By Andrei Lankov
The present author was born in the former Soviet Union and is frequently asked which period of Soviet history the current North Korea is reminiscent of?
I usually say that this question has no straightforward answer. The problem is that depending on what area you look, the associations are remarkably different. The developments in North Korea are not that different from those of the USSR, but in different areas the time seems to flow with a different speed.
North Korea’s official ideology and propaganda continues to be uncannily similar to late Stalinist Soviet culture, to the period of the late 1940s. The North Koreans are still served the same fare of ossified Leninism and strong nationalism, heavily spliced with eulogies to the leaders’ wisdom and benevolence.
It appears as if North Korean propaganda, as well as its official ideology, has been frozen in time since the late 1960s. One can take an article from Rodong Shinmun of, say, 1972 and then compare it with an article published yesterday only to find no major differences in language, style and reasoning.
At the same time, the general mood among educated urban North Koreans is quite similar to the mood which prevailed among the same social milieu in Moscow and Leningrad of the 1960s. People are still afraid to talk politics and most of them do not entertain serious doubts about the fundamentals of the system. They tend to believe that their economic problems have been created by a combination of natural disasters, collapse of the ‘socialist markets’ and, of course, an economic blockade maintained by the greedy U.S. imperialists and their shameless lackeys.
However, very few educated North Koreans nowadays buy the official propaganda message wholesale. They know that the official media lies, and sometimes lies quite shamelessly. While being more or less loyal subjects of their state, they entertain significant (and growing) skepticism about its institutions and the official pronouncements of its leaders.
It seems that social fear, once powerful and omnipresent, is diminishing. The North Korean state remains highly repressive, but the level of repressiveness is in steady decline. Nowadays North Koreans can do many things which would almost definitely have landed them in prison some 20 years ago ― in some cases, even mildly critical statements about the system are now tolerated.
Of course, open dissent is still unthinkable, but genuine enthusiasm is almost impossible to find. This is a picture, clearly reminiscent of the USSR of, say, year 1965 (albeit the North Korean state remains far more repressive than the Soviet Union used to be during Brezhnev’s rule).
The economic situation is different again. In economic terms, present day North Korea is similar to Russia in the early 1990s, the turbulent days that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. At that time a large number of the Soviet people discovered that their official salaries would not suffice if they wanted to stay alive, so they began to look for additional sources of income. Ex-Soviet officials busily stole state property, whilst less lucky commoners relied on an assorted variety of small businesses, household workshops and subsistence farming.
This is very similar to present-day North Korea, even though the collapse of the socialist economy in North Korea led to far more damaging consequences than was the case in Russia _ after all North Korea experienced a disastrous famine, while few if any Russians starved to death in the early post-Soviet period.
In North Korea, the collapse of the state-run economy and rationing system plunged a majority of the population into the world of the grass-roots market economy. No reliable statistics are available, but researchers tend to agree that roughly three-quarters of average household income in North Korea is now derived from private economic activities of different kinds.
Like their early post-Soviet peers, North Korean officials are always on the lookout for a nice bribe. They also don’t mind quietly transforming state property into their own personal property _ many North Korean enterprises ostensibly still owned by the government are actually private nowadays. Meanwhile other North Koreans sell, buy, smuggle, farm unofficial plots, run individual workshops or find employment with such workshops.
So, we have a curious picture. Ideology still pretends that almost nothing has changed in the last 50 years (it’s telling that the official media has never mentioned the market economy, as if it doesn’t exist). The political consciousness is less dominated by the state, but still remains under its control.
However, the North Korean state has almost completely lost control of the economic life of its people. This picture has no parallels in the history of the Soviet Union or, for that matter, in the histories of other ex-communist countries, even though all its elements (if taken separately) would appear familiar to the people with Soviet-era experience.
Professor Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.