Due to this lack of central funding, government organizations have, essentially, been left to their own devices. And though their provision of services to the people has decreased dramatically in recent years, they still need to function at a basic level. They also need to pay their staff—or rather, find ways for their staff, who receive pitiful official salaries (of a few dollars a month, at black market rates),22 to get paid. The ad-hoc solution has been for officials to start quasi-private businesses under the umbrella of their organization. It is therefore no coincidence that the invitation lists of Kim Jong Il’s famed drinking parties began to change in the 1990s. They used to simply contain the names of his most trusted officials, but his new favorites from that time on became those who could make money.

There is certainly no formalized system for how such businesses are started and operated, and no “typical” example. But a successful case might run as follows. A member of a government entity (such as the National Defense Commission, whose senior members “can do whatever they want,” according to one source) with good political connections and permission to travel abroad will seek out joint ventures or import–export opportunities in China, or even further afield. Food, agricultural supplies, medicine, and consumer luxuries are considered particularly important areas. Once a plan is formed, an officially state-owned firm will begin to pursue the opportunity, as privately-owned companies are still considered illegal.

Only some of the proceeds go to the state, though. Because North Korea has no proper banking system, firms tend to hold a lot of cash—and also keep financial records in old-style hand-written ledgers. A highly profitable firm can, therefore, very easily be turned into a modestly profitable one, allowing those who run the business to pocket around 60-70 percent of the earnings, with the rest going up the department, and higher-ups who need bribing. And because North Korea’s economic system is not properly rule-governed, nobody is going to stop a protected insider from engaging in shady accounting. In this way, the organization can make a little money to help make up its budget, founders can become wealthy, and managers and executives (also typically employees of the same department) can respectively earn around US$300 and 500 per month in successful cases, according to one knowledgeable source. This is nowhere near what a manager in South Korea can make, but in North Korea, it can provide a very impressive standard of living.23 Furthermore, talented managers will be able to lobby their bosses for permission to set up subsidiaries of their own; permission may take a year or two (and some bribery, of course), but the wait can be well worth it.

Just like revenues, production can also be underestimated. Agricultural produce, or goods made in a state-owned factory, can be made to “disappear” in this way, allowing the government official/entrepreneur to make his profit. Invariably, these goods end up in the jangmadang. Though of a different socioeconomic class to the average jangmadang ajumma, the elite trader will have ways of doing business with the former. Thus, about 20 percent of jangmadang product is estimated to be domestically produced (the rest being mostly from China).

Because all companies are officially owned by the state, the entrepreneur’s security depends on his/her personal power and connections. There is a great deal of “horse-trading” over who gets to grab any lucrative opportunities. A would-be entrepreneur needs a sponsor—a very powerful person who will protect their position. Naturally, this also means paying kick-backs. In a sense, then, the top leadership of North Korea is operating a protection racket.

Those at the top also operate their own businesses. Prior to the power play that brought about his shock removal and execution in December 2013, Jang Song Thaek—Kim Jong Un’s uncle by marriage and long-time Kim Jong Il-era power-broker—had famously wide-ranging business interests, and a net worth of around EUR 80 million, according to a very conservative estimate. Mr. Jang “owned” luxury hotels in China, for instance, and controlled much of the burgeoning Sino–DPRK border trade. His widow, Kim Kyong Hui, is understood to control the bottled mineral water company Kangso Yaksu, and the Haedanghwa corporation, which operates department stores and is involved in the DPRK’s overseas restaurant businesses. Ms. Kim was also until recently the ultimate guardian of the Kim family wealth. These assets are kept in banks all over the world and may total US$20 billion, according to sources.

DPRK-owned Korean restaurants operate in many cities in Asia and Europe—there are over 40 in China alone, and a handful throughout South East Asia. Guests there are treated to musical performances of old Korean standards as they dine on galbi or segyeopsal (known in the South as samgyeopsal). These establishments are very popular with South Koreans, who find them both familiar and exotic. Sometimes, North Korean officials take advantage of this, planting spies among the waitresses, to build up profiles on visiting South Koreans who come to their attention for any reason. But the main reason they exist is to provide a slow trickle of hard currency for the regime and provide a front from which to mix legally earned cash with the proceeds of illicit activities.24

One well-placed source states that a typical North Korean overseas restaurant will be opened by a female relative of a senior official, such as a vice-minister. She will club together with a few friends to raise the start-up capital. This will be used to pay a kind of “franchise fee” in the low six figures (USD) to Kim family accounts, as well as the cost of actually opening the restaurant. The government will appoint staff, who are strictly monitored and who will also end up remitting most of their wages back to the center.

Additionally, 20–30 percent of profits must also be handed over on national holidays. It is apparently common for well-to-do North Koreans to be seen carrying large bags of cash through airports at such times of year. Not paying up would be very unwise, as it could cause severe trouble for relatives remaining in North Korea. The threat of the prison camp for loved ones keeps overseas North Koreans in line.

Some officials are better placed than others to make money. Those with the chance to gain foreign language skills and overseas experience have a great advantage, as they will possess the ability and contacts to conduct international business. It is thus common to hear of people bribing their way into diplomatic jobs, or into government bodies with real power.25 Similarly, members of the Kim Il Sung Youth League, which participates in communist-related events around the world, can take advantage of their global connections to engage in profitable trade. The Youth League used to run summer camps for children from all over the communist world, prior to the fall of the Soviet Union; today, they run a trading corporation named Paekam, in addition to several restaurants and hotels in Pyongyang.

