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Economic ‘Reform’ in North Korea: Nuking the Won

4 minute read
Bill Powell

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and his cohorts labeled this week’s sudden change in the country’s currency, which has left chaos in its wake, economic “reform.” On Monday the North Korean regime decided to lop off two zeroes from the existing paper currency, the won, and gave North Koreans less than a week to exchange all their old notes for new ones.

In many countries, economic reform can be a good thing. Even draconian changes to paper currency can help governments draw a line between “bad economic policies of the past, often after taming a hyperinflation,” says Marcus Noland, an economist at Washington’s Peterson Institute of International Economics. However, this being North Korea, one of the most repressive and impoverished nations in the world, that’s not the case. The government announced that it would limit the amount an individual can exchange to just 100,000 won — or less than $40 at black-market exchange rates — and any amount above that threshold would be, in effect, worthless. NGOs in Seoul reported that in response to citizens’ immediate and widespread anger, those limits were raised to 150,000 won in cash and 500,000 won in bank notes.

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That, apparently, did little to quell the discontent, and for good reason. Since the famine in North Korea a decade ago, informal private markets have sprung up across the country, enabling an increasing number of North Koreans to feed themselves and earn a basic living by trading. The U.N. has estimated that about half the calories consumed in North Korea come from food purchased at private markets. Under the new plan, however, the small savers who run those private markets will be stripped of much of the cash they need to run their businesses.

So why would Pyongyang make such a change? As usual, parsing the reasons the North Korean government does anything is murky business. But Pyongyang watchers in Seoul believe the crackdown comes for two main reasons. First, there has been a widening gap between the haves and the have-nots in North Korea, partly due to the prevalence of relatively free markets, says Cheong Seong-chang, senior fellow at the Sejong Institute, a think tank in Seoul. Since 2000, the bigger traders in North Korea have come to live a life “almost as lavish as South Koreans,” says Cheong. “They have big refrigerators, color televisions, DVD players.” In a socialist utopia like North Korea, such economic divides are unacceptable; the currency change would reduce inequality by making a broad swath of the North Korean population poorer.

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But the imbalances will continue to persist, say analysts and North Korean defectors in Seoul. The largest and wealthiest of North Korea’s traders, including government-owned companies, have long since swapped out of North Korean won and instead hold Chinese renminbi, yen or dollars as a store of value. The black-market value of the won has been decreasing for years, and North Korean inflation has been accelerating. The former head of a large North Korean trading firm who recently defected to Seoul told TIME, “Some kind of move like this was expected for a long time.” And, he says, it won’t have any impact on bigger companies and traders. Instead, the move punishes a broad swath of people in North Korea who have been able to amass a small amount of savings by engaging in black-market trading.

The second reason for the crackdown — as ever with Pyongyang — is control. The government allowed black markets to proliferate this decade out of desperation, but they had grown to the point where the leadership may have begun to feel threatened. Small traders and black markets existed outside of government control, and by definition at some point the regime was not going to tolerate that, analysts say. “The breakaway, snowballing market is a threat to the regime,” says Lim Kang-taeg, senior research fellow at the Korean Institute for National Unification, a government-sponsored think tank in Seoul. “This is a significant blow leveled at the market, and will help the government tighten up control.”

Tighten up control — once again at the expense of the poor, benighted North Koreans citizens.

With reporting by Stephen Kim / Seoul

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