Category Archives: economics

Private Markets for Food Aid

From Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West, by Blaine Harden (Penguin, 2012), Kindle Loc. 1129-1146:

Food aid from the United States, Japan, South Korea, and other donors mitigated the worst of the famine by the late 1990s. But in an indirect and accidental way, it also energized the market ladies and traveling entrepreneurs who would give Shin sustenance, cover, and guidance in his escape to China.

Unlike any other aid recipient in the world, North Korea’s government insisted on sole authority for transporting donated food. The demand angered the United States, the largest aid donor, and it frustrated the monitoring techniques that the U.N. World Food Program had developed around the world to track aid and make sure it reached intended recipients. But since the need was so urgent and the death toll so high, the West swallowed its disgust and delivered more than one billion dollars’ worth of food to North Korea between 1995 and 2003.

During these years, refugees from North Korea arrived in the South and told government officials that they had seen donated rice, wheat, corn, vegetable oil, nonfat dry milk, fertilizer, medicine, winter clothing, blankets, bicycles, and other aid items on sale in private markets. Pictures and videos taken in the markets showed bags of grain marked as “A Gift from the American People.”

Bureaucrats, party officials, army officers, and other well-placed government elites ended up stealing about thirty percent of the aid, according to estimates by outside scholars and international aid agencies. They sold it to private traders, often for dollars or euros, and delivered the goods using government vehicles.

Without intending to do so, wealthy donor countries injected a kind of adrenaline rush into the grubby world of North Korean street trading. The lucrative theft of international food aid whetted the appetite of higher-ups for easy money as it helped transform private markets into the country’s primary economic engine.

Private markets, which today supply most of the food North Koreans eat, have become the fundamental reason why most outside experts say a catastrophic 1990s-style famine is unlikely to happen again.

The markets, though, have not come close to eliminating hunger or malnutrition. They also appear to have increased inequity, creating a chasm between those who have figured out how to trade and those who have not.

Leave a comment

Filed under democracy, economics, food, Japan, Korea, NGOs, U.N., U.S.

Manchuria Again a Promised Land

From Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West, by Blaine Harden (Penguin, 2012), Kindle Loc. 1886-1905:

The capacity of the Chinese borderlands to absorb North Koreans is significant—and significantly underappreciated outside of Northeast Asia. The area is not all that foreign—or unwelcoming—to Korean-speaking migrants.

When defectors cross into China, the first “foreigners” they encounter are usually ethnic Koreans who speak the same language, eat similar food, and share some of the same cultural values. With a bit of luck, they can, like Shin, find work, shelter, and a measure of safety.

This has been going on since the late 1860s, when famine struck North Korea and starving farmers fled across the Tumen and the Yalu rivers into northeast China. Later, China’s imperial government recruited Korean farmers to create a buffer against Russian expansion, and Korea’s Choson Dynasty allowed them to depart legally. Before World War II, the Japanese who occupied the Korean Peninsula and northeast China pushed tens of thousands of Korean farmers across the border to weaken China’s hold on the region.

Nearly two million ethnic Koreans now live in China’s three northeast provinces, with the highest concentration in Jilin, which Shin entered when he crawled across the frozen river. Inside Jilin Province, China created the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, where forty percent of the population is ethnic Korean and where the government subsidizes Korean-language schools and publications.

Korean speakers living in northeast China have also been an unsung force for cultural change inside North Korea. They have affected this change by watching South Korean soap operas on home satellite dishes, recording low-quality video CDs, and smuggling hundreds of thousands of them across the border into North Korea, where they sell for as little as fifteen cents, according to Rimjin-gang, the Osaka-based magazine that has informants based in the North.

South Korean soaps—which display the fast cars, opulent houses, and surging confidence of South Korea—are classified as “impure recorded visual materials” and are illegal to watch in North Korea. But they have developed a huge following in Pyongyang and other cities, where police officers assigned to confiscate the videos are reportedly watching them and where teenagers imitate the silky intonations of the Korean language as it is spoken by upper-crust stars in Seoul.

