Along the Chinese border, defectors say North Korean province is quietly liberalizing

December 28, 2012

A North Korean soldier stands guard along the Chinese border. (GOH CHAI HIN/AFP/Getty Images)

On the northeastern fringe of North Korea, a place so remote that Korea's medieval monarchy once exiled out-of-favor officials there, a province now known as North Hamgyung may be experiencing a degree of relative wealth and freedom unknown in the rest of the country.

To be clear, the operative word here is "relative"; the accounts make clear that North Hamgyung is still primarily defined by North Korea's poverty and totalitarian rule. But, based on defector accounts gathered by North Korea-focused news site New Focus International, the province appears to be experiencing an upsurge in wealth and personal freedoms. "North Hamgyung province seems a much better place for life than the city of Pyongyang," one defector said, a surprising statement given that the government has long cultivated capital city Pyongyang as the height of wealth and development.

New Focus International says that one defector was "shocked" on seeing the relative wealth and prosperity in North Hamgyung. Another said that "as long as you have the trust of relevant authorities, you can lead a decent life," relatively unfettered, whereas life in Pyongyang requires constant vigilance from watchful state security.

Residents in North Hamgyung are said to have regular access to rice. This might seem like a small thing, but it's difficult to overstate the cultural value of rice in Korea, its importance to families, and the pain many North Koreans feel at being deprived of this cherished staple. In Pyongyang, a rice allowance is seen as a reward for status and loyalty, as well as a sign of the city's stature. That North Hamgyung residents would have rice, and acquire it by means other than as a reward from the government, would be a big deal to North Koreans. Residents can even buy bread imported from nearby China. It's no wonder that, according to New Focus International, some North Koreans talk about "defecting" from their home province to North Hamgyung.

Assuming that these defector accounts are true, the changes would seem to be a result of North Korea's increasingly porous border with China. North Korea began allowing freer cross-border travel several years ago because it needed the black market to bring in food and keep the economy from collapsing. China still regularly imprisons and deports any defectors it finds, but the border is left conspicuously more open than North Korea's other borders, allowing some North Koreans to travel back and forth. This trade has brought with it, among other things, bootleg video CD movies that allow North Koreans a glimpse into the outside world, which it turns out is not as terrible as their government tells them.

Is North Hamgyung's improved status just a temporary blip until Pyongyang reverses the changes, a possible model for North Korea's future, or a unique system that can only work here? The region is an unusual mix of internal exiles (people who said or did the wrong thing and were sent away to this remote province) and loyal political elites, according to Barbara Demick's excellent book, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives of North Koreans.

Its regional capital was once the country's second-largest, but since the great famine of the 1990s has shrunk to the third-largest. It has a reputation for breeding "the toughest, hardest-to-subdue Koreans anywhere," Demick writes. This, and its location far from Pyongyang's monitors but close to China's relative wealth, suggest that its approach might only work here.

Still, could it be possible for North Korean leader Kim Jong Eun to see North Hamgyung as a model for the whole country? After all, the forces that have changed this province could eventually move throughout all of North Korea. The increasingly tolerated black market allows the national economy to remain afloat without sacrificing state controls, but also brings in outside information. Some scholars, such as B.R. Myers, have argued that Kim's regime is more popular than we might think, supported by a sort of extreme ethnic nationalism; in this case, Kim's monopoly over the economy might not be so essential after all.

Allowing a tiny degree of economic liberalization, in this thinking, could actually be good for the regime by lessening the country's deep poverty and hunger. But don't expect the China model to take hold: Kim's regime likely views his neighbor's liberalization, which has also produced a noisy middle class and increased public willingness to challenge the state, as incompatible with North Korean totalitarianism. And he could be right, which is what makes North Hamgyung's apparent successes so promising.

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