Recently, I had a conversation with a member of the central Pyongyang elite out of the country on business. He is a long-time friend, and his information has proven to be accurate and trustworthy. When I pressed him for the latest news from Pyongyang, he described how the sanctioned social and economic order in North Korea’s capital city was descending into anarchy. He added, “The leadership is no longer respected. Fewer Pyongyang residents are prepared to offer unquestioning loyalty and obedience to the state.”
When I asked him to elaborate, he said that Pyongyang was increasingly becoming like the provinces of North Korea. His remarks conform with other reports I have heard coming out of Pyongyang. ‘The Provincialization of Pyongyang’: the impact of these words cannot be felt without understanding the nature of the border that has kept Pyongyang separate from the rest of North Korea.
Theoretically, North Korea’s Public Distribution System (PDS) caters to the dietary requirements of every North Korean, in the form of daily, weekly or monthly rations. Symbolically, the PDS serves as an ever-present reminder to the people that their lives are sustained by the blessings of their leader. In tangible terms, the PDS does not exist. When Kim Jong-il realized he did not have enough food to feed the entire country, he made a decision to restrict the distribution of rations to those living within the boundaries of Pyongyang. He did everything in his power to sustain the symbolic authority of the PDS in Pyongyang, so that the city could serve as a beacon of ideology and a model of absolute loyalty. Nevertheless, it is through this process that Kim Jong-il’s North Korean regime shrank and became a Pyongyang regime.
Outside Pyongyang, infrastructure that had served the PDS were quickly converted for other uses and officials in the provinces ignored central orders. When asked to donate rice to the military, the provinces argued that they weren’t ‘Pyongyang people’ because they did not receive rations. When asked to attend Party lectures, ordinary North Koreans skived compulsory sessions in order to trade in the black markets. The rationale? Party lectures did not provide them with rice. The rice of loyalty turned against the Pyongyang regime and became the rice of resistance.
As black market trade that fed the people blossomed across North Korea, the planned economy of Pyongyang that could not feed its people shriveled away to leave behind a symbolic shell. The pride of Pyongyang residents has been eroding with this transformation. For the first time, Pyongyang residents are feeling trapped inside the city rather than trapped in the provinces, as the quality of life in the city continues to stagnate due to its distance from the vital black market trade that sustains the rest of North Korea. In this context, the ‘Provincialization of Pyongyang’ refers to how the phenomenon of decentralization and separation from the system in the provinces is spreading to Pyongyang itself.
by Jang Jin-sung, Editor-in-chief