The Construction Industry

The army is heavily involved in construction, as a source of cheap labor for the building of apartment complexes, hotels, roads, bridges, and so on. Contrary to the popular image of the North Korean soldier as a goose-stepping, brainwashed loyalist and ruthless killing machine, the average military man is likely to spend more time building things than working to crush the “puppet” regime in Seoul. Even state media often refers to them as “soldier-builders.”

Military units are now little more than free labor teams.26 If the government needs a road built, the only major outlay will be on materials—the labor cost will simply be the amount of money it takes to feed the soldiers and, given that some soldier-builders are tasked with foraging for their own food, sometimes food costs nothing, too. And if a group of ambitious managers at a government ministry want to erect an apartment block, they can hire the army to build it, too. There is, in fact, a great deal of “soldier-built” public-private construction taking place in North Korea today.

As the construction of a big building is a much more complex (and expensive) task than, for instance, the importation of medicine from China, there are relatively few who can pull it off. But among those who can, there is apparently some degree of competition to get projects off the ground. There are two reasons for this. The first is, of course, the high profits that can result from exploiting dirt cheap labor. The second is prestige. A successful construction project can get an ambitious official-cum-entrepreneur noticed, leading to promotions and further opportunities, as long as everyone gets their cut. This is especially true in the Kim Jong Un era, where the state likes to emphasize economic development and prosperity in its propaganda.

Alongside public-private construction by various branches of the government, money from Japanese-Koreans also finances building projects. During the colonial era, many Koreans emigrated to Japan, and between 1959 and the late 1970s, around 90,000 of their descendants responded to North Korea’s call to “return.” This was done through an organization named Chongryon, which acted as a de facto DPRK embassy in Japan. Chongryon and its members continue to operate pachinko gambling businesses in Japan to provide funds for their newly-impoverished relatives, and the North Korean state in general.

Returning Japanese-Koreans were often treated with suspicion in North Korea, and lacked the connections necessary to live well in such a capriciously-run country. The one trump card they possessed was the ability to get money from relatives in Japan, who were comparatively very wealthy (and unlike defector-sent money, the DPRK government welcomes it). It became common for Japanese-Koreans to invest this money in construction. These days, Chongryon is in deep organizational decline, but there are still significant private capital flows into North Korea from Japan, and these have been put to use in building the Chongjin Hotel, for instance, and numerous apartment projects.

Some apartment complexes are built with specific tenants in mind—military veterans, star athletes, or scientists, for example. Ministry of Foreign Affairs apartments in Pyongyang are considered rather ritzy, as foreign ministry staff have grown used to such apparent luxuries as round-the-clock electricity on postings abroad, and expect nothing less when they return home. In a country where blackouts are very common and winters brutally cold, 24-hour electricity is a real indicator of who can be considered properly “elite,” and who cannot.27

Just as in any capitalist country, apartments in North Korea can be traded. Probably a majority of units in an upmarket new-build apartment block will be sold on the market, rather than given to the state employees they were officially intended for. The only real difference is the lack of a formal system for apartment transfer, since owning private property is forbidden.28 If you live in any North Korean city, however, it will be possible to “sell” your apartment: people living in the same district are legally allowed to swap homes, so this may even be done in a semi-legitimate fashion, facilitated by a cash payment,29 though often, house trading is done without any registration at all. In Pyongyang, where apartment prices have risen more than ten-fold since the turn of the century, trading may even be facilitated by an (illegal) estate agent.

Apartments in ordinary areas and without lifts or reliable electricity30 may change hands for as little as US$3–4,000. Lower floors command higher prices, though. It is generally accepted that the poorer you are, the higher up you live. This contrasts with South Korea, in which the best views are prized. But when there are no lifts—or a power outage can get you stuck in one—the top floor suddenly seems less appealing.

Homes near the Sino–North Korean border are apparently quite expensive, since living there offers good business opportunities, and the ability to access Chinese cell phone networks. There are reports of high-quality apartments changing hands for US$30,000 in the border city of Hyesan, for instance. But this pales in comparison to the upmarket areas of the capital: a decent apartment in the central Pyongyang district of Mansudae (which is now jokingly referred to by expats as “Dubai” or “Pyonghattan”) will change hands for US$100,000 or more. There are even those who talk of US$250,000 apartments. That is a lot of money to spend on a place that you don’t officially own. But if you have that kind of sum at your disposal in North Korea, you will be able to ensure that it stays yours.


Those who visit Pyongyang regularly remark that the city is now undergoing a boom of sorts, and those with money are spending it openly. A few years ago, if you were wealthy, you kept it quiet and discreet—now, flaunting your wealth and consuming conspicuously is no longer frowned upon. From using a smartphone, flashing a Swiss watch, or carrying a designer bag, to drinking expensive coffee, what was once reserved for the upper elite is now a middle-class pastime. This inequality is most evident in Pyongyang, where people cannot help but be aware that there are those who can enjoy such pursuits, and those who cannot.

