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  • Opening North Korea
  • John Knaus (bio) and Lynn Lee (bio)
Witness to Transformation: Refugee Insights into North Korea. By Marcus Noland and Stephan Haggard. Peterson Institute for International Economics, 2011. 256 pp.

One of the most compelling images of North Korea is a satellite photograph showing the Korean Peninsula at night. Modern, democratic, capitalist South Korea is lit up like a Christmas tree with almost the entire country aglow. But above the demilitarized zone, save for a dim glimmer emanating from Pyongyang, isolated, communist North Korea sits in darkness.

Many have used this image to contrast the vibrancy of South Korea with the rusting decay of North Korea. Although the image is a vivid snapshot of the disparity of development between the two countries, until now very few been able to see into the darkness, leaving the world to guess what life must be like in the so-called Hermit Kingdom.

Defector testimonies and biographies and a handful of books have begun to paint a picture of daily life in North Korea, but these so far have offered only anecdotal evidence of a harsh and sometimes brutal existence for the people of the country. Only now, with Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland's work, can readers find a methodical analysis of some of the remarkable changes that are occurring in the world's most repressive country.

The data in Witness to Transformation are based on two surveys—the first, of 1,346 North Korean refugees living in China conducted between August 2004 and September 2005, and the second, of 300 refugees living in South Korea conducted in November 2008. Even after one takes [End Page 170] into account the special nature of a refugee population (as the authors do), the surveys offer unprecedented insight into a society which, though still under the iron bootheel of a brutal regime, is undergoing substantial changes.

If Haggard and Noland subsequently update this important work, it would greatly benefit from a third survey focusing primarily on those refugees who have left the country after 2008. As the authors explain, only 15 percent of those who took part in the second survey left between 2006 and 2008, meaning that even they escaped before the disastrous currency revaluation of late 2009 and the events surrounding the announcement of Kim Jung Eun as Kim Jung Il's successor in 2010. In addition, unlike in other refugee situations where the refugees can provide almost instantaneous information on the situations inside their respective countries, the participants in both these surveys, as the authors note, had already spent considerable time outside North Korea before they were interviewed.

Haggard and Noland do an especially effective job of establishing links among the communist regime's failed economic policies, the growth of independent markets (or jangmadang) as a coping mechanism, the rise of corruption and the increased use of the penal system by government officials, and the subsequent political discontent that all these trends have fueled. The authors further demonstrate how an increase in independent market activity within North Korea has led to on-again, off-again attempts by the Kim regime—worried about its grip on the country—first to encourage markets and then to crack down on them with, for instance, new laws that criminalize certain market-related activities.

What Haggard and Noland call "marketization from below" is a fairly recent phenomenon. The public distribution system, which until the early 1990s had been North Koreans' main channel for obtaining food, collapsed due to the regime's failed economic policies and the loss of much outside assistance when the USSR fell. The government's inability to provide for its people, coupled with the corrupt and predatory behavior of regime officials, has led to signs of growing discontent among average North Koreans that were unheard of even a few years ago.

Haggard and Noland conclude with an outline of how the international community should use the survey data to encourage reform within North Korea as well as more responsible behavior from the regime. The authors lay out a comprehensive plan—complete with suggestions for the governments of China, South Korea, and the United States—designed to encourage desperately needed reforms through bilateral and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3214
Print ISSN
1045-5736
Pages
pp. 170-173
Launched on MUSE
2011-04-15
Open Access
No
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