The Implications of an Abusive Command Economy on the Rural People of North Korea

Four young Korean children stare sorrowfully through an open window with blue doors. Their ribs are visible and their arms are skinny.
Malnutrition in childhood leads to long-term physical and cognitive health effects. By limiting resources to impoverished communities, the DPRK holds control over the bodies and minds of these people. Source: Yahoo! Images

Note from the author: This post is the first of my four-part series on the North Korean Regime. To find the other parts, scroll down and click “View all posts by A. Price.” If the other parts are not available yet, check back in during the upcoming weeks when they will be posted.

Content Warnings: mass financial abuse, famine, malnutrition, dehumanization, classism, starvation


Imagine grocery shopping for your family, and instead of finding a variety of food choices, you find a store filled with a surplus of children’s socks, different colored hats, and beach toys even though you live nowhere near the coast. The only food you can find in the store is a few loaves of moldy bread, a small produce section filled with rotting vegetables, and a frozen section with freezer-burned packaged meat. The best you can do is buy a bag full of rotting vegetables and plant them in the ground behind your house, careful not to be caught doing so by the police. The soil you remember being rich with vitamins has turned to gray dust, and everything you plant dies before sprouting. Your family will live off the rotting leftovers from last week’s grocery trip until you can scrounge together enough scraps to make it through. You know that your neighbor has a secret garden that does moderately well, so you sneak over to offer her what’s left of your money in exchange for a few vegetables. If the police catch you exchanging goods, you and your neighbor will be charged for participating in a free market, thrown in a prison camp without a fair trial, and held for an unregulated amount of time. 

The only media you’ve ever seen tells stories of a utopia; the Kim family is sent from heaven to make the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), also known as North Korea, the most wonderful place to live. They tell you that people in other countries, like South Korea and the United States, live under terrible governments who do not care for them the way the Kim family cares for you. In the end, you have no reason not to believe them. You have never seen the conditions of other countries and any criticism of your regime has been consistently disputed throughout your entire life. The stark reality of your consistent mistreatment exists in a dichotomy with the ideals that you have been brainwashed to believe to be true. 

Approximately 20 million rural North Koreans live in this reality…

Songbun

The class system of North Korea is called Songbun. At birth, each North Korean citizen is labeled as core, wavering, or hostile based on their place of birth, status, and the national origin of their ancestors. For example, a person whose ancestors immigrated from South to North Korea will be given a low Songbun and be assumed to have genetically inherited hostility towards the government. One’s Songbun can never be changed, as it determines every aspect of one’s life including how resources will be allocated to your community and how much mobility you will have throughout the state.

A pyramid chart with five horizontal sections. It is a gradient from white at the top to red at the bottom. The top section is labeled, “Supreme Leader: Kim Il-Sung (1949-1994) / Kim Jong-Il (1994-2011) / Kim Jong-Un (2011-present)” The next section is labeled, “Workers Party of Korea (WPK): More commonly known as the North Korean Regime - Consists of relatives of the Kim family and high-up government officials” The third section is labeled, “‘Core’ Songbun: Consists of people with a long family history of loyalty to the regime - most are residents of Pyongyang” The fourth section is labeled, ““Wavering” Songbun: Consists of people who have a family history of immigration and have since assimilated and residents of semi-large suburbs outside of Pyongyang” The bottom section is labeled, ““Hostile” Songbun: Consists of people with a family history of defecting, immigrating, or convicted criminals; people of non-Korean nationalities; people who have an acquired or assumed genetically-inherited hostility towards the regime”
The Hierarchy of the DPRK. Source: Diagram made by author.

The Command Economy

The Workers Party of Korea (WPK), more commonly known as the North Korean Regime, holds tight control over the command economy and uses it to abuse all people of low Songbun, specifically those who live outside the capital, Pyongyang. Instead of ordering the production of valuable goods like food and home maintenance products for their communities, they overproduce menial things, like children’s socks and beach toys. Many do not have the mobility to go to a neighboring town for resources, and as I will expand on later, many believe that they deserve to starve if they are not entirely self-sufficient.

This economic system has the dual effect of limiting opportunities to participate in the job market. People are not allowed to sell products unless they are commanded to do so by the WPK. Because the WPK is not tasked to create job opportunities for rural people, these people have no opportunity to make money, which only exacerbates the problem of reduced resources.

