Secretive, mysterious, and almost certainly dangerous, North Korea is an object of endless fascinationand worryfor the rest of the world. The world’s most inaccessible nuclear power, it retains Gulag-style prison camps, completely blocks Internet access, and forbids citizens to talk to foreigners without approvalwhich makes the occasional report from a smart, dogged, connected analyst all the more valuable.North Korea: State of Paranoia is just such a report. Drawing on an impressive range of insider sources and previously unseen archival material, Paul French examines the nation and its ruling regime in forensic detail. He offers a close analysis of the history and politics of North Korea; Pyongyang’s complex relations with South Korea, Japan, China, and the United States; and the troubling implications of Kim Jong-Un’s increasingly belligerent leadership in the years since his father, Kim Jong-il, died. Straightforward and unsensationalistic, North Korea nonetheless paints a picture of a frightening unstable country, one whose sudden collapse could have globally dangerous consequences.
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About the Author
Paul French has lived and worked in Shanghai for many years and is a highly regarded commentator on Asia and the author of a number of books.
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State of Paranoia
By Paul French
Zed Books LtdCopyright © 2015 Paul French
All rights reserved.
A normal day in Pyongyang
North Korea's capital remains one of the least known places on earth. For more than half a century the government of the DPRK has carefully managed the availability of images and reporting from Pyongyang, meaning that for people outside North Korea the city remains largely unknown. Those images of Pyongyang that do emerge are carefully stage-managed and usually reflect only highly organised processions or parades during ceremonial events. Rarely if ever is the life of the ordinary residents shown. Similarly, within the country Pyongyang is shown by state media as the capital of the revolution; hence many North Koreans have little idea either of the reality of daily existence in the capital.
This lack of familiarity with Pyongyang has gone a long way towards hiding the nature of daily life in the capital. Life in Pyongyang is highly politicised and regimented; yet increasingly, as the economy has collapsed and food shortages have continued, attention has been fixed on daily survival, coping with shortages and maintaining something approximating a normal life.
Pyongyang: capital of our revolution
The day starts early in Pyongyang, the city described by the government as the 'capital of revolution'. North Koreans emerge from bed at around 6.00 a.m., dress and head off to work, where many arrive by 7.30. Most Pyongyang residents (the city's name means 'level ground') live in high-rise buildings, hastily erected over the sixty years since the end of the Korean War. The blocks are lined up along the city's wide boulevards and house most of Pyongyang's 2.5 million-plus population. The apartment blocks, which were erected fast to house a massive homeless population devastated by war, and the noticeably few office blocks are now showing signs of their age. They were mostly built in the 1960s when Pyongyang was rebuilding after being almost completely flattened by American bombing during the war. There are still a few narrow single-lane and some two-lane roads, though most streets are boulevards of uniformly utilitarian high-rise blocks – what the nation's founder Kim Il-sung liked to think were the hallmark of a city of the future. The war-induced necessity of rapidly rebuilding Pyongyang, and the political policy of resettling many rural people in cities and towns, have given North Korea a relatively high population density of approximately 185,000 people per square kilometre – similar to Italy or Switzerland.
Those who live on higher floors may have to set out for work or school a little earlier than those lower down. Due to the chronic power shortages affecting the entire DPRK, many apartment-building elevators have long stopped operating, or work only intermittently. As many buildings are between twenty and forty storeys tall, this is an inconvenience. In general the major problem is for the older residents, who find the stairs difficult. Many senior citizens are effectively trapped in their apartments; there are stories of old people who, having moved in, have never been able to leave. Even in the better blocks elevators can be sporadic and so people just don't take the chance. Families make great efforts to relocate their older relatives on lower floors or in houses, but this is difficult and a bribe is sometimes required. With food shortages now constant, many older people share their meagre rations with their grandchildren, weakening themselves further and making the prospect of climbing stairs even more daunting.
Keeping warm is also problematic. Apartment buildings are largely heated by hot water, houses by charcoal briquettes. However, if the electricity supply is suspended – a not uncommon event given the ongoing fuel crisis – then no heat is available. Most residents stay in their winter clothes all day, even sleeping in them. People who manage to obtain chicken or duck feathers use them to make warm quilts to see them through the icy winters.
Every day people liaise with their neighbours on the current electricity situation. At times a large proportion of Pyongyang operates an 'alternative suspension of electricity supply' system, meaning that when buildings on one side of the street are blacked out the other side of the street gets power. Neighbours monitor the situation, often sending children or older relatives to watch television in a friend's apartment across the road. When the power supply alternation time arrives there is a mad rush of children as they head for their friends' apartments across the road. Even 'prioritised' buildings can suffer these interruptions of supply; this was not uncommon in the late 1990s, and occasionally happens today.