Though the central government itself is basically bankrupt, government agencies and elite officials are engaged in all manner of profitable enterprise. Trade with China, one of the main wealth creators, has risen from around US$500 million annually in 2000 to US$6 billion in 2013. So, in spite of the decline of Chongryon, new buildings are springing up all over Pyongyang, along with new restaurants, shops, and leisure facilities for the upper class and newly-emerging entrepreneurial class. Though the capital still may compare with a mere third-tier Chinese city in terms of development, the fact that one can go to a (quasi) privately-owned restaurant or cafe, order a pizza or a green tea latte and see people using iPad s, will come as a surprise to those who consider North Korea to be a universally impoverished, communist country.

The Mercedes, BMW, and Lexus cars imported into North Korea are not merely for the Kim family. Many government officials possess such vehicles, and usually favor black ones with tinted windows. Those of high rank can easily be discerned by their licence plates, which begin with “7.27.” But there are also plenty of rich Pyongyang businessmen (and indeed, North Koreans doing business in China) who own luxury foreign cars. There are indeed self-made millionaires in the capital who can afford to drive Lexuses brought in from China and sold at inflated prices; according to a source, there is even one entrepreneur who has built a net worth of more than US$10m, despite not being related to the Kims or any other elite family. He is simply a member of the emerging capitalist elite who managed to play the new public-private game well.31

But for the millions of North Koreans who live a hand-to-mouth existence, the idea of driving a BMW and living in a Mansudae apartment is beyond even imagination. In the countryside, farmers still plow the fields with oxen. Soldiers subsist on gruel. And even in the more ordinary districts of Pyongyang, there are hundreds of thousands of people living in poverty. The standard of living of the average North Korean is probably worse than it was in the 1970s. It is natural to assume that the rise of the new Pyongyang rich will add a layer of insult to injury for the poor masses.

Members of the core North Korean leadership are surely aware of this. They are also aware of the potentially disruptive effects of capitalism over their ability to maintain control in the long run. But equally, they know they cannot eradicate markets, as an end to private trade would mean total economic failure and a new famine, threatening the very survival of the state. At the same time, public-private capitalism also allows the leadership to build patronage and loyalty in an era where ideology no longer matters.

Of course, nobody truly knows what economic future the regime leadership intends for North Korea. And it is, in fact, difficult to speak of “the regime” as an organization with a single goal, because it is heavily factionalized. But if we accept that the one thing each faction has in common is the desire for the survival of the system, a reasonable guess may run as follows: the DPRK will allow capitalism and economic reform to develop at the minimum necessary pace required to head off long-term collapse—whilst resisting more rapid change, for the exact same reason.

This explains the lure of the Special Economic Zone. With an SEZ, one can generate hard cash whilst maintaining a firm grip on the rest of the country. It therefore makes understandable why the Kim Jong Un administration announced in November 2013 that it would create 14 new SEZs, a very large number for such a small country. Until now, existing SEZs, like the Rason Special Economic Zone, have failed to live up to expectations. But that will not stop future efforts to generate cash without embracing socio-political change.

With marketization, the leadership is walking a tightrope. Adapting too slowly—or too quickly—could have fateful consequences for the regime. However: we should be careful not to be too easily seduced by the “collapsist” school of Pyongyangology. The DPRK has already survived the fall of the Soviet Union, a devastating famine, and the abject failure of its own economic system. Economically, North Korea is a modern-day Wild West, but political control is a different story, especially in the capital. The Kims and their associates still hold some very powerful cards. Patronage, fear of punishment, propaganda, a certain amount of residual respect for Kim Il Sung, and the seductive power of monarchy—for that is what the DPRK is—all strengthen their hand.


1. It is, however, quite common to see rural North Koreans using sacks marked “US AID.” It is unlikely they know what this means, but the sacks have the Korean for “A gift from the American people” stamped on the outside.

2. Government control of information flow will also have aided the regime in the short term. To illustrate, the Tiananmen Square massacre became known to some Pyongyangites simply via word of mouth, but most North Koreans would never have heard about it at the time. By contrast, they were most certainly allowed to hear about the 1980 Gwangju massacre in South Korea.

3. There is much debate over the final human cost of the famine. Official UN population figures show no significant decline in the population during that period. None of this, however, should be allowed to overshadow the overwhelming tragedy of the 1994–98 period itself.

4. One member of an elite Pyongyang family states that her family had enough to eat during the famine, due to government handouts. Her friends in the same apartment building though were not; her family shared their food with them

5. Though they, too, now participate heavily in market activities, as they are the ones best placed to benefit.

6. Even the way North Korean men talk is more manly; they apparently consider the way South Korean men speak to be effeminate.

7. The former President of Sierra Leone, Valentine Strasser, may be considered luckier than some deposed dictators, in that he lives as a free man in his own country. However, he makes do on a US$50 per month pension, and lives in a slum with his mother. He reportedly drinks gin all day long to forget about his dramatic fall from grace.

8. If you visit North Korea, you will also be expected to use Chinese yuan or euros. Before the early 2000s, foreign visitors were able to use won—or rather, a separate won unavailable to Koreans, in order to keep the two camps separate. Cuba does this still with the peso and the chavito. Unlike Cuba, however, North Korea offered two kinds of won: glorious red banknotes for those from friendly socialist countries, and suspicious blue ones for capitalist running-dogs and imperialist lackeys. Today, however, even foreign tourists can get their hands on North Korean won by changing money at gray market rates in a select few banks, department stores, or sometimes on the street. But like the exchange rates on offer, doing so is a legal gray area, and some tourists may be duped by a skilful seller into handing over a fist of Yuan in return for a few souvenir notes.