Lots of brightly colored shoes are piled onto shelves and hanging from the walls and ceilings in a Korean store. There are yellow signs with red and black text in Korean
The overproduction of menial things at the expense of food and necessities. Source: Yahoo! Images

The March of Suffering

The culture that encourages the idea of “suffering for the greater good” is called juche. Juche is the Korean term for the culture of self-sufficiency. It is an idea that is pushed hard into the minds of all North Koreans. Asking for help, depending on friends or family, or participating in a small-scale economy of goods with your neighbors makes you an inherently weak person because you are expected to work harder instead of “begging”. This idea is so ingrained in the minds of North Koreans that they will accept immense abuse from higher-ups at the expense of asking for help or demanding rights.

Starting in 1990, a great famine swept the nation under the rule of Kim Il-Sung. He coined the term “The March of Suffering” to refer to the famine. Using this name, he convinced those who took the hardest hit, the rural people of low Songbun, that they were doing the most honorable thing for their country by suffering in this famine. They were dying for it. Kim Il-Sung glorified their suffering by convincing them that not only did they deserve it (juche), but that their suffering was contributing to the greater good of the country. He had such control over the minds of these people that they loyally followed him straight to their graves. 

Handled correctly, this famine could have lasted no longer than a year, and would not have become nearly as severe as it has. Instead, estimates from Crossing Borders suggest that between 240,000 and 3.5 million people have died in the DPRK from malnutrition since 1990.* The famine has outlived not only Kim Il-Sung but also his predecessor Kim Jong-Il. 

*The reason for such a wide range of statistics is that collecting accurate data in North Korea is virtually impossible. I expand on the use of outside media control in the second part of this series titled, “How the North Korean Regime Uses Cult-Like Tactics to Maintain Power.”

The camera is facing down a building-lined street. The buildings are neutral colors and appear old. There are two trees with no leaves. There is a group of people all wearing the same dark green/blue clothing. One person is dressed in bright blue and standing in the middle of the street.
Even in Pyongyang, vibrant colors are rare. The buildings are drab and dull, the trees are dead, and people dress monochromatically and uniformly. The person in bright blue serves as a traffic director. Source: Flickr

Suppose the topic of North Korea is interesting to you and you want to work towards clearing up the fog surrounding the nation. In that case, I highly recommend Dying for Rights: Putting North Korea’s Human Rights Abuses on the Record by Sandra Fahy. This book is very informative and one of the only easily accessible, comprehensive accounts of North Korean human rights. It is where I learned most of what I know about the DPRK. It set the baseline on which I built my entire comprehensive understanding of the social systems at play. 

The cover of Sandra Fahy’s book. The picture on the cover is taken through a fence in North Korea. The camera’s focus is on the background, making the fence of the foreground very blurry. The view of the fence consists of a top white metal bar and five vertical bars that are red and white. In the background, which is in focus, we look over a small body of water to see a few densely packed and desolate-looking houses. The grass and trees out front are dead. There is snow on the ground. The sand is rocky and gray. There is one bright blue structure that looks like a child’s playhouse starkly contrasting its desolate surroundings. Above the fence, text reads, “Dying for Rights: Putting North Korea’s Human Rights Abuses on the Record; Sandra Fahy.”
The cover of the aforementioned book. Source: Fahy, Sandra. Dying for Rights: Putting North Korea’s Human Rights Abuses on the Record. Columbia University Press, 2019. Picture taken by A. Price.

As I will expand upon in the rest of this series, it is imperative that people outside of the DPRK “clear the fog” and find ways to look into the state. One of the biggest motivators for activism is awareness. As people on the outside, some of the most valuable things we can do are spread awareness, garner activism, and bring that activism with us into our participation in the government, whether that be running for office or simply voting for people who share our concerns.

If you are not registered to vote, you can do so here: Register to vote in the upcoming midterm election today.

Under Pressure: How Court Debts Inform Racial and Wealth Inequality

On Thursday, November 7th, the Institute for Human Rights co-sponsored an event alongside Students for Human Rights at UAB to present representatives from Alabama Appleseed Center for Law & Justice. During their lecture and discussion with audience members, they addressed how racial inequality and systemic poverty influence court debts as well as what we can do to change the status quo.

Alabama Appleseed, and its 17 other offices across North America, work at the intersection of the legal system and systemic poverty. Helping to confront a system that harms impoverished and minority communities by placing them in an endless cycle of punishment, Alabama Appleseed employs a research and policy reform approach to highlight such inequalities.