These TV programs have demolished decades of North Korean propaganda, which claims that the South is a poor, repressed, and unhappy place, and that South Koreans long for unification under the fatherly hand of the Kim dynasty.

Leave a comment

Filed under China, economics, Japan, Korea, labor, language, migration

Romanian Democracy, 1920s–1930s

From A Concise History of Romania (Cambridge Concise Histories), by Keith Hitchins (Cambridge, 2014), Kindle Loc. 2799-2815, 2865-2899:

The 1930s was the decade of crisis for Romanian democracy. The world depression exacerbated existing economic problems and sharpened social tensions and thus gave impetus to those forces hostile to the prevailing parliamentary system. The crisis enhanced the appeal of anti-Semitism among certain elements of society, who used it to rally support for their particular brand of nationalism. Foremost among organizations that made anti-Semitism the ideological core of their new Romania was the Iron Guard, which reached the height of its popularity in the mid 1930s. The accession of Carol II to the throne in 1930 also boded ill for democracy, as he made no secret of his disdain for parliamentary institutions and of his intention to become the undisputed source of power in the state. Nor can shifts in the European balance of power be ignored. The rise of Nazi Germany and the aggressive behavior of fascist Italy combined with the policy of appeasement adopted by the Western democracies encouraged both the declared opponents of democracy and the hesitant in Romania to conclude that the future belonged to the authoritarians. The leading democratic parties themselves seemed to have lost much of their élan of the preceding decade. They proved incapable of withstanding the assault from both within and outside the country and acquiesced in the establishment of Carol’s dictatorship in 1938, an event which marked the end of the democratic experiment in Romania for half a century.

Two parties dominated political life in the interwar period – the Liberals and the National Peasants. The fortunes of the Liberal Party never seemed brighter, as it held power for long periods, especially between 1922 and 1926. The driving force within the party came from the so-called financial oligarchy, which was grouped around large banking and industrial families headed by the Brătianu family and its allies. The intertwining of banking, industry, and political power on such a grand scale was a consequence of the state’s having assumed a crucial role in promoting economic development. Through this remarkable intermingling of business and financial interests and politicians the control of industry, banking, and government inevitably fell into the hands of the same people.

One issue, nonetheless, continued to nurture rightist movements – anti-Semitism. By no means a post-war phenomenon, it could in its modern form be traced back at least to the early decades of the nineteenth century as Jewish immigration into the principalities steadily grew. In the interwar period a leading advocate of action against Jews was Alexandru C. Cuza (1857–1947), professor of political economy at the University of Iaşi. In 1923, he formed the League of National-Christian Defense (Liga Apărării Naţional Creştine), which had as its primary goals the expulsion of the Jews from all areas of economic and cultural life and the education of young people in a Christian and nationalist spirit.

One of Cuza’s most ardent followers, at least initially, was Corneliu Zelea Codreanu (1899–1938), who created his own, more extreme nationalist organization, the Legion of the Archangel Michael, in 1927. Three years later, he established a military wing of the Legion, which he called the Iron Guard, a name that was soon applied to the entire organization. Outwardly, the Guard resembled German and Italian fascism with its uniforms and salutes and its glorification of its leader – the Căpitan – but all this was merely form. The substance of Romanian fascism – the anti-Semitism, the Orthodox Christian (in a distorted form), and the cult of the peasant as the embodiment of natural, unspoiled man – came from native sources. Here, the traditionalist hostility to cosmopolitanism, rationalism, and industrialization found a crude expression. But lacking was an ideology. Guard leaders ignored calls for a Romanian corporate state on the grounds that the appearance of the new man must precede the adoption of programs. Otherwise, they argued, institutions would simply reinforce the existing “corrupt” society. While there was thus a strain of idealism in the Guard’s doctrine, repeated acts of violence and intimidation against opponents revealed at the same time its thuggish nature. When the new head of the Liberal Party and prime minister Ion G. Duca outlawed the Guard in 1933 in order to eliminate the “forces of subversion,” it retaliated by assassinating him. He was succeeded as prime minister by Gheorghe Tǎtǎrescu (1886–1957), the leader of the so-called Young Liberals, who were more tolerant of the extreme right than the mainstream Liberals.

