18 Feb 2010

North Korea: nothing to envy

You may have missed the Dear Leader’s birthday earlier this week.

They celebrated with synchronised swimmers performing to martial music and a festival of the kimjongilia, the flower named after North Korea’s “peerlessly brilliant commander”.

On the day North Koreans were singing happy birthday to Kim Jong Il, I was chairing a discussion at the Royal Festival Hall about a fascinating new book which takes us far beyond the normal images of repression and conformity.

I’ll declare an interest – Barbara Demick, the author of Nothing to Envy; Real Lives in North Korea is a friend of mine. Her book takes its title from a song North Korean children are taught as part of their indoctrination that theirs is the best country in the world.

The book starts with a description of the darkness which engulfs the nation every night, as electricity is so short, and a young couple – Mi-ran and Jun-sang – who take advantage of the gloom to meet surreptitiously.

Barbara Demick writes: “This is not the sort of thing which shows up in satellite photographs. Whether in CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, or in the East Asian studies department of a university, people usually analyse North Korea from afar. They don’t stop to think that in the middle of this black hole, in this bleak, dark country where millions have died of starvation, there is also love.” 

I won’t tell you what happens to Mi-ran and Jun-sang – you’ll have to read the book. Their love story is just one of the tales which brings alive the travails of a group of North Koreans who lived in the town of Chongjin during the famine of the 1990s, before escaping to South Korea.

By coincidence, the next morning I had the chance to talk to someone who lives in Pyongyang, who described how at the end of last year, the won, the North Korean currency, was suddenly abolished. There was no announcement in the official media – it just happened.

All the shops which had sprung up since the government allowed private enterprise in 2002, closed. Result? People couldn’t buy anything, not even food.

Then the won was re-valued, dropping a couple of noughts. A rumour went round that hard currency was to be banned at the beginning of this year. Those who had cash – by definition, the more prosperous – bought whatever they could from the special hard currency shops. At times, queues extended for hundreds of metres.

By January, all retail outlets were closed, whichever currency they had used. People had to rely on government food distribution, as they did back in the bad days of the famine in the 1990s, described so affectingly in Barbara Demick’s book.

Why on earth did the government do such a crazy thing?

“I think the intent was to take wealth from the merchant class and get hard currency, and to regain control,” said the person who had witnessed all this. “It didn’t work.”

The people who suffered most were ordinary citizens who had stored the little money they had under the mattress, because – very reasonably – they didn’t trust the bank.

But whereas in the 90s, people simply starved, rumour has it (and yes, journalists report rumour from North Korea because facts are so hard to come by) that people protested. There are reports of riots and suicides.

At the beginning of February, with no public notice or acknowledgement of what had been going on, the shops re-opened, both won and hard currency. As if nothing had happened at all.

Another miracle in the land where people have nothing to envy.