In Sinuiju, a city perched on the North Korean side of China’s Yalu River, I awoke at dawn to the tinny strands of martial music broadcast from megaphones hitched to slow-moving vehicles. Soon there was an odd accompaniment: the sound of metal scraping against tarmac.
A snowstorm had just passed through the region and North Koreans – gathered in work brigades, farm collectives and youth leagues – were busy clearing the road to Pyongyang about a hundred miles south. By the tens of thousands they converged, armed with shovels, pick-axes, claw-hammers, and tree branches bundled to form a kind of gigantic egg-whisk.
It was an impressive deployment of human capital and a reminder that North Korea, isolated by a generation of international sanctions, remains a labor-intensive economy of almost medieval character. (And to mixed effect, at least as far as road maintenance goes. As evidence of how badly the embargo has degraded vehicle safety, the way to Pyongyang was littered with road accidents, some quite serious.)
The scene also offered a rare look at the national physiology. I was a member of a six-man humanitarian aid project that last month re-supplied hospitals and sanatoriums throughout the country’s North Pyongan province. With the obvious exception of the patients we met in wards and care units, we saw no signs of malnutrition in a country racked by frequent food shortages. Nor was there evidence of the flood that had reportedly deluged much of the country only a few weeks earlier.
On the contrary, as our convoy weaved its way back to Pyongyang, we were struck by the robustness of the roadside toilers. Though North Koreans are on average several inches shorter than their brethren in the south, their complexion was ruddy, their eyes bright and their hair full and dark. Also noteworthy was the quality of their clothes – brightly colored parkas and scarves, and worn but well-made trousers, sweaters, hats and footwear. And while transportation along the highway was dominated by pedestrians, ox-carts, and large trucks filled with travelers clutching their belongings in haversacks, we were frequently passed by oncoming vehicles of Japanese and European make, apparently privately owned and operated, as well as new bicycles and motor-scooters.
In an exhausted economy like North Korea, these could only have come from China, the wellspring of a smuggling trade that is infiltrating the country with everything from new auto parts to DVD copies of South Korean soap operas. At a terminal on the Chinese side of the border, bus drivers pay a nominal “tax” to enter North Korea’s expanding black market with the eager complicity of customs’ police. Chinese cigarettes, liquor and soda appear for sale throughout urban and even rural parts of North Korea on simple wooden tables at street corners. Hotels like the Abrokgang in Sinuiju and the Koryo In Pyongyang have been made over with imported light fixtures, door locks, and sound systems. Electricity and hot running water are no longer rationed and new Karaoke players have been installed in dining rooms. Rack rates are no longer calculated in feeble dollars, but in muscular Euros.
Achirongee, or “Shimmer” in Korean, is a popular eatery in Pyongyang. It accepts dollars, Euros and Chinese yuan, offering food and a standard of service that rivals the top diners in Seoul. Its waitresses sport contemporary hairstyles – gone is the wholesome pony-tail-and-bangs look that was once de rigueur for all good, apple-cheeked revolutionaries – and wear sparkles with their makeup.
None of this, of course, would be possible without the tacit endorsement of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. As a tactical maneuver, it’s the smart move. What better way to salvage a nation that was nearly extinguished in the 1990s by famine and disease than by opening a black-market lifeline with a sympathetic neighbor? Certainly it has bought the regime some good-will. A petty-merchant class appears to have congealed around the new China trade and its wares are raising living standards slightly for a population that has beaten the worst of natural and man-made plagues. The easing of relations between Pyongyang and its neighbors has led to new investment from South Korean industrialists and, if the number of Chinese patrons at Achirongee is any indication, from China as well.
Most importantly, Washington is poised to remove Pyongyang from its list of terrorist sponsors once the regime bins its suspected nuclear weapons program, so desperate is the Bush administration for a foreign policy success. Thus rehabilitated, North Korea would be targeted for all manner of funds, from South Korea mostly but also from China, Russia, and Japan’s large ethnic-Korean community. It will be as much a political marketplace as a commercial one, from non-governmental organizations anxious to expand their donor-financed empires, to state-run and quasi-public companies eager to entrench the Kim dynasty and forestall the one affair no one in the region wants consummated: Korean unification. While Seoul is intimidated by the costs of absorbing a population equal to half its own, the rest of East Asia is keen on keeping the peninsula divided and comparatively weak.
But throwing money at Pyongyang’s existing problems may create a host of new ones. Absent wholesale economic reform, the amount of cash that will be channeled into North Korea is likely to be far beyond its capacity to absorb it. The result will be massive corruption – witness the Palestinian Authority after its 1993 peace deal with Israel – and an unprecedented and destabilizing rate of income disparity.
Despite many takers, no one has made money betting against Kim Jong Il since he assumed power after his father’s death in 1994. He has distinguished himself for playing a single hand – his nuclear ambitions – with a workmanlike facility. Still, what appears now to be his safest bet might turn out to be his riskiest gamble. Dictators thrive in darkness, after all. They leverage international isolation to manipulate, coerce and cajole at home. By widening the aperture, even to simple consumer goods, the Dear Leader courts the hazards of rising expectations so that one day, after the work units are deployed to clear the trunk roads of yet another bed of freshly fallen snow, someone may remark with annoyance at the lack of motorized plows.