9. From c. 1997 until c. 2004, the dollar was the preferred foreign currency. When North Koreans feared U.S. sanctions might hit their dollar supplies, they theoretically switched to the Euro, which were in shorter supply. Now, however, the Yuan is taking over.

10. One could consider this a matter of saving face. No shopper is seriously going to ask why they cannot buy in won, as they already know the real answer.

11. In 2014 the government introduced a new 5000 won bill, the highest denomination note, that was not emblazoned with Kim Il Sung’s face—thus indicating the late leader’s visage will be saved for a new, higher denomination note of 10,000 or possibly even 50,000 won. Increasing the highest single-use note is yet another sign of the government recognizing (and accommodating for) the black market value of the won.

12. The day that the Pyongyang Metro starts charging 300 or 500 won instead of five could well be the day that the government finally signals acceptance of the market economy.

13. These days, there is even an arrangement (the “August 3rd rule”) whereby workers may pay a monthly fee of 50,000 won (around US$7) to be exempted from work, freeing them up to engage in private business. Effectively, then, this fee is a tax on private earnings.

14. Much foreign aid to North Korea is corn, however, and rice is too expensive for many lower-class North Koreans.

15. Diplomatic sources running joint agricultural projects with the North Koreans and other foreign agencies say the food deficit gap is closing, although like any other crop, the weather can have a severe effect on the North Korean rice harvest..

16. For this reason, it is commonly said that an inspector with a defector-financed family in his area never need worry about his income. Of course, this is because he can extract bribes from them.

17. Ethnic Chinese in North Korea have much greater freedom to enter and exit the country. This privilege can be used to make money—arranging remittances, importing and exporting goods, and so on. For more information on hwagyo, please see chapter 7.

18. The cash is handed over in yuan—thus contributing to the “yuan-ization” of the northern regions of North Korea.

19. Since 2014, the North Korean authorities have been using more advanced techniques including cell phone signal detectors to root out illegal phone use. There has also been a fairly extensive crackdown on border-crosses on both the Chinese and North Korean sides.

20. For the average North Korean, however, permission is unlikely to be granted. One needs a good background and connections. A well-connected broker could also get you out for a fee.

21. The average Air Koryo flight from Beijing to Pyongyang will also be loaded full of flat-screen TVs and other high-end items, purchased by North Korean traders in China. There are in fact shops near the DPRK embassy in Beijing aimed specifically at North Koreans, created for this purpose. Knowing this, one must again question the efficacy of sanctions enforcement.

22. State salaries, although meager, still come with some tokens that can be exchanged for food. Therefore, although the money itself is useless, the small amount of rations it provides is a useful supplement.

23. That said, the average South Korean company man works a little harder. In both countries, workers start early—it is custom to arrive at the office before your boss does. North Korean company men get in at around 7.30 am, and clean their office before having an 8 am meeting. Actual work starts at 9 am, with time at 12 noon for a packed lunch. In the afternoon, it is possible to have a nap until 2 pm—something that no self-respecting chaebol boss in Seoul would allow his workers to get away with. Following a 6 pm meeting, workers head home. Brow-beaten Seoul salarymen will still have a few hours to go at this point.

24. According to reports by the United Nations panel that monitors the enforcement of UN sanctions on North Korea, a significant amount of hard currency also comes from illicit weapons deals with other states, including Syria, Iran, Libya, Tanzania, Somalia, Eritrea, Uganda, and Ethiopia, to name a few.

25. Men with such jobs are also considered highly eligible, and will be able to marry into elite families to further cement their status. Since the late 1990s, Pyongyang has seen the rise of the financial-political power couple, who combine their respective advantages and pass them on to their children.

26. Their morale is also correspondingly low, according to many sources. The average North Korean soldier is exploited for his labor, poorly trained, and poorly fed. In the event of serious trouble, Kim Jong Un would probably not be able to rely on his rank-and-file troops, and would instead have to turn to a small number of combat-ready special forces soldiers. From an outside policy perspective, this further underlines the fact that the DPRK will never voluntarily give up its nuclear weapons, which remain its only real deterrent.

27. If one has enough money, it is also possible to bribe one’s way to an electricity hook-up from a nearby military installation or government office.

28. Except in very rare cases, where a small, unmodernized house has remained in the possession of one family from before Kim Il Sung’s land reform.

29. Sometimes, the officials processing the paperwork know exactly what is going on, and demand a cut for themselves.

30. Electricity supply is exceptionally weak in North Korea. Even the grandest buildings of Pyongyang, such as the People’s Study Hall, must economize by either leaving their lights off, or keeping them on the lowest setting, for most of the day. They are turned up full when important guests arrive.

31. What political impact could such developments have? While new business elites may have their own political agendas, it is also important to remember that their privileged position depends upon regime approval and regime connections. North Korea’s new rich are essentially business partners with the state, and will therefore be wary of rocking the boat. What is truly required is a large, emerging middle class.