They first addressed this issue by covering the racial wealth gap which can be told through the legacy of slavery, convict labor, redlining, school segregation, and hiring discrimination that has economically disadvantaged many communities of color, namely Black Americans. Thus, in present day, the poorest 20% of Whites have an average $15,000 in wealth, while the poorest 20% of Blacks have a mere average $100 in wealth.  As a result, receiving a fine can increase existing household costs, develop exorbitant interest rates, and even land one in jail if unpaid, meaning Black Americans are disproportionately affected by the looming threat of court debts.

In response, Alabama Appleseed sought to give this issue greater context by employing a statewide study, titled Under Pressure, which includes personal experiences with court debts from 980 Alabamians representing 41 counties  (56% of respondents were Black). Some of the main findings were:

  • 83% gave up necessities like rent, food, medical bills, car payments, and child support, in order to pay down their court debt
  • 50% had been jailed for failure to pay court debt
  • 44% had used payday loans to cover court debt
  • 80% borrowed money from a friend or family member to cover their court debt
  • Almost 2/3 received money or food assistance from a faith-based charity or church that they would not have had to request if it were not for their court debt
Alabama Appleseed presenting Under Pressure. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights

They went on to address some anecdotal accounts such as people paying someone else’s court debt even though having their own and missing court dates that were scheduled while incarcerated. These findings suggest that impoverished and minority communities in Alabama must maneuver around isolated court systems that don’t communicate with one another, which further places them into a cycle of poverty and looming punishment. Furthermore, Alabama has the 5th highest incarceration rate in the world and is currently facing a 33% rate of employment in the prison system. This means that our criminal justice system not only disadvantages poor and Black Alabamians, but they are the ones funding these inequalities through a shadow tax system.

Thus, Alabama Appleseed offered a handful of recommendations for state lawmakers to address this system of injustice:

  • Eliminate court costs and fees, and scale fines to each person’s ability to pay
  • Fully fund courts from Alabama’s state budget
  • Send revenue from all court debt to the state General Fund
  • Create a mechanism for appeal and ensure folks have access to counsel throughout the process
  • Prohibit the suspension of drivers’ licenses except in instances of unsafe driving
  • Eliminate Failure to Appear warrants when the individual is incarcerated
  • Change the law that currently denies voting rights to people who are too poor to pay their court debt
  • Reclassify the possession of small amounts of marijuana as a civil infraction with fines connected to the defendant’s ability to pay

As demonstrated, Alabama’s criminal justice system is a harvest ground for racial and wealth inequality. However, addressing such concerns at the community-level is one way that you can participate in real change. You can do so by communicating with your local representative about overturning the “Three Strikes Law”, pressuring Regions Bank to divest from the private prison industry, and joining Alabama Appleseed to be informed about pending legislation.

Facing the threat of missing rent, losing meals, and even being incarcerated is no way to live, particularly for those who already experience a list of other disadvantages. For this reason, it’s about time we put our lawmakers and local businesses under pressure.

Crazy Rich Asians: The Double-Edged Sword

Crazy Rich Asians, a film adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s 2013 book, was released on August 15, 2018. This movie has generated discussion in the representation for the Asian community through gender, class, and race. However, these efforts have been deemed controversial. The point of this film is to get people talking about the topic of representation and simply there is no way to make everyone happy. However, this film will lead the way to an industry that has been recently revived by the likes of movies such as Coco, the Big Sick, and Hidden Figures.

How Crazy Rich Asians is different

The film is based on the first book of the trilogy that covers Nick and Rachel’s journey. Interestingly enough, the film is a romantic comedy. When I think back to my childhood, that was all the rage. Unfortunately, in the past couple of years, rom com’s have faded into oblivion. Thankfully, it seems over the past couple of months that a number of new rom coms, such as Set it Up, To All the Boy’s I’ve Loved Before, and Love, Simon are on the rise.

Heart hand. Source: Max Pixel, Creative Commons

In the film, the two main characters, Nick and Rachel, fall in love, so Nick decides to introduce Rachel to his family in Singapore. What Rachel does not know is that they are one of the richest families in the country. In the beginning, the movie seemed like any other rom com with your basic love story. However, what took me by surprise was the multidimensionality of the characters. While Nick’s mom, Eleanor, can be seen as the stereotypical “villain”, this story takes a different route and adds more elements to her character. Instead of simply being portrayed as evil, the movie shows other sides to her character such as her dedication and hard work for her family. This movie provides us with the reasons behind her “evil” traits, which makes it harder to dislike her. Humans are not one-dimensional beings; we have numerous traits that come together to make us who we are. A person is not just evil, but instead has multiple traits.