Apartments cut off use candles or carbide and kerosene lights, though many families are too poor to afford these alternative power sources, which are anyway in short supply and relatively expensive. Those with access to foreign currency and connections might have a tank battery to supply electricity, and thereby avoid the worst of the power cuts, but they will have to spend tens of thousands of DPRK won (NKW) to get one. Some apartments and houses have no problem with regular power cuts, such as those of the more senior party cadres (defined as above primary party secretary level), leadership guards and senior army personnel. On the other hand, the power never gets cut to, for example, the Mansudae Statue, to the Juche Tower on the banks of the Taedong river, which flows through central Pyongyang, or to the numerous neon propaganda signs on top of buildings. If nothing else, Pyongyang residents can console themselves with the fact that the situation outside the capital is invariably much worse.
A roof over your head
Worrying about the electricity supply means you have a house or apartment, though privacy is not always guaranteed. It is common for two households to have to share in Pyongyang. For a small family in a house with three rooms, it is not unusual for another householder of the same age to be moved in. While people don't like surrendering valuable living space, it is often dictated by the work unit. House and apartment shortages are serious throughout North Korea and in Pyongyang in particular. According to the Korea Institute for National Reunification's White Paper on Human Rights in North Korea, the supply of housing in the DPRK is around 56–63 per cent of demand. All housing is apportioned by the state, and quality and location are dependent on social rank – the DPRK's social ranking system of fifty-one political classifications assigns everyone a place in the national hierarchy. With a growing population, the overcrowding is not about to improve.
In Pyongyang, it can take two or three years for a newlywed couple to be allocated a one-room apartment attached to a communal kitchen. Many newly married couples continue to live with one set of parents for as long as a decade. The quickest way to escape this situation is to have a contact in the housing allocation section, under the jurisdiction of the People's Committee Urban Management Bureau, which handles housing allocations. For Korean Workers' Party (KWP) cadres, the party headquarters assigns housing. The very senior benefit from the few luxury compounds.
So long as a person is employed by the same work unit their allocated dwelling is usually theirs until they die. They invariably live close to co-workers, thereby increasing the self-monitoring of society. If reassigned to a different work unit, they may have to move. However, people do not expect anything much bigger or better, as virtually all Pyongyang apartment buildings are the same size and quality. Outside the city you might get a so-called 'harmonica' house, Korean-style row houses invariably consisting of three or four single-storey buildings of one room and one kitchen each. These are mostly suited for newlyweds or families with just one child. They have the additional luxury of a small garden, which means the couple can grow vegetables to supplement their diet. Senior cadres, military officials, favoured academics and enterprise managers can get more – typically two rooms, a veranda, shower, flush toilet and hot running water. Rural workers on collective farms can typically expect two rooms and a shared kitchen in a smaller apartment building or possibly a more traditional two- or three-room Korean-style farmhouse.
In both the capital and the provinces, complaints about noise from the neighbours are common as apartment walls are thin. Buildings are invariably freezing cold in the winter and very hot in the summer, as central heating and air conditioning are rare. People have been known to weep on the day they move into a new apartment and immediately start decorating with wallpaper and oiled paper for the floors. (A house-warming party is obligatory and guests all take small gifts.)
As the housing shortage worsened, so many people started to bypass the official route. Clandestine house transactions have been reported in Pyongyang since the mid-1980s. One famous story concerns Pyongyang's Kwangbok (Liberation) Street, which was built for ordinary workers with 25,000 family units, though deemed to be of superior quality compared to Pyongyang's regular housing stock. Apparently a group of wealthier North Koreans who used to live in Japan and some senior KWP cadres bribed the urban management officials with foreign currency and electronic appliances and obtained the apartments for themselves. This story got around Pyongyang and caused some disquiet, leading to a government crackdown on illegal transactions. However, others have found ways around the system. People who have left the DPRK report that a one-room apartment in Pyongyang can be 'bought' for US$400 and a three-room one for US$1,500, though prices are now reportedly skyrocketing. Plans to build 100,000 new homes in Pyongyang as part of the celebration of the 100th anniversary of Kim Il-sung's birth in 2012 reportedly came to naught and were cancelled by Kim Jong-un due to a lack of raw materials, inadequate electricity supply and the poor quality of the initial construction. Housing shortages persist.
As an unofficial housing market emerged in Pyongyang, in the countryside in the late 1990s many families sold their homes to raise money either to start some sort of bartering business, buy black-market goods or escape to China. At this time houses were reportedly trading for as little as US$15. For those who need currency to buy housing, an informal foreign currency loan will require the payment of 20 to 30 per cent in annual interest – perhaps even as high as 50 per cent per month. With the food shortages worsening, cases have been reported of families becoming homeless in the provinces after swapping their accommodation rights for food.
Badges, bicycles and fashions
In Pyongyang a growing number of women work in white collar office jobs; they make up an estimated 90 per cent of workers in light industry and 80 per cent of the rural workforce. Many women are now the major wage-earner in the family – though still housewife, mother and cook as well as a worker, or perhaps a soldier. Make-up is now increasingly common in Pyongyang, though is rarely worn until after college graduation. Skin lotion is popular but still sometimes frowned upon by the local Socialist Youth League. Local brands have appeared from the Pyongyang and the Sinuiju cosmetics factories. Products include ginseng liquid cream, though rumour has it that it contains no actual ginseng (ginseng toothpaste is also ginseng-free). Chinese-made skin lotions, foundation, eyeliner and lipstick are available and permissible in the office. Many women now suffer from blotchy skin as the national diet has deteriorated, and in consequence are wearing more make-up. Long hair is common but untied hair is frowned upon.