Chapter 2

Leisure Time in North Korea

Based on the popular image of the DPRK, one may consider the idea of “having fun in North Korea” mere black comedy. Life is, indeed, hard for the average North Korean, and the usual enablers of fun—free time and disposable income—are in short supply. In South Korea, everyone machine-washes their clothes; an excellent road and rail network means that anywhere in the country is within easy reach and people have money to spend on a seemingly endless range of diversions. None of these things are true of North Korea. South Koreans are also not required to attend “self-criticism” sessions and neighbourhood meetings on a regular basis, as their Northern cousins are.1

However, just like the rest of the world, North Koreans do still seek out opportunities to enjoy themselves. This is in spite of their tough situation—and runs contrary to the ridiculous international media image that suggests that DPRK citizens are robots who simply live to serve their “Dear Leader.” Moreover, as a result of recent technological changes, North Koreans are finding a few more ways to have fun than before. Some of those changes are even beginning to affect the government’s ability to control the people.

Foreign TV and Movies

One of the more benign things Kim Jong Il was known for was his love of cinema. He had a personal collection of thousands of movies. Kim was also a fan of South Korean television—particularly that of national broadcaster KBS. When members of South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun’s entourage asked Kim Jong Il why he liked KBS during a summit in 2007, the dictator replied, “I’m accustomed to state-owned things.”

However, Kim Jong Il did not extend the privilege to the rest of his countrymen. The consumption of foreign media is punishable by law in the DPRK. But that does not mean that nobody consumes it. According to a 2010 survey,2 around half of 250 North Korean defectors questioned said they had seen foreign television or movies, and many officials in Pyongyang will privately admit the same.3 Four percent had even directly tuned into KBS television from North Korea. Furthermore, all of those who said they had tuned in also claimed to be regular viewers, suggesting that KBS is very attractive to those North Koreans able to receive the signal.

The survey focused disproportionately on those from the north of North Korea—particularly North Hamgyong Province, since there are a high number of defectors from there—and so the result is actually likely to underestimate the popularity of directly-accessed South Korean television in the DPRK. Why? Because only those living within 50–75 miles of South Korea are able to pick up the signal, with the range depending upon atmospheric conditions.4 People in places like Kaesong or Sari-won (both not so far from the border) may tune in, but those from Hamgyong generally cannot.

Though northern North Koreans cannot directly tune into KBS, they can, however, watch South Korean shows beamed in from China. The border region around North Korea has a large Korean population, so stations like Yanji TV do broadcast Korean language content. Eighteen percent of those North Korean defectors surveyed said they had seen Yanji TV from inside the DPRK, with 15 percent adding they had watched it on a weekly basis. To illustrate how relatively boring state television is, 51 percent of those surveyed said they had seen North Korean channels—a unsurprisingly high figure considering that it has the advantage of being legal—but only 14 percent said they had watched it weekly.5

Television and radio sets sold in North Korea come with presets tuned to state-owned broadcasters like Korean Central Television (KCTV), the Korean Educational and Cultural Network, or the Pyongyang-only Mansudae TV. A TV set legally sold in North Korea cannot access anything else—unless one is prepared to break the law and tamper with it. And furthermore, North Korean TV is broadcast using the PAL video system, unlike the NSTC used by South Korea. But North Koreans are nothing if not resourceful (and inevitably so, given their tough circumstances), so a thriving illegal business in “mod-ding” TVs and radios has developed. Television repairmen in North Korea are able to earn a profitable living. There are also plenty of people who watch on Chinese sets made for both PAL and NSTC systems.

Direct reception of Chinese or South Korean television is dwarfed by the importation of movies and TV series via China, on both DVD and USB memory sticks. The DVD became commonplace in North Korea in the mid-2000s, and since roughly 2010, the USB stick has taken off and, in some cases, taken over—thanks in part to its small size, which is easy to conceal from the watchful eyes of State Security Department agents. The former has already had an effect on the state’s control of information, but it is the latter which, as we shall see, has the greater potential to bring change.

Chinese-Korean6 traders with good connections bring in pirated DVDs of American, South Korean, and Chinese movies and television shows—perhaps several thousand discs at a time. They may have to bribe officials with two or three hundred. Then they sell the rest to wholesalers in border towns like Hyesan; the wholesalers then resell them at a profit to smaller jangmadang traders. These wholesalers need regime connections, due to the fact that their business is not merely illegal, but also undermines state control over information. Punishment is consequently much more severe. Ordinary traders therefore do not engage in DVD wholesaling unless they have a very high tolerance of risk, or the means to pay large bribes.

DVDs ultimately reach the jangmadang at an equivalent price of less than US$1 per disc, and are bought by a surprisingly wide range of people. As the product is illicit, one may apparently euphemistically ask the seller if she has jaemiingnun-geot (“something interesting”), as though one were talking to a drug dealer. And as with television, most people will have trusted friends or family members they can watch with, even if they do not possess their own DVD player. Many do watch DVDs of North Korean shows, of course, but it is foreign content that has become the real draw. Around half the population has watched a foreign DVD.