Another innovative idea is how this movie portrayed stereotypes. The movie begins with Nick’s family entering a fancy hotel in London during a storm, which made the floor muddy. The manager claims they do not have any room for her. In retaliation, Eleanor convinces her husband, Philip, to buy the hotel and in doing so makes the manager clean the floor. This scene causes the audience to feel sympathy toward the protagonist. What is genius about this scene is how they made a character who is normally not seen as relatable into someone we care about and sympathize with by showing their vulnerability. Another important concept was the fact that Rachel was given the majority of power, not Nick. Usually, the male decides between his mom or his girlfriend. However, in this movie, it is Rachel who makes the decision. This movie challenged gender stereotypes about who should have power and control.

Dark reality of Singapore

This film, for the majority of time, is set in Singapore, a small island nation in Southeast Asia. While the movie does not go in depth on the struggles of Singapore, such as their strict government and criminal justice system it provides a place for conversation to occur for those who wish to learn more about the country. Intentionally or unintentionally, the world will be talking about Singapore.

The author, Kevin Kwan, is wanted by the Singapore government for not participating in their mandatory military service which sheds some light on the harsher realities of what it is like to live in Singapore. It is a parliamentary representative democratic republic, meaning their President is the head of state, while their Prime Minister is the head of the government. Compared to the United States, there are numerous surprising, strict rules in Singapore such as it is illegal to smoke in public, feeding pigeons, or even connecting to someone else’s Wi-Fi which has $10,000 fine. There are restrictions on who can say what and what information is published through blogs or articles.

On the other hand, Singapore has one of the most diverse populations, both ethnically and religiously. Most of the populations in Singapore are Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Eurasian. While there are a variety of ethnicities with different languages, most Singaporeans speak English. Moreover, Singapore is the world’s most religiously diverse country because their society encourages people to follow their own culture and traditions while respecting others. Singapore is also a fairly small country and there are surveillance cameras on every street corner. Thus, it is quite safe and has a low crime rate and zero-tolerance policy relating to drugs and other crimes.

Singapore Black & White. Source: Pixabay, Creative Commons

Making a splash in the Western world

Currently, in Western movies, there is a disproportionate amount of white actors and actresses compared to non-white actors and actresses, especially as the main character. The main reason why Crazy Rich Asians is groundbreaking is because it contains a cast of Eastern Asian actors and actresses. It is dismal to think that having casts of different races and cultures is not the norm. The only other movie produced in Hollywood that has an all-Asian cast is The Joy Luck Club, a 1973 film about Chinese women who meet up and play Mahjong and discuss stories about their family. Hence, it took 45 years for another all-Asian cast film to make the headlines.

A lot of the controversy with hiring different races comes with assuming what people want to see. Many people presume that Americans want to watch an American movie with actors that look like them, which means mainly “white”, so they can relate. The irony is that it is predicted in 2045 that most Americans will not be considered white, so why do producers think that most movie actors should be predominantly white?  Many of the presumptions emerge with culture and what we are used to seeing. However, in the past years, there have been more films created to show the diversity of underrepresented communities such as Black Panther and Get Out. However, even with the rise of more diverse casts, 1.4 actors out of every 10 people are people of color. That is the startling reality.

The reason this story is refreshing is because of how the movie has a new take on a common story plot, although we see different people than we normally would. In fact, there are certain parts in the movie where they poke fun at Americans. In Western movies, occasionally, they throw in people of race to “diversify their movie”. However, you can usually tell they did it just to fill their quota; personally, it never quite feels real. In this movie, they rarely include white people and they do only to fill their requirement. For example, one of the scenes that stood out to me was when a man told his kids to eat his food because of all the starving kids in America. Also, when they include beauty queens in a bachelorette party, instead of looking at other countries and how different they are from the United States, we get a role reversal of how different it is from Singapore. Another unique aspect of this film is how it focuses on the second generation of immigrants. In the past, we have seen trite storylines on an immigrant coming to the United States and chasing the American Dream. This movie stands out because it is not afraid to poke fun at things we consider our “norm”, which leads to new possibilities of what the future will hold for the big screen.

No film is perfect

On the other hand, while this movie is groundbreaking, it is not without its weaknesses. One of the major shortcomings that people were quick to mention was the misrepresentation of the Singaporean population. Singapore is culturally diverse and includes people from other places such as Indonesia and Malaysia. People were looking for brown or non-Eastern Singaporeans among the cast; however, they were depicted as the working class. Based on a person’s skin color, they are treated and perceived differently. In fact, this movie plays into the stereotype that Asians are thought to have lighter complexions. The film had an all-Asian cast, but they were all East Asian. The film could have had more diversity. Especially, since one of this film’s biggest pillars is “the inversion of racial expectation”. It is paradoxical to say it is an innovative movie, when in fact it plays to some of the same stereotypes they are fighting against. To be fair, the focus of the movie is on an extremely wealthy Chinese-Singaporean family; thus, this movie is not trying to depict the entire Singaporean population. It is important to consider that regardless how great of a movie this is, there will always be some backlash. However, this may even be why it is such a great movie whereas it creates dialogue on topics that are often ignored or not noticeably addressed.