Between the elections of 1931 and 1937 the Iron Guard became a mass movement, rising from 1 to 15.58 percent of the popular vote. Its strongest constituency was young and urban, but it cut across class boundaries, appealing at the same time to peasants and rural clergy, elements of the urban working class and the middle class, and the periphery of society. The leadership of the Guard at this time, its heyday, was formed by university-educated, middle-class intellectuals, but its nationalism appealed to all those who felt alienated by a political and social system which seemed to them to have been created outside and at the expense of “Romanian realities.”

The Iron Guard appealed especially to members of the young generation of intellectuals. Its call for a national rebirth based on the simple, traditional virtues of the Romanian countryside offered salvation from a social and political order that seemed to them corrupt and adrift. They enthusiastically embraced the exhortations of their mentor Nae Ionescu, the spiritual father of the Iron Guard, to experience life, not reduce it to abstract formulas, and they proclaimed themselves the missionaries of a new spirituality. Their mission, as they defined it, was to bring about the spiritual reconstruction of Romania, just as the previous generation had achieved political unity. The Iron Guard seemed to many of them to be the embodiment of the youthful vitality needed to set the country on the way to returning to itself. But Emil Cioran wanted to accomplish just the opposite. In his dissection of modern Romania, Schimbarea la faţă a României (The transfiguration of Romania; 1936), he looked to the Iron Guard to carry out a “creatively barbarian” revolution to save the country from disintegration by substituting totalitarianism for democracy. He praised the Guard for their “irrational merging” of themselves into the nation and for their heroism, which “began in brutality and ended in sacrifice.”

Leave a comment

Filed under democracy, economics, Judaism, migration, nationalism, philosophy, Romania

Civil Rights in Romania, 1866–1919

From A Concise History of Romania (Cambridge Concise Histories), by Keith Hitchins (Cambridge, 2014), Kindle Loc. 1926-1950:

The formation of the two large, dominant political parties in the decade after the adoption of the Constitution of 1866 largely completed the political superstructure of the pre-World War era. With the National Liberal Party and the Conservative Party in place, the parliamentary system came fully into being.

The authors of the Constitution and the founders of political parties gave no notice specifically to women. That women should play an active role in the new political system as a distinct social group or could even have issues of their own requiring political debate, let alone legislative action, struck the majority of political leaders as highly novel ideas. Thus the Constitution of 1866 and subsequent parliamentary acts left women in a juridical status that could be traced back to the law codes of Matei Basarab and Vasile Lupu in the middle of the seventeenth century. They stipulated the legal dependence of the wife on the husband in all matters, making her position essentially that of a minor. Thus, down to the First World War, in accordance with the Civil Code of 1866, women could not be a party to any legal arrangement without the consent of her husband or a judge and could not freely dispose of their inheritance or other wealth acquired during marriage. Discrimination in public employment was widespread. Certain professions were closed even to women with university degrees, and those with legal training were not allowed to plead cases in court on the grounds that they did not enjoy political rights. Women were, indeed, deprived of political rights, and the general mood of the time made any significant change unlikely. When several members of the Chamber of Deputies, including C. A. Rosetti, during the debate on the revision of the Constitution in 1884 proposed that married women who met the financial requirements for the ballot be allowed to vote directly for candidates, the response from many colleagues was laughter.

Another category of society also had formidable obstacles to overcome in order to gain civil rights. Gypsies had been slaves since their arrival in the Romanian principalities from south of the Danube in the fourteenth century. They were subject to various labor services and payments, depending upon whether their masters were princes, boiers, or clergy and whether they themselves were settled or nomadic. Even though they contributed much to the economies of the principalities through their labor in agriculture and as craftsmen, they occupied the margins of Romanian society, since their style of life was fundamentally different. Support for their emancipation came from many sides, especially liberals. Mihail Kogălniceanu wrote Esquisse sur l’histoire, les moeurs et la language des Cigains (1837) in order to acquaint the political and cultural elites with their condition and spur reform, and Ion Câmpineanu freed his own slaves. Through the efforts of reformers the Gypsies achieved full emancipation in Moldavia in 1855 and in Wallachia in 1856. In the half-century down to the First World War some of the 200,000 to 250,000 Gypsies settled on land the state made available to them or moved to cities, while many continued their nomadic way of life. In any case, the great majority remained outsiders.