But in an era where computer ownership is also growing rapidly, North Koreans are now increasingly likely to seek out video files delivered by USB stick as well. In fact, some say that this method has started to replace the DVD. Many North Koreans are now sharing USB sticks loaded with video files of foreign movies and TV shows, and as one may expect, pornography. The USB stick has certain major advantages over a DVD. First of all, the contents of a USB stick can be endlessly copied and distributed. They are also safer. One old method the authorities used to crack down on viewers of foreign TV and movies was to cut the electricity to a building, and then sweep through it, prizing open DVD players to see what people were watching. Of course, one cannot easily remove a disc if the player is not switched on. But tiny USB sticks can simply be removed in a second, and easily hidden.7

Due to the decline in genuine loyalty to the regime, the viewing of foreign TV and movies now goes largely unpunished. That is to say, the typical official who catches someone watching illicit media will simply want to extract a bribe and then go on his way. Those who watch foreign media do risk being sent to prison camps, but more often than not they will simply end up handing over cash to officials if caught.8 The rapid growth of DVD and USB content delivery means that authorities cannot even hope to monitor viewers effectively.

This, in turn, is emboldening the populace. Those who defected three or four years ago may state that they watched foreign content alone, but these days, North Koreans are watching with close friends and family members (albeit with the doors locked, and the curtains closed). People are also less likely to inform on each other today.9 In fact, it is common to hear of North Koreans excitedly discussing South Korean dramas with friends, and even neighbors. Giveaway South Korean-style expressions like dangyeon haji (“of course”) are reportedly creeping into the North Korean lexicon,10 creating an illicit thrill when two fans come to recognize each other through their mutual understanding of the phrase. People form firm friendships through South Korean TV fandom—discussing it with another person is an act of trust, so it enables quick bonding.

The South Korean gangster movie Chingu (“Friend”) was an underground hit in Pyongyang, particularly among school-age members of elite families. Set in the south coast city of Busan, Chingu’s dialog is full of dialect11 phrases, including one notoriously ribald line that refers to a female character’s alleged sexual excitement. That line apparently became popular among teenage boys in Pyongyang.

Just like in South Korea, the most popular shows are drama series,12 which typically feature storylines built around love triangles, family strife, and beautiful (but poor) women marrying sons of chaebol conglomerate fathers, and feature a tendency for protagonists to die tragically. To South Korea ns, drama shows are cathartic, or escapist; they do not so much reflect real life as exaggerate it for emotional effect. But North Koreans praise South Korean drama for its relative realism. North Korean television very rarely shows the bad going un-punished, or the good losing out in the end. A North Korean drama hero will be a model worker who eventually gets his just reward. This is neither believable nor interesting.

But what can be inferred from these developments? First of all, the rapid growth in viewership of South Korean and other foreign TV shows and movies may be forcing the government to up its game. North Korean TV news now looks late twentieth century, in having proper graphics and better sets. Furthermore, sources state that more diverse foreign movies are now available on North Korean TV. Chinese and Russia n movies (dubbed into Korean) have always been a fixture on TV schedules, but now, they sometimes compete for airtime with Bollywood movies, for instance. Even the British movie Bend It Like Beckham was shown on state TV in 2010.

More importantly, the foreign TV mini-revolution is undermining state control. Until the mid-1990s, the government had a near-monopoly over the dissemination of information in North Korea, with the only alternative source being by rumor.13 In the past, North Koreans were told that South Koreans were poorer than they were.14 Since almost everyone in North Korea now knows that this is utterly false (thanks to South Korean TV), this message has been discarded. In its place is an even greater insistence that South Koreans are “puppets” of America. The “puppet” characterization is an old one, but it has gained a new lease of life in the digital information age.

Foreign TV and film is also changing the way the United States is viewed by North Koreans. Propaganda has historically shown Americans as unequivocally evil people, whose sole intention is to colonize the world and destroy countries that resist—countries like the DPRK. Posters show American soldiers grinning psychotically as they point bayonets at Korean babies, with their terrified mothers unable to do anything but watch in horror.15 But times are changing—many defectors report having moderated their views of Uncle Sam, having seen Hollywood movies, like the ubiquitous Titanic, whilst still in North Korea.

From surveys and discussions with North Koreans, it appears that today, a great many people trust foreign media more than the bluntly propagandized state media. This is even the case for loyal Pyongyangites, who do not harbor serious thoughts of defection. In the case of defectors, many say that foreign TV and movies helped make it easier for them to leave, preparing them practically and emotionally. Some even say it provoked a curiosity in the outside world to the extent that it was a decisive factor in making them want to leave North Korea.

The growth of USB technology may well accelerate the pace of change. Humble USB sticks allow for the rapid dissemination of media files; they can be passed around easily and re-used again and again; and, they are easily concealed, as noted above. In a country whose people lack internet access, USB data storage has the potential to act as a kind of substitute internet in which digital information is passed hand-to-hand. As the computer inexorably makes its way into more North Korean households, its ability to undermine state control will only increase.

It is very important to note, however, that the post-famine information mini-revolution has not as yet provoked increased hatred of the regime, or a desire for regime change. It would no doubt be tempting to leap to such conclusions, but supporting evidence is in short supply. One obvious reason for this is the fact that outside views of North Korea are limited, so there is little to contradict the official DPRK line. Even South Korean television contains relatively little North Korea-related content, since the average South Korean is mostly uninterested in the situation north of the DMZ. Generally, what portrayals do exist tend to either be behind the times, or risibly wide of the mark (witness the James Bond16 movie Die Another Day), harming their credibility. One may speculate what the results may be if the frequency and quality of North Korean news coverage and fictional portrayals were improved.

