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North Korea moves against a tiny pocket of capitalism

Officials had allowed a robust trade along the border with China, centered on the city of Chongjin. But now they are rolling back reforms and preaching self-sufficiency; residents fear starvation.

July 05, 2009|Barbara Demick

YANJI, CHINA — In the markets of Kilju, a city of 100,000 near North Korea's eastern seacoast, the ruling Korean Workers' Party has ordered the removal of Chinese-made cookies, candies and pharmaceuticals.

Even soybeans, many articles of clothing and shoes are now forbidden.

It is all part of a great leap backward taking place in the secretive autocracy. North Koreans interviewed in China in recent weeks say that the regime of Kim Jong Il has made a concerted effort to roll back reforms that had over the last decade liberalized the most strictly controlled economy in the world.

"They're telling us that we don't need markets and that socialism provides everything we need," said an unemployed factory worker in her 50s, who gave her name as Lee Myong Hee. (North Koreans outside their country often give fake names because speaking to foreigners can be considered treason under North Korean law.)

Lee sneaked across the border last month into China, hoping she could make some money for her family. Thin and nervous, her body sculpted by a diet of two bowls of porridge each day, she said the party's unbending ideology has squeezed the life out of the city's economy.

"If they don't give us food and clothing and we're not allowed to buy things, how can we survive?" Lee said, tears rolling down hollowed cheeks.

The Korean Workers' Party has banned the sale and swapping of apartments, practices that were widespread for more than a decade. The open-air markets where people do most of their buying and selling are now open only from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. The only people permitted to sell at the markets are women older than 50; everybody else is required to spend their days at their official jobs at government-run businesses.

So many Chinese goods are now taboo that markets stock only about 35% of the merchandise previously available, some say.

"They want to promote our own products made in North Korea, but since everything is 'made in China,' there is nothing to buy," said Kim Young Chul, a civilian working for the North Korean military who had come to China to sell wild ginseng on behalf of his employer.

The economic restrictions reflect the rising power of the hard-liners within the staunchly communist regime and go hand in hand with the belligerent mood that led to North Korea's May 25 nuclear test. Those jostling for power in the scramble created by the failing health of 68-year-old North Korean leader Kim Jong Il are raising the banner of juche, the term coined by his father, Kim Il Sung, the country's founder, for an ideology emphasizing self-sufficiency.

North Korea has in effect scuttled dialogue with the United States, South Korea and Japan, shut down South Korean business interests within its borders and evicted many humanitarian aid operations.

"The North Koreans want to close off their country so they will not be hurt by sanctions. They think everybody is out to ruin their country and they are getting rid of anything that could be a threat," said Cho Myong-chol, a former economics professor at Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung University who defected to South Korea in 1994.

Kilju is an agricultural and industrial city in North Hamgyong province, known to the outside world for its proximity to North Korea's Musudan-ri missile base and to the underground site of the May nuclear test, about 30 miles to the northwest.

Like other remote North Korean cities, it was decimated by famine in the mid-1990s when the public distribution system for food broke down. As a consequence, the government was forced to loosen its grip on the economy.

Farmers markets that had been permitted to sell homegrown vegetables, usually laid out on tarpaulins on the ground, gradually expanded. Traders (many crossing the border illegally) started importing Chinese goods, including children's sneakers, bananas and DVD players. North Koreans brightened up their famously drab landscape a bit by wearing pinks, polka dots and paisleys, occasionally sporting T-shirts with English writing.

In 2002, the North Korean regime belatedly legalized the markets and in many cities built stalls and enclosures to rent out to vendors.

The dismal state-owned stores closed their doors and mysterious North Korea began to look a little more like other countries.

But then, the pendulum started to swing backward. In ideological sessions compulsory for all North Koreans, the Workers' Party railed against markets as "hotbeds of anti-socialism."

In recent months, the North Korean government has become as strict about what is exported as what comes in. The sale of soybeans -- a staple in the North Korean diet -- has been banned, with the explanation that they might be taken out of the country for re-sale in China.

"They tell us the army needs the soybeans and that our soldiers won't be strong enough to lift their guns," said Lee, the unemployed factory worker.

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