Signs of Things to Come?

private enterprise PICKINGS from my NORTH KOREAN DIARY 11.–21. April 2011

Nestle products

Having in mind that in November 2009, North Korea had devalued its old bank notes with virtually no advance notice by 100 to 1.  The old denomination of 1,000 won was replaced by the new 10 won. North Koreans were only allowed to exchange up to 100,000 won approximately US$25 to US$30 according to the then-market exchange rate of the old currency for the new bills. Many people saw their entire private savings wiped out overnight. North Korean Supreme Military Authority issued shoot-to-kill orders on the Chinese-DPRK border. Authorities were afraid of a massive exodus by middle class North Koreans with god.

I was looking for the old won and found prices in old won in Sariwon City at an ice cream seller.

Shell fishers refused to be photographed

I was also keen to find signs of private enterprise in this classic stalinist regime of KIM JONG IL. At the beach in Wonsan I met shell fishers selling their catch in small portions.

Apples from China

One day, traveling overland, our guides allowed us to make a toilet stop. We sat at the stairs of a closed down highway restaurant beside the road, bought a cup of tea, a brochure with the thoughts of “My Dear Leader“ and some apples (probably from China).

The dishes, tea and coffee they had brought in cardboard boxes. This stop was well organized and run by a group of women and men which must have had the support of the local bureaucrats (and our guides too) looking for Euros. It was the first and only time I saw Nestlé products in North Korea.

She was serving tea

Private traders selling their goods - Is this a sign of things to come?

Private enterprise dies last or as we say in German “Die Hoffnung stirbt zuletzt”. Are these traces of things to come?

When I look at the girl – she was quite a lady – who served us tea and coffee with Coffee Mate from Nestlé, I think these are indeed hidden signs of change, of “Big-Brother-influence” creeping up on North Korea from over the border, “brotherly touches” not even “My Dear Leader” KIM JONG IL, the last Gate-Keeper of Stalinism, can avoid…

But most astonishing to me were the North Koreans who sold and traded their goods in a remote area on the South coast 30km outside of Wonsan. I was able to take a snapshot while driving by at 08:30 in the morning after we had stayed overnight at an old Soviet-type sanatorium (with cold Fango) outside Wonsan .

MY MOTHER KNOWS BEST

harsh PICKINGS from my NORTH KOREAN DIARY 11.-21. April 2011

I ask our guide as often as possible about personal issues: When do you marry? We get married between 25 and 28 years. So you are 24? You will marry soon? Yes. Who will choose your husband, you or your parents? My mother knows best she will recommend the right partner to me.

You live with your parents? Yes, my mom is cooking for me. Will you move out when you get married? Maybe not, certainly not in the beginning. Is it difficult to find an apartment? No, not so difficult. I write to the district officer and he will allocate one to me. How much does it cost? Nothing. I repeat: “NOTHING“? Why do you ask? Apartments are free. So you cannot buy an apartment? Why should I buy one? This is not necessary! I only pay for electricity, water and heating. How much is that per month? In Euro it is 20 cents. Did I hear right?

My Dear Leader KIM JONG IL

Everything belongs to the government, we don’t have to worry. And what about healthcare? It is free. Sometimes the hospitals have too many patients and we have to wait to get treatment some weeks. So you have to pay the doctor extra money to get good treatment? She doesn’t understand. Extra money? No! We wait till it’s our turn.

I hear from another source that people in Pyongyang have to pay around 3 Euro/month for an apartment. My guide told me that he paid 7 Euro for his suit made by a tailor. He said it was expensive. As I calculate the numbers I collect, I figure out that monthly income in the capital Pyongyang is probably between 20-50 Euro. High earners make 200 to 300 Euro. In the countryside it’s ten times less if they get money at all, most likely they get food, a place to sleep and clothing.

It’s difficult to get real numbers and impossible to verify them. Job, income, living conditions – it all depends on communist party connections and on people with a link to the inner power circle of “My Dear Leader“ Kim Jong Il.