Why North Korea may be a threat to itself

A survey of refugees reveals a large underground economy in North Korea that runs on US dollars – and rising corruption. Perhaps the US needs patience as the regime rots from within.

North Korean woman and child wash vegetables in the Yalu River in Sinuiju, North Korea, April 17.

As the Trump administration continues to rattle a saber at North Korea, it should take note of a new survey by two economists at South Korea’s central bank. In interviews with hundreds of recent North Korean refugees, they found the United States has already invaded the country in one big way: The preferred currency among North Koreans for buying food, goods, and services is the American dollar, not the local currency.

This is a sure sign of a thriving underground market despite the official line of a state-run economy. Some experts even estimate the informal economy now exceeds the official one. As in other countries with a high level of illegal business, there are also indications of rising corruption. Officials either take a cut of the gray economy or seek bribes to look the other way. A recent report in a South Korean newspaper told of farmers paying $300 to buy membership in the ruling Workers’ Party in order to gain official benefits.

North Korea’s regime, in other words, could be rotting from within as more of the party elite pursue self-enrichment. An increasing number of high-level members of the Workers’ Party have defected. And since taking power in 2011, third-generation dictator Kim Jong-un has overseen an unusual number of purges of top officials, including his uncle.

A black market first sprung up in socialist North Korea in the mid-1990s during a massive famine. People had to grow their own food. Many began to sell the excess in local markets. In addition, the regime devalued the country’s currency in 2009, forcing people to use the dollar (as well as the Chinese yuan). Then in 2012, it made circulating foreign currency a crime punishable by death. Yet even that law is largely ignored.

This trade in goods and services has made it difficult for Mr. Kim to pursue his economic policy. Last year he said North Korea would follow twin goals: building its nuclear and missile program while improving economic development. But these days many North Koreans are doing business with each other rather than with the state. This weakens the regime’s hold over the population.

For years, the party warned that it is an “old trick” of the US and other “imperialists” to infiltrate North Korea. Well, the infiltration is in the form of US dollars, used by the people to bypass a regime that has bungled the economy. Perhaps the pre-Trump policy of “strategic patience” by the US toward Pyongyang needs to be revived. Just ask North Korean refugees. Many know the center cannot hold.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to Why North Korea may be a threat to itself
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today