Books in Review: Opening North Korea

Issue Date April 2011
Volume 22
Issue 2
Page Numbers 170-176
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Witness to Transformation: Refugee Insights into North Korea. By Marcus Noland and Stephan Haggard. Peterson Institute for International Economics, 2011. 256 pp.

One of the most compelling images of North Korea is a satellite photograph showing the Korean Peninsula at night. Modern, democratic, capitalist South Korea is lit up like a Christmas tree with almost the entire country aglow. But above the demilitarized zone, save for a dim glimmer emanating from Pyongyang, isolated, communist North Korea sits in darkness.

Many have used this image to contrast the vibrancy of South Korea with the rusting decay of North Korea. Although the image is a vivid snapshot of the disparity of development between the two countries, until now very few been able to see into the darkness, leaving the world to guess what life must be like in the so-called Hermit Kingdom.

Defector testimonies and biographies and a handful of books have begun to paint a picture of daily life in North Korea, but these so far have offered only anecdotal evidence of a harsh and sometimes brutal existence for the people of the country. Only now, with Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland’s work, can readers find a methodical analysis of some of the remarkable changes that are occurring in the world’s most repressive country.

The data in Witness to Transformation are based on two surveys—the first, of 1,346 North Korean refugees living in China conducted between August 2004 and September 2005, and the second, of 300 refugees living in South Korea conducted in November 2008. Even after one takes [End Page 170] into account the special nature of a refugee population (as the authors do), the surveys offer unprecedented insight into a society which, though still under the iron bootheel of a brutal regime, is undergoing substantial changes.

About the Authors

John Knaus

John Knaus is senior program officer for Asia.

View all work by John Knaus

Lynn Lee

Lynn Lee is program officer for Asia at the National Endowment for Democracy.

View all work by Lynn Lee

If Haggard and Noland subsequently update this important work, it would greatly benefit from a third survey focusing primarily on those refugees who have left the country after 2008. As the authors explain, only 15 percent of those who took part in the second survey left between 2006 and 2008, meaning that even they escaped before the disastrous currency revaluation of late 2009 and the events surrounding the announcement of Kim Jung Eun as Kim Jung Il’s successor in 2010. In addition, unlike in other refugee situations where the refugees can provide almost instantaneous information on the situations inside their respective countries, the participants in both these surveys, as the authors note, had already spent considerable time outside North Korea before they were interviewed.

Haggard and Noland do an especially effective job of establishing links among the communist regime’s failed economic policies, the growth of independent markets (or jangmadang) as a coping mechanism, the rise of corruption and the increased use of the penal system by government officials, and the subsequent political discontent that all these trends have fueled. The authors further demonstrate how an increase in independent market activity within North Korea has led to on-again, off-again attempts by the Kim regime—worried about its grip on the country—first to encourage markets and then to crack down on them with, for instance, new laws that criminalize certain market-related activities.

What Haggard and Noland call “marketization from below” is a fairly recent phenomenon. The public distribution system, which until the early 1990s had been North Koreans’ main channel for obtaining food, collapsed due to the regime’s failed economic policies and the loss of much outside assistance when the USSR fell. The government’s inability to provide for its people, coupled with the corrupt and predatory behavior of regime officials, has led to signs of growing discontent among average North Koreans that were unheard of even a few years ago.

Haggard and Noland conclude with an outline of how the international community should use the survey data to encourage reform within North Korea as well as more responsible behavior from the regime. The authors lay out a comprehensive plan—complete with suggestions for the governments of China, South Korea, and the United States—designed to encourage desperately needed reforms through bilateral and multilateral development and humanitarian assistance, private investment, and improvements in conditions facing refugees.

Included as well are suggested ways of improving political conditions and respect for human rights inside North Korea through what Haggard and Noland call “direct” and “indirect” engagement. Direct engagement [End Page 171] means government-to-government contacts, engagement with the UN in regard to many of the treaties that North Korea has signed, and other forms of formal interaction with the North Korean regime.

Although they believe that this type of direct engagement must be tried, Haggard and Noland concede that, given the Kim regime’s likely rejection of any basic change, “the international community must entertain policies that operate ‘indirectly,’ regardless of the stance of the North Korean government” (138). As examples, they cite such moves as expanding support to radio stations that beam independent news and information into the North, and developing a code of conduct for companies investing in North Korea that would be cognate to the Sullivan Principles once used in dealings with apartheid-era South Africa.

All these suggestions, good as they are, fall short of being exhaustive. On top of them, the international community should encourage what the authors might call “democratization from below.” There are three ways that the outside world can encourage nascent processes of democratization within North Korea and engage the country’s people (rather than its regime) in hopes of extending the amount of free political space and relieving citizens of some of their intense dependence on a repressive government.

In addition to the macroeconomic engagement with the regime that Haggard and Noland suggest, the international community should attempt a targeted expansion of economic engagement focused primarily on broadening average citizens’ participation in independent economic activities. As the authors demonstrate, nascent private markets are spreading throughout the country. They recognize that “the international community has a strong interest in fostering the continued growth of internal markets, both as a badly needed tool to provide for an impoverished population and as a mechanism to encourage long-term internal political change in a more humane direction” (125). With these goals in mind, programs to promote the growth of fully functioning, aboveground markets and make citizens less dependent on the government, such as microfinance initiatives, should be encouraged. None of this means, of course, that it will be easy to get the Kim regime to go along, but any type of initiative that promises to make markets more available and the people less reliant on the regime should be pursued.

The international community should also stand ready to expand its support for initiatives that keep increasing the flow of information into the country, including the radio stations that Haggard and Noland mention. Over the past few years, other sources of information, such as websites and journals, have begun to emerge inside the country and are being increasingly sought after by North Korean citizens. For example, the South Korea-based website Daily NK, which has a network of contacts inside North Korea, provides information about daily events in North Korea to the international community. Although Internet access is extremely limited in North Korea, much of [End Page 172] Daily NK’s information is picked up by various radio stations and broadcast back into North Korea for the general public’s consumption.

A third way to reach inside the country is through the defector community in South Korea, which has grown nearly to twenty-thousand strong. Although Haggard and Noland describe initiatives to assist North Korean refugees in assimilating into South Korean society, this community could also serve as an aid to reforming North Korea. North Korean refugee intellectuals are trying to reconnect with their former colleagues in the North in order to relay information that might prove useful in expanding the incremental and precarious reforms now going on there. In addition, young North Korean defectors are attending South Korean high schools and colleges. Internships and scholarships could play a role in making these young people what scholar Andrei Lankov calls “the first generation of modern North Korean professionals.”

In closing, Haggard and Noland show that the Kim regime is facing a fork in the road. If it takes one path, “the regime will rally core bases of support in the military, security apparatus, and state sector to revive the socialist system,” which would, in turn, mean “the continued imposition on the populace of the crushing burdens that [our] surveys have documented.” Down the other path lies a future wherein “the North Korean leadership would take the strategic decision to return to the reform process, through either an ambitious reform plan or a more gradual, learning-by-doing approach” (156). If the March 2010 sinking of a South Korean Navy corvette and the November 2010 shelling of a South Korean island by North Korea are any indication, the Kim regime is taking a more bellicose stance toward the outside world, isolating both the government and the people. Yet by combining the strategic outline that Haggard and Noland have laid out in Witness to Transformation with a plan to engage average North Korean citizens as much as possible in freeing up more economic and political space, the international community may help move the North Korean regime to take the first steps down the more promising second path.


Copyright © 2011 National Endowment for Democracy and The Johns Hopkins University Press