We, too, are America

a picture of a microscope
microscope. Source: milosz1, Creative Commons.

We see you. More specifically, I see you. I see you and I understand your fear. Your fear, though, is not of our ascent and overthrow of your supremacy. Your fear is that we–those for whom you believe yourself superior in gender, race, ability, intelligence and religion, but equal to under the law—will treat you as you have treated us. This is your actual fear.

For so long, you have hidden behind your power to give and take at will and random, without accountability. You believed might and standing would continually protect you as you abused, assaulted, and harassed us behind closed doors, in elevators, at parties, or in cars. You assumed your strength would guard against numbers because silence remained your closest companion until it revealed you. Now, silence is your betrayer and light is shining into the darkness. With light comes freedom.

However, not for you.

Finally, thanks to the unfaithfulness of silence, the light that comes with freedom will change you, as the nullifications of uneasy interactions, creepy glances, and videotaped confessions that “boys being boys” and “locker room talk” conclude what we have known all along: you are an insecure predator.

You always have been.

For centuries, you employed power to mask your insecurity while building empires and corporations upon the backs of those “under your feet and purview”. You made rules and assured yourself they did not apply to you. The rules are changing, and you are afraid. You shudder at the possibility of the enforcement of an unjust law you created, applying to you. You are fearful that you will rot in jail for a crime you may or may not have committed, based upon the verdict of 12 who are not truly your peers because they do not look like, live like, or know what it like to be someone like you. You will know what it is like to tell your side of the story and find yourself defending your participation in and motives about the situation that caused you to end up here. Identified as you truly as a perpetuator of trepidation .

You always have been.

Your taxonomy and modus operandi, whether on the forced labor field of terror, in a Las Vegas hotel room or Charleston church, or behind a “news” desk or podium, remains hiding in plain sight because the condition of many is blind submission. The conditioning served us well too, for a while. However, now we are woke. Eyes wide open and aware of the insidiousness of your nature. This scares you, so you label us a threat because we discarded the previously employed labels you doled out. Threat, in your mind, encompasses all manner of challenges you have not experienced during your time in authority. We are a threat to your domination, to your supremacy and privilege. This is what frightens you. The poisonous fruit you provided opened our eyes to the facts about who you are and what we have known all along: you are an idol worshipper.

You have believed the lies told to you and by you for so long, that in many ways, the facts cannot penetrate the walls around your heart and mind. You contrive revisionist history as a method to mask the brutal reality of your ancestors, unwilling to yield to handwritten letters, photographic and videotaped evidence that counter your claims, and absurdly ask us to disbelieve what we see what our eyes, hear with our ears, and experience over time. The words you employ are not for freedom of expression but an expression of your hate, leaving us to wonder if you know how to express yourself in a manner to prove your point without resorting to vileness. You are not out to institute unification, rather everything about you proceeds from an inner core of division. You are in an identity crisis.

You always have been.

Conflicted on one hand about the creation of humanity as made in the image of an unseen God, while on the other, using some as cattle and unpaid laborers, burdened by cherry-picked scriptures applied to build a theology of exclusion. You claim to seek the facts through the reading of words written in years past but systematically avoid anything that may shatter the illusion of grandeur created in the ivory towers which redlining amassed. You proclaim belief in gender equality, except when it comes to leadership, reproduction, sexual experience, and wages. You defend colonization and imperialism due to a misapplied belief that those demonized and dehumanized are ignorant and incapable of civilization; however, pyramids, irrigation systems, and social order existed before the feet of your ancestors stepped on this, and that land. You balk at peaceful solutions and challenges to your authority by responding with insults and name-calling as though life and death are games played in a schoolyard. Even when you are wrong, you are uncompromised in your steadfastness to show your superiority, while marketing yourself as a humble follower of God. You want to be a mirror without looking in one.

I see you.

We see you.

We know the facts.

The fact is, change has arrived. For we, too, are America.

 

Additional readings:

Langston Hughes

The Color of Law

America’s Original Sin

Nations and Nationalism

Jessica Valenti