Being in North Korea (Review)

Posted January 8, 2022

Categories: Articles, Book Reviews, Korea

Review of Andray Abrahamian, Being in North Korea (Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, Stanford University, 2020), 206 pages


North Korea, despite its reputation as the last communist holdout in the world, has no major problem with capitalism. It’s even willing to take lessons from the capitalist world on how to build a market economy.


Choson Exchange has proven that.


Set up in 2010, the Singapore-based organization has held dozens of workshops on market economics inside North Korea for budding entrepreneurs and managers. It has also brought delegations of North Koreans to places like Singapore, Vietnam, and Switzerland to see capitalism in practice.


Choson Exchange has generally done its work rather quietly. When working with North Korea, it’s generally a good idea to keep a low public profile. Of course, you can read the organization’s annual reports on its website. But unless you’re in the world of North Korea watchers, it’s hard to get an insider’s look at what Choson Exchange has accomplished or the obstacles it has encountered.


Now, thanks to Andray Abrahamian’s book Being in North Korea, you can peep through the window that Choson Exchange has opened onto the workings of the North Korean system. As one of the co-founders of the organization, Abrahamian went to North Korea dozens of times. Because he is fluent in Korean – he did his doctoral work in South Korea – he is well-placed to explain the intricacies of a country that few Westerners have visited.


Being in North Korea does a very good job of describing the often-contradictory situation of the North Korean economy, which remains a mixture of markets and state control. On an everyday level, North Koreans rely increasingly on markets to meet their needs. But state-owned enterprises still handle all the major manufacturing, and the government will periodically dragoon the population to help out with the planting and the harvesting. Entrepreneurs are setting up small businesses, with the requisite bribes to officials, but the government still strictly controls the overall economic environment. As recently as 2009, for instance, the government implemented a currency “reform” that nearly wrecked the economy.


For a country that supposedly doesn’t change, North Korea has evolved quite a bit over the last decade. The number of cell phone users, courtesy of the Egyptian telecom giant Orascom, has risen to as much as 5 million by 2018. Smart phones are more common now in the big cities, though you have to go to a physical store to download apps. The government has introduced Manbang, a streaming service similar to Netflix, but dictates its content. Abrahamian does a good job of describing the mechanics of buying and selling apartments in a society that officially doesn’t have a real estate market.


Choson Exchange was set up to provide nuts-and-bolts assistance to entrepreneurs and managers who are orchestrating the shift to a market economy from both the top down and the bottom up. As long as the workshops remain focused on relatively technical questions, the conversation can be quite open. Sometimes, however, the presenters have to resort to interesting workarounds. For instance, the topic of Chinese-North Korean economic relations is quite sensitive. Once the outside consultant in the Choson Exchange workshop substituted “Big Island” and “Small Island” in his presentation, the North Korean audience freely offered their input.


“In North Korea, politics is a monolith and everyone must follow the party line,” Abrahamian observes. “But the corporate space allowed for less authoritarian decision-making.” In this way, Choson Exchange aspires to introduce a more participatory style even as they are teaching what in the West might be considered rather rigid and hierarchical business approaches.


Along with his descriptions of how the North Korean economy works – and doesn’t – Abrahamian dispels a number of myths concerning the country. If a North Korean sports team loses in an international competition, they’re not shipped off to the gulag. If you visit Pyongyang, the people you see on the subway or in the park are not actors. As for the notion that North Koreans are puritanical when it comes to sex, Abrahamian tells a number of intriguing stories that suggest quite the opposite.


To normalize North Korea, he also points out a number of parallels with the West. Yes, propaganda is everywhere in North Korea. But Abrahamian, a British citizen, notes that in the United States, American flags are everywhere (unlike in Britain). And the cult of the Kim family finds at least a partial parallel in the quasi-religious cult that built up around George Washington after his death.


Considering that he lived in South Korea for a number of years, Abrahamian curiously fails to normalize other aspects of North Korean life by pointing out that they are more Korean than peculiarly North Korean. The racialized nationalism of the North can be found throughout South Korea as well where the notion of tanil minjok (one people, one blood) is ubiquitous. And the slapdash construction style that produced some dangerous results in North Korea, such as the

collapse of a Pyongyang apartment building in 2014, is not unknown in the South where the ppali-ppali (fast-fast) approach contributed to comparable disasters (such as the collapse of a department store in 1995).


In other places, Abrahamian neglects to supply some useful context, for instance, about what “reform” means in the North Korean context and why it has been necessary to avoid using that term. In his discussion of the decline of the North Korea-affiliated organization Chongryon in Japan, he rightly brings up the impact of the revelations concerning North Korean abductions of Japanese citizens. But he doesn’t mention the specific Japanese government policies targeting the organization, such as restricting trade with Pyongyang and cracking down on Chongryon’s financial institutions that have facilitated its decline.


Strangely, too, Abrahamian ends his book with a chapter on how outsiders have viewed Korea over the years. I would have expected an exploration of the exoticization of Korea at the beginning of the book. Instead, as a conclusion, I would have liked to read Abrahamian’s forecast of Choson Exchange’s prospects – and by extension, the future of North Korean economic transformations.


Nevertheless, he does bring the conversation around at the end to his thoughts on outside efforts to proselytize in Korea. He makes it clear that he’s not in favor of religious missionary work. “But the country would, I have to believe, be a better society if they adapted some (but not all) norms practiced in other countries, particularly around political participation and the role of markets,” he concludes. “They would see better outcomes and greater human happiness. There are some universal, secular standards for human dignity and behavior to which we should all aspire.”


That may be true, but it reflects a distinctly Western perspective. From my experience in the country, North Koreans are interested in importing the technical expertise of foreigners without adopting the ideological baggage concerning political participation, the emancipatory nature of markets, and the like. The Japanese, during the Meiji period, adopted a similar perspective. Such a division between the technical and the spiritual is not so easily done, but anyone who hopes to “make a difference” in North Korea should at least be aware of the dynamic.


Abrahamian is not naïve about the philosophy of engagement that has animated Choson Exchange’s mission. “A gradual transition would still almost certainly be an autocratic, Kim-family-led state,” he notes. And yet pragmatic engagement in favor of such a gradual transition is a better bet than the opposite. “I don’t think pressure will get us to where we’d like,” he adds. “The country is uniquely built to be closed. Sanctioning and isolating it ad infinitum will, in my estimation, not cause it to collapse.”


Choson Exchange was set up to test the proposition of engagement through technical cooperation. Abrahamian’s book, a chronicle of that experience, demonstrates through an accumulation of anecdotes and analysis that such an effort is difficult and fraught with challenging trade-offs, but it’s not a fool’s errand.


Korean Quarterly, Winter 2020

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