Let me recommend a new blog, NKzone, which aims to get a better sense for what is going on inside North Korea, largely from unofficial channels. For example, one of the earliest is an interview with Hazel Smith, who has spent a lot of time in North Korea since 1990 with the World Food Program and other agencies. Here’s a sample of what she has to say:
Up to a million people died of hunger in the 1990s – but probably up to 21 million survived – one question is how did they do that and how do they continue to do that when the government cannot deliver on basic needs (enough food all the year round, decent water and sanitation supplies, medicine and medical equipment).
At first what happed is that individuals and local communities – including local workplaces, farms, counties even – were left with the problem of how to feed starving people when the government centrally could not. The local officials were forced to respond to the people they represent – certainly not in a democratic manner but because they live in the same places and may often be part of close knit kinship networks – in an accountable manner. Those living near the China border had some options – selling lumber across the border for a start. Those with access to foreigners tried to obtain hard currency. But most were forced into petty trade domestically. And because the party officials (remember this is a mass party not a vanguard small party) were often as badly in need of food and basic goods and anyone else, they actively connived with local entrepreneurs to get around the rules so as to obtain food by any means possible.
The government tried to stop this, vacillated, then realized it couldn’t stop this. Then in the end – about the beginning of the 2000s – accepted this transformation in the way people lived their economic lives as a fact of life. From then they decided to try to direct the process of socio-economic change (while not permitting much political; change) – rather than be directed by it.
By this time also local party – and security officials – had become transformed into the new core class of petty traders (not all of them but significant numbers). They were the ones best placed – contacts, access to transport, knowing how to get round the rules – and with the most motivation. As desk workers they mostly didn’t grow much of their own food and their income in the local won was virtually literally worthless.
The visible change is the enormous increase in personal mobility throughout the country. In Pyongyang in the early 1990s there were just government vehicles on the streets and no bicycles. Not many people walking about either as the underground and buses more or less functioned. In the countryside virtually no vehicles and not much in the way of mass pedestrian movement.
Now if you can afford transport or if you can make it (lots of home made vehicles – it’s a miracle they can move never mind transport anything) and lots of bicycles.
In addition people walk everywhere – there is hardly any working public transport outside Pyongyang – so people walk between counties – to go and get food from relatives, to take children to stay with relatives so they can get fed, to take food to relatives, etc.
The difference is because now they are allowed to move – it is also a sign of the crumbling effectiveness of the security apparatus (in some parts of the country) and the different priorities these days. Nowadays it is seen as a duty to engage in private trading – and sensible – because people need to survive and the state no longer provides enough to survive on.