We had the chance recently, thanks to a DPRK film screening by Koryo Group, to see this awkwardly translated film that ironically illustrates the issues with imploring people to work when the only incentives are national, ideological ones. In this 2009 film Jin Ok receives a university affiliation letter after her service in the army. But instead of hitching a ride on the social-mobility train, she goes to the construction site of Hungbong Youth Power Station on Kumjin River. Why does she volunteer to work in a sector involving arduous jobs, giving up her long-cherished dream of studying in the university? Well, the short answer is ideological purity. The longer answer and central tale of the film is that she was inspired by the memory of a self-sacrificing, hard-working exemplar, who gave her life saving a drowning girl.
Is the last piece of Rason's infrastructure puzzle about to slide into place? This week reports emerged that on the Chinese side “land requisition, house demolishing and relocation, and erection of power line” was “by and large completed” to provide power to Rason Special Economic Zone from Jilin province. The plan to import electricity into Rason from the Chinese grid has been rumored for at least five years but if this week's news holds, it appears things really will start moving in June. Still, until I actually see pylons straddling the Tumen river...
In 2012, reports emerged that North Korea was preparing for changes to its agricultural policy. While the exact details were disputed, the basic outline was that the State would share agricultural outputs with farmers, and farmers would be allow to sell their share of the output. In addition, the size of the collective would be reduced, potentially to the size of a household. Alongside these rumors were many others regarding changes to the management of state-owned enterprises and to the financial system, mostly under the rubric of what was termed a “new economic management system in our style.” In April last year, Pak Pong Ju, who initiated economic policy changes in 2002-2006, was brought back for his second-term as Premier after a long absence from the political scene dating to 2010.
Slightly over a year ago, a fellow Singaporean who does visually spectacular work taking 360-degree panoramic photos contacted me asking if we could arrange for him to conduct similar work in North Korea. As we were at that time an all-volunteer team holding down full-time jobs while running our workshops in North Korea on the side, we were unable to help him. Also, the project was outside the scope of what we usually do.
The third New Year's message of the Kim Jong Un era was a broad, sweeping affair, making policy priorities difficult to pinpoint: when there are so many areas to focus on, it rather diminishes the idea of focus at all. This year's key slogan is "Let us raise a fierce wind of making a fresh leap forward on all fronts of building a thriving country filled with confidence in victory!" There is, it seems, a leap forward in increasing the word counts of slogans at any rate.
On Dec. 24, my plane landed in Pyongyang to a wintry landscape. The ground was peppered with snow and the chill of Pyongyang, in contrast with the lighter winter in Beijing, was a shock. In more pleasant circumstances, I would not have come back so early during winter, over Christmas, especially not after having just visited the previous month. But given the news coming out of North Korea this period, I cannot help but check-in to see how programs for 2014 might be affected.
There are a number of factual inaccuracies in this article, which is not surprising as it was partly translated from English to Chinese, and partly done in rusty-Chinese. Also some tabloid-ish exaggerations by the reporters. But otherwise, it does capture well some of the frustrations of working in North Korea.
It is still far from clear where the chips will fall after last week's dramatic ouster of Jang Song Taek. However, several men who were both associated with him, as well as with the 2002 reforms and with more recent economic tickerings such as the 6.28 policy from last year are still, at least for now, in the game. Pak Pong Ju, the Premier was on a high profile state funeral committee this week. (Second position, no less!) He is most closely associated with the reforms of 2002.
So, what’s up? Any North Korea news lately? Just kidding. Like all Korea-watchers we’ve been consumed by the ouster of Jang Song Taek, coming up with theories and explanations, some of which we might put in writing. For now, one small thing we’d like to zoom in on is the issue of investor perception. We sensed some positivity in recent months, with provincial officials hoping for a positive political environment now that the ugliness of Kaesong’s closure was beginning to recede.
Geoffrey heading to Pyongyang last week of December to sort out some things and to assess impact of recent events. Putting this up just in case...