Leave a comment

Filed under democracy, economics, labor, migration, nationalism, Romania

Wordcatcher Tales: Dosanko, Marimo, Pechika

Here are a few more words I picked up from our travels in Hokkaido last month and from my followup reading in Ann Irish’s book Hokkaido (McFarland, 2009).

道産子 Dosanko ‘(Hokkai)do-born-child’ – Originally applied to a particular breed of horse, the Hokkaido Pony (北海道和種 Hokkaidō washu), this term now applies to anyone or anything from Hokkaido: from prefecture-marketing antenna shops to cooking styles to streetcar types. It has become the prefecture’s brand name.

毬藻 marimo ‘ball seaweed’ (Aegagropila linnaei) – We first saw marimo on display in a small aquarium by the souvenir shops in JR Kushiro train station. They are a species of filamentous green algae (Chlorophyta) that forms large and velvety green balls. Colonies of such balls are only known to form in lakes in Iceland, Scotland, Estonia, and in Japan, where they are one of the many attractions of Lake Akan in Kushiro. The Japanese botanist Kawakami Tatsuhiko (川上龍彦) gave it the name marimo in 1898. Ainu names for it include torasampe (‘lake goblin’) and tokarip (‘lake roller’). English names for it include Cladophora balls, Lake balls, or Moss balls. Marimo also gave rise to a whole range of mascot merchandise under the name Marimokkori.

ペチカ pechika ‘Russian stove’ – It was in Hokkaido that I learned that Japanese ikura ‘salmon roe’ was borrowed from Russian икра (ikra), and in Irish’s book I learned of another Japanese borrowing from Russian, pechika ‘Russian stove’ from печка (pechka), the diminutive of (Русская) печь ‘(Russian) oven/stove’. The Japanese who settled Hokkaido adapted some Russian techniques to deal with the harsh northern winters, including horse-drawn sleighs with curved runners and stoves that radiated heat more effectively than the open fireplaces that were standard in traditional Japanese living/dining rooms. Those settlers included not just migrants from Honshu during Meiji times, but also refugees from Sakhalin, the Kuriles, and Manchuria after World War II ended. My impression is that Japanese pechika refers not to the large Russian ovens of clay, brick, or tile, but to smaller iron stoves, like the one in this Japanese fisherman’s workroom. Irish (p. 285) mentions “the Japanese song Pechika, which describes a family telling stories around a stove.”

Leave a comment

Filed under economics, Japan, language, Russia, science

The Last Major Ainu Uprising, 1789

From Hokkaido, A History of Ethnic Transition and Development on Japan’s Northern Island, by Ann B. Irish (McFarland, 2009), p. 47:

A frightening uprising with long-lasting ramifications erupted in 1789. Just as Shakushain remains a hero to many Ainu, the shocking Wajin [= ethnic Japanese] response to the 1789 events makes them a continuing spur to Ainu nationalism. At that time, Ainu were restricted to trading at posts chartered to contractors by the Matsumae. It was often these contractors who cheated or injured the Ainu. One of the worst offenders was Hidaya Kyubei, who operated in southwest Hokkaido and on Kunashir Island in the Kurils. A Hidaya man had come to Ezo as early as 1702 and obtained permission from the Matsumae to set up a lumber business. He brought workers to Ezo with him, sent the lumber his workers cut to Honshu cities, and paid large amounts to the Matsumae for the privilege. In return, his family obtained trading posts and amassed wealth. His grandson, Hidaya Kyubei, expanded his operations, in 1774 opening a trading post on Kunashir. Over the next few years he gained more and more control over the Ainu there, until they were reduced from a self-reliant society living in a traditional manner to the near-slavery and near-starvation seen at Hidaya’s other posts. Wajin frequently threatened Ainu with death or drowned their dogs. Ainu who could no longer work were killed, it was reported. Women were raped and men who tried to resist Hidaya depredations poisoned. Even Aoshima Shunzo, an Edo official sent later to probe the conflict and its causes, found that some blame lay with the Hidaya family, who forced Ainu in their region to work at rates of remuneration impossible to support life.

