North Korea: behind the tabloid headlines

SOAS alumnus James Pearson, Pyongyang © May-e Wong

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has long been a subject of fascination for the Western popular media. It is typically portrayed by the shorthand of four recurring motifs – isolationism; nuclear weapons; the Kim ruling family; and vast military parades. While these motifs represent one side of the truth, they also serve to hide some of the day-to-day realities of life in North Korea.

SOAS alumnus James Pearson (BA Chinese and Korean, 2011) works as a Reuters correspondent, covering both North and South Korea. James uses his expert regional knowledge to write about the challenges faced by ordinary North Koreans and to highlight some of the more interesting human aspects of life in North Korea, which can often get overlooked in the tabloid headlines.

A tale of two economies

“North Korea effectively has two economies: the “official” economy, and the “real” economy. The “official” economy is the North Korean economy you read about in state media: centralised production targets and equal distribution of output. The “real” economy consists of an informal network of markets and traders that have gradually been more formalised by the state, albeit slowly and reluctantly, making North Koreans some of the most innovative capitalists in the world.”

“The way ordinary people make do within this complicated new order is what makes North Korea so fascinating to me.”

“This system was born out of the devastating famine of the 1990s where state rations were unable to provide the people with food. This, coupled with a disastrous currency devaluation in 2009, broke the bond of trust between the state and the people, both in terms of food and money. During the famine, those who died first were the ones who waited for the state to help them. The ones who survived were the ones who turned to bartering and smuggling.”

Losing face with its currency

“The devaluation of the currency helped spark a black market rate for the Korean People’s Won. The highest denomination note in North Korea is the 5000 won note, which, until recently, had founding president Kim Il-sung’s face on it. Since the black market deems the note to have such little value and, because traders need a great big pile of them to make payments in local currency, they get quite tatty and torn up. This has prompted the removal of Kim Il-sung’s portrait from that note, in a move which has quite literally led the state to lose face with its money.”

The changing role of women

“One of the most interesting phenomena to have been born out of this secret capitalist system is the changing and important role of women. North Korean women had for years been expected to remain as housewives and bring up children, but the country’s economic meltdown has in effect empowered them to become the main breadwinners.

“Men are typically assigned state jobs, which have been the slowest to adapt to North Korea’s new economic order. That means the typical 6000 won a month official salary paid to a male factory worker is worth a pittance at black market rates, rendering it effectively worthless. Women have therefore engaged in the black market economy, by buying and selling what they can to put food on the table.”

Incredible people

James has spent his career unearthing stories and fighting the stereotypes expressed in the tabloid headlines.

“Working in Pyongyang is challenging, both psychologically and emotionally, in a way I didn’t expect. There are moments of light relief, but it is fundamentally one of the most unexplored human frontiers today. It’s a country full of absolute tragedy, but also some of the most incredible people you’ll ever meet.”

James relates more of his observations and experiences in his book North Korea Confidential, which was published by Tuttle in 2015, and was rated one of the best books of the year by The Economist.

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