Although it may seem counter-intuitive from an outside perspective, it is important to note that most North Koreans do not yet seem to blame the regime itself for the problems their country faces. Those who work with large numbers of defectors sometimes observe that North Koreans do not tend to hate the leadership until after they defect. And even then, whilst most express negative feelings towards the government and regime after defecting, that does not necessarily extend to negative feelings towards the country itself. As we should expect, most defectors miss their hometowns, friends and family left behind and even things like the food they grew up eating. Korean cuisine varies by region, and there is even a quiet smuggling trade bringing certain North Korean foodstuffs to defectors in the south.

For the majority of North Koreans, the act of watching South Korean TV and movies is not a political act. They do it for entertainment purposes, in a land that offers precious little entertainment of its own.17 The fact that it is delivered in the same language makes it even more attractive. As people become acquainted, though, their attitudes to the outside world do change, and some even decide that they would like to see it for themselves. But the possibility of foreign media encouraging North Koreans to somehow rise up in large numbers against Kim family rule remains a long way off.

Reading and Comic Books

In both countries, people tend to see reading as something associated with study; the most commonly read books are textbooks, which facilitate the passing of exams. Youngsters in both nations study traditional subjects such as science and mathematics, but North Korean children are also made to learn heavily propagandized biographies of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. Serious literature fans do exist, but their access to material is limited by censorship and a lack of money. Those wealthy enough to own a collection of books (and who have an intellectual bent) will probably be familiar with a handful of classic Russian and English writers. Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, Austen, and Dickens are among the most read. Thomas Hardy’snovel, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, with its theme of peasantry threatened by capitalist industrialization, has also proved a popular novel for discussion amongst university students.

There is one widely popular form of reading material, though: the comic book. Just as there is manga in Japan and its cognate manhwa18 in South Korea, North Koreans also enjoy a good kurimchaek(“picture book”). Kurimchaek are available in all towns and cities, at portable bookstalls called chaekmaedae. These stalls began to appear in the mid- to late-2000s, and are yet another example of the emerging public-private capitalism of North Korea.

Chaekmaedae are organized by government libraries and publishing houses. They offer plenty of innocent love stories, but mainly, the emphasis is on propaganda. However, unlike more serious books offering an often distorted view of Korean history or the ruling family, kurimchaek propaganda is entertaining—and this makes all the difference. The stories typically depict war, spies who infiltrate Washington, D.C. or Seoul, or David versus Goliath19 type battles (which serve as allegories for the DPRK’s stand against the United States). Others, such as the old classic, Sonyon Jangsu (The Boy Commander), deal with Korea’s struggle for independence from Japan. These tales are genuinely enjoyed by the public, and as such, kurimchaek are among the more effective and subtle means of propaganda available to the North Korean government.

Chaekmaedae offer comic books for rent or sale, but a lack of money means the average customer prefers to rent. Like any other street hawker, those running the chaekmaedae take advantage of busy areas to turn a profit, offering low-cost products. Particularly favored locations include outside schools and universities, where teenagers (the main target customer group) hang out. Train stations are also popular, as North Korean trains are notorious for arriving extremely late, unannounced, or not at all. Bored travelers find chaekmaedae a godsend, as that hoary old line, “at least he made the trains run on time,” certainly did not apply to Kim Jong Il. In the busy university districts of Pyongyang, students are known to slip out between classes to chaekmaedae near the university gates to sit down and spend precious free time flicking through the latest spy story or tale of military history before returning to lectures.

A typical chaekmaedae has a fairly substantial offering of the latest or most popular (and correspondingly well-thumbed) comic books laid flat along the top of a mobile wooden bench or table. The colorful and graphic covers of the kurimchaek catch the eyes of customers, just as magazines on stalls in Tokyo or Hong Kong do. Some chaekmaedae also offer e-books for sale or rent; these are carried on small USB drives—another indication of North Korea’s changing times. Buying a kurimchaek can cost as much as 1,000 won, so most prefer to rent them for around 100 won a time (less than 2 US cents at the black market exchange rate). Most customers stand next to the comic book stall, quickly scanning the high-contrast and lively images on the covers. Some public libraries also offer the service.

The chaekmaedae are staffed by middle-aged ajumma who request an ID card to be left as a deposit with the rental fee. Bright and colorful on the outside but printed on poor quality paper in black-and-white, the average kurimchaek is roughly equivalent in size to an A6 piece of paper, and easily folded in half to make it easier to quickly scan the graphic panels before the allotted rental time is up. Some North Koreans proudly boast of being able to read an entire edition in 10–15 minutes when in a hurry.

Although there are plenty of conventional bookshops in North Korea, book ownership is normally considered a luxury. The emergence of the chaekmaedae is therefore significant: it means that domestic literature is reaching a much wider audience. This serves as a reminder that not all capitalistic changes taking place in North Korea today will necessarily have negative implications for the regime. There is, however, growing but incomplete evidence to suggest that some chaekmaedae may also stock non-ideological or even foreign comic books. Eyewitness accounts in the last few years cite graphic editions of famous Western tales like Pinocchio as being available in some more rural chaekmaedae.


