Consequent on the UN sanctions that severely restricted essential exports for agriculture to North Korea, starvation conditions have re-emerged for the first time since the famine years of the 1990s. Absent capital and technology, the government relies almost completely on the intensified exploitation of the labor force, much of this carried out via the mechanisms of youth mobilisation. The problem for the regime is that young people today are much less persuaded than their parents that they have a moral duty to participate in the dirty, dangerous and physically arduous work demanded of them. North Korea’s Generation Z has learned that there is a possibility of a better, different life from the one they currently lead in North Korea. They also now know, as did the younger generations of the late Cold war period in Communist Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, that their government lies to them on an industrial scale. Regime concern about youth disaffection is indicated by the consistent messaging aiming to ‘root out anti-socialist and non-socialist practices’ and ‘improve ideological education’, especially among young people and the convening of a national assembly of the Kimilsungist-Kimjongilist Youth League, scheduled for later this month, for the first time in five years.
The parents and grandparents of North Korea’s Generation Z had almost zero access to non-state sanctioned points of view and ideas. Every organization of state and society, including the workplace, functioned as a transmission belt for state ideology. By the 1970s, the regime had eradicated the private sector, so that every member of the society relied entirely on the state for income, goods, including food, and access to information. Education, culture, art, and media only transmitted state-approved messaging. Nevertheless, the key to successful information control was less domestic institutional mechanisms, given their notorious inefficiency and ineffectiveness, and much more down to geopolitical chance. Neighboring China, which shares a 1000-mile land border with North Korea and the then Soviet Union, whose North Korean frontier is just ten miles long, were closed Communist countries. China was a very poor country with little to attract North Korea’s young people. The border with South Korea was physically impossible to cross, and easy communication facilitated by the internet and the web not yet available.
Things are very different today. Over forty percent of the 25 million population were born after 1997. For young adults today, the closed society of the Kim Il Sung era, Kim Il Sung himself, and the famine years of the 1990s are as much a distant history as is the Cold War era to students studying International Relations in American universities today. North Korea’s Generation Z is as much a mobile phone and consumer generation as its American counterpart and, despite periodic governmental efforts to restrict and control use of computer technology, young adults now have had a good deal of access to information about the lives and ideas of others outside North Korea. USB sticks and DVDs containing South Korean media are brought through the same market mechanisms and channels on which, at least until government COVID quarantine measures severely restricted China border trade last year, the population has depended for a couple of decades to provide daily necessities, including food.
Unlike China, against which North Korea’s potential transition is often erroneously compared, North Korea has always been beset by labor shortages in every sector of the economy. Labor shortages mean that, even in times of severe food shortages, crops sometimes are left to rot in the fields. The government refuses to engage in strategic economic policy redirection; instead, it aims to circumvent labor shortages by mass mobilization of young people. For the regime, youth disaffection is an economic as well as a political problem.
Young people are mobilized via the Party-directed social organizations, such as the youth league or trade union, to which every adult, including non-Party members, is expected to belong. These are nominally voluntary activities, but it would take a very brave and very foolhardy young person to refuse the call to ‘volunteer’ for such activities. Yet mass mobilization of labor relies on some degree of willing participation. It is difficult to physically supervise every activity for every minute of up to 10,000 young people working together spread out on a building site or farm, sometimes living in dormitories far away from home. Nor are local Party supervisors, often lacking decent food and income themselves, highly motivated to push reluctant and unskilled youth into carrying out activities which local leaders know will not result in sustainable outcomes.
Strategically and tactically, mass mobilization of labor is an economically illiterate policy. Even at the best of times, when supplementary resources, including capital goods and technology, are imported from abroad, the policy of mass mobilization is supremely economically inefficient. Flood barriers rebuilt by hand will only last until the next heavy rains. Roads built without proper underpinnings of gravel, sand or finished off with tarmac or a decent quality concrete will fall apart with a modicum of bad weather and use by a few heavy lorries. At the worst of times, as today when the country is under an economic blockade from UN sanctions, the policy is economically futile.
Externally, the regime understands the nuclear program as providing a successful deterrent to foreign intervention. Its military strategy is supported by reliance on diplomatic protection from China and Russia that it counts on to prevent a United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing military force against the DPRK.
Domestically, the regime is floundering. The frequent panegyrics praising city youth who ‘volunteer’ to work in coal mines and cooperative farms after graduation reflect a regurgitation of past policies whose sell by date ran out in the famine years of the 1990s. It seems unlikely that the insistence on ‘more ideology’ as a substitute for access to decent work, food and living conditions will provide a sufficient motivating force for this new generation, whose understandings of the world are very different from those prescribed by that self-same ideology. The regime is correct in its assessment that Generation Z provides the Achilles heel of regime stability.
Dr. Hazel Smith a Professorial Research Associate in Korean Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Professor Emerita in International Security at Cranfield University, UK, and member of the Global Futures Council on Korea of the World Economic Forum. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Image from Cordelia Persen’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.