- Witness to Transformation: Refugee Insights into North Korea
A common and useful method for studying a country is talking to its people. In the case of North Korea, social scientists were long deprived the opportunity to apply this method. The government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has continually resisted the kind of openness that would allow outsiders to conduct frank interviews inside its borders, and from the end of the Korean War until the mid-1990s only a few hundred people managed to get out. The refugee crisis that unfolded with the catastrophic collapse of the DPRK’s economy in the mid-1990s changed this situation. Thousands left North Korea, and research revolving around these refugees rapidly developed into a vibrant sub-field of Korean studies. Working papers, articles, book chapters, and theses have appeared in quick succession and in recent years a number of monographs. Marcus Noland and Stephan Haggard’s Witness to Transformation is one of the most insightful and empirically impressive among the new books on North Korean refugees.
Scholars have examined North Korean refugees in two basic ways: as the direct objects of study and as privileged informants about developments in North Korea and its border regions. The present volume does both. Chapter 2: “Perils of Refugee Life” looks at refugees in their own right—scrutinizing their demographic [End Page 309] profile, their motivation for and mechanics of escape, the difficulties of living in China, and the psychological distress they suffer in exile. In this regard, the study falls in line with the majority of existing works concerning North Korean refugees. Noland and Haggard’s book stands out, however, for its evidentiary heft—which is based on surveys involving more than 1,600 respondents—and the rigorous way the authors organize and analyze this data to tease out insights about economic, social, and political transformations in North Korea in the last fifteen years.
Witness to Transformation emphasizes three interrelated issues, starting with the marketization of North Korean society (chapter 3: “Marketization, Reform, and Retrenchment”). According to Noland and Haggard, this phenomenon has not been driven by reforms from above as was the case in China and Vietnam. Rather, the sudden collapse of the North Korean economy in the mid-1990s and with it the breakdown of the Public Distribution System forced people from all social strata to procure food and other basic necessities through private, mostly black-market, activities. This veritable market revolution from below was a spontaneous reaction to the state’s ineffectiveness. Indeed, the marketization of North Korean society went far beyond what the legal statutes allowed and policy changes intended. Responding to questions about their sources of income, almost 50 percent of the refugees indicated that all of their income derived from private business activities, while more than 70 percent of respondents reported engaging in private trading (pp. 59–60).
The second issue is the state’s responses to economic and social changes triggered by marketization. The North Korean state emerges in Noland and Haggard’s account as reactionary and incompetent (chapter 3) as well as repressive and predatory (chapter 4: “The Penal System and Criminalization of Economic Activity”). The state was slow to respond, initiating major reforms only in 2002. Moreover, the reforms were arguably contradictory: officially trying to sanction the reality of widespread private market activities, while simultaneously attempting to assert tight state control over them. With the failure of this problematic approach, the state next sought to scale back the reform program and reinstitute direct control over the economy. Neither of these policy orientations seems to have had a significant impact on the economic activities of the populace. This conclusion is supported, for example, by refugee survey data which suggests that private trading became easier to engage in over time irrespective of the prevailing policy environment (p. 67).
Unable to effectively control market activities through economic policies, the state resorted to repression. Central authorities expanded the definition of criminality, rendering most day-to-day market...