It has become a cliché to say that South Korea is the most “wired” country on the planet, and North Korea the least. It is true though that very, very few North Koreans have ever used the internet. Those who have are firmly within the elite, and even they tend to use Yahoo! e-mail addresses rather than official ones.20 Considering that the state sees information control as a critical means of monopolizing power—and that South Korean TV and the USB stick are already breaking that monopoly—it is unlikely that North Koreans’ internet deprivation will be rectified anytime soon, despite persistent rumors to the contrary that began in the early 2010s.

A growing minority of North Koreans do have some access to computers, though. And the government, though wary of the internet, regularly mentions computers and tablet devices in its propaganda, and encourages citizens to learn more about IT. One could compare the overall situation to that of wealthier countries in 1990: though still somewhat the preserve of the few, there is a sense that computers are “the future.” And just as in 1990, the vast majority of those computers are not networked.

Laptop computers are most prized among North Koreans, and particularly by those who enjoy watching foreign media. This is because they are small and portable, and thus more easily hidden. At places like Kangdong Market in Pyongyang, a Chinese laptop will cost US$300 or more (depending on the spec). This is a lot of money to most North Koreans. Secondhand desktops are bringing computing closer to the average citizen, though, costing around US$150 each. One plausible estimate puts the combined total number of laptops and desktops in the country at around four million, or around one for every six people. Around half of those computers are in wealthier Pyongyang, though, skewing the average somewhat. There is probably one computer for every eleven people outside the capital.

Some computers are connected to intranet networks. These are DPRK-only “walled gardens,” and act as a kind of official North Korean internet. Hacker collective Anonymous once claimed to have infiltrated one of these networks, but since there will have been no link to the outside world, it is hard to see how this might have been possible.21 The largest network, Kwangmyong, is free to use and is accessible from universities and government offices, as well as privately, for those with a phone line and a computer. Much of Kwangmyong’s content is simply taken from the regular internet, and posted after passing the eyes of censors. Kwangmyong also provides e-mail, messenger chat, a library of e-books, news, and access to North Korean websites.

Visitors to Pyongyang these days like to play “spot the tablet.” For members of the elite, a Chinese-bought tablet is both a fun toy and a status symbol. It is therefore becoming common to see young “Pyonghattan” dwellers sitting in cafes, playing with their mobile devices as they sip on lattes. The North Korean government has itself gotten in on the act, having produced its own Android tablet, the Samjiyon. The Samjiyon isn’t truly a North Korean product, though. Its operating system is Android, and its inner circuitry comes from Yecon, a Chinese company based in the manufacturing powerhouse city of Shenzhen. It costs the equivalent of US$200, and according to one source who managed to buy one at a Pyongyang trade fair, it has a version of “Angry Birds,” a PDF file reader, and some pre-loaded e-books. Its capabilities are comparable with most internationally known tablets—with one exception. The Samjiyon has no Wi-Fi function. Wi-Fi would be a completely useless feature in North Korea.22

Given its price, and the fact that any North Korean with money can now buy foreign goods, it is unlikely that the Samjiyon will be a hit. According to sources across all social levels and geographical regions, North Korean products are universally considered to be unfashionable. Anything Japanese or European is desirable, while anything Chinese is considered low-quality and cheap, but slightly better than its North Korean equivalent. One could simply consider the Samjiyon a propaganda effort, aimed at showing North Koreans (and the outside world) that the DPRK is joining the information revolution.

The sight of Pyongyangites using tablets is eye-catching, but the real focus of attention should be on the PC—or rather, the PC in conjunction with the USB drive. According to a survey of 250 recent defectors in 2010, 16 percent had enjoyed access to computers. Given the previous explosive growth seen in access to television and DVDs, it is reasonable to assume that this figure will be much higher now. And as one single computer may be used as a conduit via which a potentially unlimited number of people can receive foreign media on USB sticks, the PC’s potential for undermining state control of information is enormous.

The foreign media-plus-PC combination has produced another, more benignly curious, outcome. Internet cafes (or PC-bang) are everywhere in South Korea, and serve as networked game rooms in which youngsters can compete against each other; North Koreans have apparently seen PC-bangs on South Korean television, and decided to emulate them, and thus, there are a few non-networked internet cafes in North Korea, full of game-ready PCs. Those who play on them must play alone, though. The closest thing North Koreans have to the internet is file-sharing via USB sticks.23


What is eumjugamu? Its literal meaning is “drinking, music, and dancing.” The three tend to go together, of course, and nowhere more so than in Korea, where a combined term for them exists. Although one will very rarely read of it in a “serious” English language book about Korea, eumjugamu is an important part of life in Korea. There exists a stereotype that portrays Koreans as the Irish of the East; but unlike some stereotypes, this one contains a strong element of truth.

Anyone who has spent time in South Korea will attest to the joys of a night out drinking beer and soju (a colorless spirit traditionally based on potatoes or rice), followed by an hour or two in a noraebang (karaoke) room, where one may sing along, dance, and shake a tambourine to one’s favorite songs. And while we now approach seven decades of division in Korea, the spirit of eumjugamu—which can be traced back to shamanic tradition and ancient festivals like Dano—is so deeply rooted in Korean culture that those in the North still have an undimmed love for it.

The DPRK’s leaders have certainly been no exception. Kim Jong Il was known for his love of partying. He was a particularly heavy drinker,24 who favored expensive Hennessy cognac—also the drink of many South Korean chaebol leaders. His ci