Men's hairstyles could not be described as radical. In the 1980s, when Kim Jong-il first came to public prominence, his trademark crew cut, known as a 'speed battle cut', became popular, while the more bouffant style favoured by Kim Ilsung, and then Kim Jong-il, in their later years, is also popular, though Kim Jong-un's trademark short-back-and-sides does not appear to have inspired much imitation so far. Hairdressers and barbers are run by the local 'Convenience Services Management Committee'; at many, customers can wash their hair themselves. In 2012 many districts of Pyongyang were without running water for two months due to electricity shortages. Economic pressures have seen many hairdressers close down, as more people cut their hair at home to save money. Women often buy Chinese-made permanent wave and hair-dye kits at farmers' markets and perm each other's hair.
Pyongyang is the fashion capital of North Korea, offering greater access to foreign, often Japanese-inspired, styles. This was how bell-bottoms became fashionable; and how wearing Japanese sunglasses became a sign of being connected and in style. A Japanese watch denotes someone in an influential position, a foreign luxury watch indicates a very senior position. The increasing appearance of Adidas, Disney and other brands, usually fake, indicates that access to smuggled goods from China is growing. Most branded clothing is smuggled in and sold for cash. Jeans have at times been fashionable though risky – occasionally they have been banned as 'decadent', along with long hair on men, which at times has led to arrest and a forced haircut. Fashion as such is not really an applicable term in North Korea, as the Apparel Research Centre under the Clothing Industry Department of the National Light Industry Committee designs most clothing. However, things have loosened up somewhat, with bright colours now permitted as being in accordance with a 'socialist lifestyle'.
Clothing – including socks and underwear – remains in short supply, while winter clothing is now increasingly provided by the aid agencies. Socks have been a perennial problem, with foot wrappings often substituted to save socks for best occasions. One unique contribution to fashion is the still commonly seen Vinalon – a synthetic textile manufactured from limestone exclusively in North Korea – which, though hard to dye and with a tendency to shrinkage after washing, is made into the North Korean version of the utilitarian Mao-style grey suit worn by many men (though the new uniform of white shirt and black tie is becoming increasingly popular). Despite the efforts of the Textile Industry Management Bureau, Vinalon has never been an export success; neither has the North's other textile development, Tetron. In highly stratified North Korea, clothes represent status. Possession of an overcoat or leather shoes, for example, indicates rank.
One daily ritual of all North Koreans is making sure they have their Kim Ilsung badge attached to their lapel – one of the few social delineators in the DPRK. The ubiquitous badges both denote social status and are a fashion item. Schoolchildren and teenagers use the badges to perk up their school uniforms. Increasingly Kim Il-sung badges were partly replaced by Kim Jong-il badges and now Kim Jong-un badges have appeared, though are still rare. Kim Ilsung badges have been in circulation since the late 1960s when the Mansudae Art Studio started producing them for party cadres. They slowly became a status symbol indicating rank, as well as testifying to the growing personality cult around Kim1. Now the badges are worn universally, and desirable ones can change hands on the black market for several hundred NKW. In a city where people rarely carry a significant amount of cash and don't wear jewellery, and where credit cards are unheard of, Kim badges are one of the most prized targets of Pyongyang's pickpockets.
What badge you wear depends on who you are. Fashions and campaigns change but, for instance, students at Kim Il-sung University wear Kim Il-sung badges; nonparty, non-student young people traditionally wear youth vanguard badges; while the general public usually sport general badges. Kim Jong-il and combination badges portraying both the Dear Leader and the Great Leader are also increasingly seen. As they are new and in short supply, Kim Jong-un badges are thought to be reserved for only the most senior cadres at present. Badges are supplied free of charge, but losing one can be a problem as people have to explain what happened to it and prove they had no politically malicious intent before being given another.
Excerpted from North Korea by Paul French. Copyright © 2015 Paul French. Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd.
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Table of Contents
Foreword: The Myth and the Reality of the State of Paranoia Introduction: the paranoid peninsula Part I - The Juche nation: beloved leaders, brilliant thoughts, power cuts and empty shelves 1. A normal day in Pyongyang 2. The Juche state: political theory in North Korea 3. The revolutionary dynasty: leadership in North Korea Part II - The economics of North Korea: Chollima, speed battles, collapse and famine 4. Economics Pyongyang style: command and control 5. The worst of times: food, famine and the arduous march 6. The start of a sort of reform: change and regime survival 7. The reality of reform: a case study of Sinuiju Part III - Diplomacy and military: foreign relations, nuclear crisis and self-defence 8. Don't poke the snake: US-DPRK relations 9. Nuclear ambitions revealed: bluster, brinkmanship or battle? 10. 'Military First' emerges Part IV - Change, collapse and reunification 11. One Korea: the dream of reunification 12. Kim3: the dynasty continues 13. How will the story end? Conclusion: still the world's most dangerous tripwire