In 1789, a group of young Ainu, incensed because they believed that several Ainu died after Hidaya officials had given them poisoned sake, instigated hostilities, usually known today as the Menashi-Kunashir War. Ainu attacked Wajin at the Kunashir trading post, on the Ezo mainland, and on a ship in the area, leaving seventy-one dead. The young Ainu apparently planned their assault carefully, having prepared defensive measures, but local Ainu leaders who had been away at the time of the attack returned and persuaded the rebels to desist. To the elders, good relations with Wajin remained crucially important, as Ainu livelihood depended on them. Meanwhile, news got back to the Matsumae, who sent a large force to the affected region near Cape Nosappu east of Nemuro, including troops from other domains ordered by the shogunate to aid the Matsumae. The soldiers captured the eighty-seven Ainu they felt were responsible for the outbreak. Executiions of the leaders began. One of the Ainu let out a war-cry; the Wajin soldiers reacted in panic and speared prisoners randomly, leaving thirty-seven dead. Their heads were taken for display at the Matsumae capital. Hidaya lost his contract and the Matsumae issued new regulations for trading with Ainu; some improvement may have resulted.

This was the last serious Ainu challenge to the Matsumae, but as Wajin immigration continued, so did Ainu resentment.

During our recent trip to Hokkaido, the young Japanese tour guide on our bus to Cape Nosappu told the story of this uprising on our way back to Nemuro.

Leave a comment

Filed under economics, Japan, migration, nationalism, war

How Gorbachev Came to Power

From Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991: A History, by Orlando Figes (Metropolitan, 2014), Kindle Loc. 4437-4453:

Who knows what would have happened if Andropov had lived longer. Perhaps the Soviet Union might have undergone a more gradual transition from the old command system, modernizing the economy without relinquishing political controls, as done by the Chinese, though one wonders if this could have been achieved given the extent of the Party’s opposition to de-collectivization, the key to China’s revival. As fortune would have it, Andropov became terminally ill with kidney failure only nine months after coming into power and died, at the age of sixty-nine, in February 1984. From his death-bed in hospital, he wrote a speech to be read out at the Plenum of the Central Committee recommending Gorbachev to succeed him. But the crucial paragraph was cut by the old guard in the Politburo, opposed to reform, who on his death voted to replace him with Chernenko. Within weeks of his appointment the 73-year-old Chernenko became terminally ill. The Bolsheviks were dying of old age.

Gorbachev bided his time—careful not to alarm the old guard by giving the impression that he might go on with Andropov’s reforms yet building his support in the Central Committee and increasing his prestige by trips abroad, where he impressed the British leader, Margaret Thatcher, in particular, on a visit to London in December 1984. Such impressions were important to the Soviet government, which needed Western credits and disarmament. They no doubt helped him make the deal with Gromyko, the Foreign Minister, by which Gorbachev agreed to promote him to head of state (Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet) if he supported him to succeed Chernenko as the Party’s General Secretary. It was the backing of Gromyko, a veteran Brezhnevite, that tipped the scales in Gorbachev’s favour in the Politburo vote on Chernenko’s death the following March. There was no battle for the leadership: the old guard simply stepped aside to let in a younger man.

The selection of Gorbachev was arguably the most revolutionary act in the history of the Party since 1917. Had the Politburo known where he would lead the Party in the next few years, it would never have allowed him to become its General Secretary. But at this stage Gorbachev’s intentions were still far from clear.

Leave a comment

Filed under democracy, economics, philosophy, USSR