By Nicholas Hamisevicz
In late August, I joined a tourist group led by the Young Pioneer Tours company on a one week trip to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (or North Korea). Visits to Pyongyang, Mount Paektu, Samjiyon, Chongjin, and Wonsan attracted adventure tourists, some of whom had been to other places like Iran, Burma, and Bosnia, as well as Korea and China analysts like me. Although it was only my first time to North Korea and without any meetings with government officials, four things stood out about policy toward North Korea: connections with China, small cracks in the North Korean system and story, direct evidence of the third generation leadership transition in North Korea, and that unification will be a significant financial burden for South Korea. Granted, these are not huge revelations, but they are apparent as one travels by bus and plane for a week throughout North Korea.
First, the connections with China are easily visible. Chinese tourists abound, from our hotels in Pyongyang to the Be Dae Bong Hotel near Samjiyon and Mount Paektu. Gift shops and book stores seemed more comfortable using Chinese Yuan than Euros, which the government run Korea International Travel Company had suggested for our group, giving Yuan back as change rather Euros. Further evidence of China-North Korea connections were on full display during the Arirang Mass Games performance held at the May Day Stadium in Pyongyang. The second to last scene celebrated the friendship and history of China and North Korea, with dancing pandas, flags of the two countries, and Korean and Chinese characters being flashed on the placards.
Second, in a recent episode of KEI’s Korean Kontext podcast, Curtis Melvin, author of the North Korea Econ Watch blog, mentioned that one can see “cracks” in the North Korean system and story when they visit. Some of these cracks could be seen on our trip. Hot water was only available from 7:00AM to 8:000AM at the Be Dae Bong Hotel and in our Wonsan hotel; moreover, we had no running water at our hotel in Chongjin. As other visitors have reported, there is a lot of construction happening in Pyongyang and other cities, yet few pieces of heavy machinery that could aid in the construction, such as cranes and bulldozers, are visible on the construction sites. Heavy machinery was also absent from the fields of corn alongside the road from Orang airport to Chongjin.
Nowhere was the fear of the revelation of the cracks in the North Korean system more evident than when we traveled to the port city of Chongjin. As mentioned, our hotel had no running water. The original permission to take pictures of anything not related to the military and checkpoints was now gone, and we had to ask for permission for every photo we wanted to take. Our North Korean tour guides seemed more nervous and hesitant. A tour guide from Chongjin joined us, and if you were looking for someone who might be in one of the Chongjin gangs described in Barbara Demick’s book, Nothing to Envy, he’d be it.
It was clear the North Koreans didn’t like us being in Chongjin and wanted us out quickly. Our itinerary had scheduled a guided bus tour of the city. Also, because we were in this seaside city and had yet to see any water, many in the group wanted to see the port of Chongjin. However, after a visit to a preschool, the North Koreans drove us directly out of Chongjin. We were fortunate to realize this before we were too far out of the city, and somehow, we convinced the guides to take us back to the city and to the port. We drove straight back up the main street, past our hotel, directly to the port. The bus then hastily turned around in a hotel with a People’s Republic of China flag raised atop its flagpole, and we were immediately back on the route out of Chongjin. The tour guides explained that Chinese sailors visiting Chongjin port stay at that hotel.
But it was hard to tell if these cracks were large enough for change to break through from the inside or where policy prescriptions from the outside could infiltrate and induce reform. As North Korea watchers know, the country has been incredibly resilient and predictions of its imminent demise usually end in error.
North Korea is trying to prevent the predicted collapse scenarios by cultivating a smooth transition from the Kim Jong-il regime. Kim Jong-il appears to have positioned his third son, Kim Jong-un to be his successor. Since being promoted to a four-star general and appointed as a Vice Chairman of the Central Military Committee in North Korea last year, North Korean watchers have been following Kim Jong-un to see if he will be able to handle this transition. Recent travelers to North Korea, including my colleagueAbraham Kim, have noticed a set of three propaganda banners that suggest the transition to Kim Jong-un. The signs, “Suryeongbok” and “Janggunbok,” are “typical congratulations” for having the good fortune or happiness to be led by Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, while the third phrase, “Daejangbok,” signifies “people enjoy the happiness (bok) of having general (daejang) Kim Jong-un.” Most of these signs have been spotted in and around Pyongyang by visitors; however, the banners were displayed on the outside of a building near the main square in Chongjin.
Lastly, the costs of unification will be significant. Again, it is not an Earth-shattering revelation, but a factor that becomes even clearer when driving on unpaved roads that connect major cities and areas of the country. The new construction of buildings, while probably being done in preparation for the start of North Korea’s effort to become a strong and prosperous nation, might not be up to the current safety and construction standards of those in South Korea. Numerous other signs like wood-burning trucks, unheated food at some buffet meals, and unlit areas of functioning museums and buildings all suggest unification will be a costly process.
While these aren’t relatively new insights into North Korea, these are issues that the Korean policy community needs to understand and constantly follow. The connections with China, the cracks in the system, succession issues, and the costs of unification are all factors that impact policies toward North Korea. As a Korea analyst, I was fortunate to see these firsthand, and I would definitely want to go back to North Korea to see what else I can see.
Nicholas Hamisevicz is the Director of Research and Academic Affairs for the Korea Economic Institute. His views are his own.
Photo courtesy of NK News – a North Korean news source.