During the 1990s, North Korea suffered one of the worst famines of the 20th century. The result of this “Arduous March,” as the regime calls it, was not only a humanitarian catastrophe: the large-scale suffering also ignited economic and social changes that are still shaping the country today. This is the analysis of James Pearson and Daniel Tudor, who argue in their latest book, “North Korea Confidential“, that this experience, although highly traumatic, helped sow the seeds of capitalism in North Korea.
In “North Korea Confidential”, Tudor and Pearson depict a changing society, communist by outside perception only , where the poor now almost exclusively survive thanks to the little businesses they maintain to complement their almost worthless official wages. Pyongyang is the seat of a new economic elite that conducts trade with China and beyond. Foreign currencies have taken over in some parts of the country as the primary medium of exchange, and consumerism seems almost celebrated as a virtue – the winners of North Korea’s economic revolution flash expensive items and take great care in following the latest fashion trends.
James Pearson, a foreign correspondent for Reuters in Seoul and co-author of “North Korea Confidential”, is our guest for this episode of Korea and the World. He holds a Master’s in Oriental Studies from the University of Cambridge, and a Bachelor’s in Chinese and Korean from the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), where his interest in North Korea began.
Some of the North Koreans I’ve met have been the most capitalist people I think I’ve ever come across. Even people in state-owned enterprises, if you talk to them and they know that you’re coming from somewhere else and maybe you have some contacts, they might suggest business ideas.
The interview was conducted on February 27th in Seoul.