North Korea: Markets and Military Rule (Review)

Posted January 8, 2016

Categories: Articles, Book Reviews, Korea

Review of North Korea: Markets and Military Rule


Most observers who conclude that North Korea is a static society only take a snapshot glance at the country. Perhaps they visit once on a tourist delegation. Perhaps they’re journalists who write one or two stories about the “other Korea” as part of their tour of Asia. Or perhaps they’re government officials who pay attention only to the proclamations of the government in Pyongyang, which indeed undergo only minor variation from year to year.


For North Korea experts who regularly visit the country and follow the daily twists and turns of Pyongyang’s policies, however, the country has experienced considerable change over the last three decades. Hazel Smith has traveled to North Korea many times since 1990 and lived in Pyongyang for two years. She has done a great deal of research into agriculture and food policy in the country. And now she has published North Korea: Markets and Military Rule, a valuable book that examines the impact of markets (from below) and the military (from above) on life in the country.


Actually, Smith has published two books in one. The first book details Korean history from Pyongyang’s perspective, starting with the mythic beginnings of the Korean people and ending with the death of Kim Il Sung and the famine that swept through the country after his demise in 1994. The second book examines the uncontrolled introduction of markets into North Korean society and the state’s effort to craft a “military first” doctrine to ensure regime survival after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the radical economic reforms in China.


The first book contains some interesting observations. In 1986 and 1987, for instance, the state reduced the army by 250,000 in order to boost the number of workers at civilian construction sites. I also didn’t know that the first North Korean computer center opened in 1990 in the DPRK. In general, however, this retelling of Korean history from Pyongyang’s viewpoint didn’t seem sufficiently tied to the book’s main focus on markets and the military. It was as if the publisher had insisted on a more comprehensive take on the Hermit Kingdom in order to appeal to a more general audience, and Smith obliged.


The second book, meanwhile, is essentially an extended essay on the tension between the almost anarchic forces of the market and the rigidly top-down efforts by the state to maintain control over a society in transition. Here’s where Smith breaks new ground. She traces the emergence of markets to the collapse of the economy in the famine era, as the public distribution system breaks down, factories and farms grind to a halt, and individuals must fend for themselves to survive. Producing food for sale in markets, bringing items in from China to set up rudimentary import businesses, and increasingly relying on markets to acquire food all reinforce the importance of the new markets as survival mechanisms. Inevitably, the market would have a larger impact on social relations.


“One unanticipated effect of marketization was the rise of the family as the nexus of economic and associational life and the gradual displacement of collectivist, state-led priorities from private life,” Smith writes. “As state services deteriorated the family stepped in to cover the gap and in turn the family cohered around a mission to look after itself.” In this new world, women in particular assumed new roles, as they were the ones who engaged in the new market initiatives (most men were required to maintain their official jobs in state enterprises). But Smith is quick to note that these new roles didn’t necessarily translate into greater status for women in North Korean society (though it will be interesting to track this trend over time).


The market, in other words, heralded a turn inward, away from public duties and toward the private life of family. Party membership, for all but the most elite, did not guarantee survival during the famine years. As a result, the old elite began to fragment, and a new economic elite that has benefited from the market has begun to emerge. During this period, the market has encouraged a shift away from the ideological and toward the pragmatic.


The “military-first” doctrine, or songun, dates from roughly the same period—to a speech by Kim Jong-Il in 1995. As the market was offering new roles for people, the state was urging the entire society to model itself on a more traditional set of values: “the traits of soldiers.” In some ways, it was a doctrine of desperation, for the state didn’t have much in the way of compensation to offer citizens. It was simply falling back on the only institution with any social power. Since the society was already highly militarized – with compulsory military service of ten years for men – the state was relying on values of loyalty and discipline instilled in at least half the population (although the state didn’t introduce compulsory military service for women until 2014, many women began to join in the 2000s).


The military also became an institution around which the state could rebuild the economy, by using military labor in the fields and on construction sites and by prioritizing military production. This was also part of the move away from Marxist ideology and toward a state policy built around nationalism.  Self-sufficiency in food production stemmed from a nationalist impulse to create a strong independent state – rather than one dependent on other countries such as China or Russia. Building a nuclear weapon, over the objections of fraternal allies, reflected a similarly nationalist orientation. North Korean leaders had long realized that they couldn’t rely on the assistance of others, however charitable their intentions.


What makes Smith’s work particularly valuable is her insistence on understanding North Koreans as active participants in constructing their own lives. Despite the overarching surveillance state, they have managed to transform their lives in meaningful ways. “The self-directed activity of millions of small traders, led by women, who swapped, bartered, sold and generally engaged in the whole spectrum of non-state-directed, private economic transactions, transformed society from below and from inside,” she writes. “Social change was not led from abroad.”


It would have been perhaps more interesting if Smith had skipped the chapter on the deficiencies of U.S. negotiating strategies and focused more on the tensions between the military and the market as North Korea transitioned to the Kim Jong-Eun era, as the inter-governmental relationship with the South soured, and as additional economic sanctions began to take effect in the country. But as North Korea continues to change, there will be ample opportunity for Smith to produce a sequel that applies her arguments to whatever society evolves north of the 38th parallel.


Korean Quarterly, Summer 2016



Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *