Real Change Afoot In North Korea? A Look From The Inside

Stability at last?
Stability at last?
Philippe Pons

PYONGYANG — Mounted on the façade of the new Haedanghwa complex is a giant screen broadcasting slick propaganda messages. Just across the way, the “people’s ice rink” glimmers with its wavy modernist roof. On the opposite bank of the Taedong River, a dozen of 50-story-high residential buildings completed last year have helped give this area the nickname the “Dubai” of Pyongyang. Indeed, entering Haedangwha, which was inaugurated in June by Kim Jong-un, you no longer feel like you’re in the famously closed and desolate North Korean capital, but instead in a typical thriving Asian city.

This new complex features high-quality marble, wooden, steel or glass interior decorations; Italian luxury clothing stores on the ground level and, on the first floor, a swimming pool with a huge green water-spitting toad, a sauna, mahjong rooms and restaurants where you can watch chefs work in well-equipped, open kitchens.

This particular evening, the place is full. The simplest menu costs 50 euros. The customers were all Korean except for one noisy Chinese table. Not far from this scene, a man was sitting at the foot of a lamppost reading a book. He may have gone out for some fresh air, or because he had a row with his wife, or… because he had no electricity at home. Power cuts are frequent as ever in some parts of the city.

Is this elegant Pyongyang — with its brand new neighborhoods, its theme parks, its avenues with neatly cut flowerbeds and ever more dense city traffic — just one vast “Potemkin village,” an illusion? As soon as one wanders away from what is shown to the visitor, the landscape changes: roads full of pot-holes, dilapidated buildings, crowds walking along dark avenues, cramming into buses or the back of trucks. Stagnation and shortages are more visible in provincial cities; in rare places, the odd house will be equipped with solar panels, but the others will have taped-on plastic for windows. Others, such as Nampo port, Sariwon or Wonsan, are rapidly changing.

The new Haedanghwa complex, the "Dubai of Pyongyang" — Photo: wikimapia

These contrasting images, particularly striking in Pyongyang, reveal a social evolution in this totalitarian and repressive regime. Between 100,000 and 150,000 prisoners are said to be detained in forced labor camps, and in many other ways is still the same: single party, extreme concentration and personalization of power, fierce nationalism, war rhetoric, socialist planned economy. No dissident voice is to be heard, except for those of the refugees who made it to South Korea (some 24,000) and the tens of thousands who crossed over to China, which provide an overview of a harsh reality that one only gets a glimpse while here.

In the 1970s, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) represented, even in the expert eyes of the CIA, a “success” in terms of economic development, education and social infrastructures: up until 1975, the country’s income per capita was higher than in South Korea. Two decades later, the country was on its knees: the collapse of the Soviet Union, on which the DPRK relied on for energy supply, and the defaults of collectivism combined with natural disasters led to a famine between 1994 and 1998 that left 600,000 dead out of a population of 24 million.

The black economy

The survival economy that compensated for the collapse of the state economy and the public distribution system was about to become an underground economy and, de facto, central black market. The regime tried to regulate this phenomenon with the 2002 reforms, new controls and harsher punishments. But, under the bottom-up pressure, the black economy proliferated and keeps the country afloat.

Kim Jong-un’s accession to power, in 2011, accelerated this evolution. Now in his thirties, he gives the regime a more modern look. With the pragmatic Pak Pong-ju’s return as Prime Minister (he was behind the 2002 reforms) and the sacking of more than half of the army’s and Workers’ Party senior officials between January 2012 and September 2013, the regime is looking to reinforce young Kim’s control over the state apparatus. But this also leads to the rejuvenation that should facilitate policies focusing on improving living conditions.

Since he came to power, Kim Jong-un has said the people will no longer have to “tighten their belts.” Recently, he called for the development of substitute products over imported ones and announced the establishment, in every province, of a dozen special economic zones aiming to attract foreign investments. Official sources say this was only made possible by the nuclear deterrent capability that the country acquired, after the DPRK carried out three nuclear tests, with the most recent one in February 2013.

“Having ensured our security, we can now concentrate more on improving the people’s living conditions,” says one North Korean official.

A 1.3% growth in 2012

Most inhabitants continue to suffer from severe shortages (food, medical care, heating), but the economy seems to be slowly emerging from a rut: This is at least what the atmosphere in Pyongyang seems to show, confirming estimates of the Bank of Korea in Seoul, according to which the country grew by 1.3% in 2012 thanks to better crops and iron ore, coal and rare mineral (very abundant in North Korea) exports to China.

The country is moving forward: Between 2012 and 2013, more than 50 major construction projects were undertaken (renovation of the Pyongyang airport, residential homes, hospitals, port infrastructure, theme parks, tourist sites etc). For more than ten years, the economy has been monetized — replacing ration coupons — and cash is circulating. But, of course, it doesn’t make it into most hands.

The two million cellphones (which work in an internal network with no connection abroad), the Samjiyon touchpad (produced locally), the foreign car models with custom number plates, the taxis (an innovation), the bars and cafés, which are full in the evening, a few sharply-dressed women in Pyongyang’s city-center are all signs of a greater social diversity, and of the emergence of a new privileged class, which extends further than the traditional elite of state apparatchik and high-ranking military officers.

A new social stratification

The different types of stores in Pyongyang are a sign of this new social stratification: Beyond the state markets, which are better supplied than before, are a dozen or so indoor markets full of foodstuffs and imported products from China, Singapore, South Korea, where a crowd of customers flood in each day. There are also the higher quality imported product stores, where supplies can be bought with prepaid currency cards. The liquor, beauty products and clothing shelves leave doubts on the efficiency of international sanctions meant to ban luxury product exports towards North Korea. According to Seoul, the imports of such goods increases every year and amounted to 467 million euros in 2012. For the vast majority of the population, the prices for these products are far out of reach, and the impoverished majority depend on the public distribution system.

Several currencies are in circulation: the euro (exchange currency), the dollar, the Chinese yuan and for the poorest, the local won, which depending on whether it is exchanged according to the official rate or on the black market can vary in value from 1 to 100. Direct payments in foreign currencies are forbidden. But in practice, many transactions are done so: the reassessment of the won in 2009 (its value was divided by 100), which suddenly “wiped out” shopkeepers’ businesses, made many lose their trust in the currency. Soaring inflation also made foreign currencies more attractive.

As a socialist state, the DPRK aimed to be an “egalitarian” society. But with the development of a de facto market economy and widespread shortages, this façade was smashed to pieces: the wider privileged class consumes without hiding it, if not flaunting it. How do the people perceive this difference in living conditions? Official response: “This prosperity reflects the avant-garde of the society we aim to reach.”

Contradiction as state doctrine

The industrial world remains opaque. Companies are operating below capacity. Since April 1, however, they are more autonomous: They may keep 40% of their income, choose foreign partners and adjust wages according to the work provided, says Ri Ki-song, economy professor at the Pyongyang Academy of Social Sciences.

“Let’s be clear”, he adds, “we’re not heading towards capitalism. The goods and the means of production are still property of the state, but we are experimenting with new management methods that allow those who work more to earn more.” Companies’ relative autonomy favors a rudimentary competition to conquer new markets. Advertisement has made its appearance.

The notion of “reform” is an anathema in North Korea, so they only speak of “adjustments”. According to our official representatives, they will be substantial. “Reform is the only option for Kim Jong-un, but implementation will not be easy, because he must accomplish many tasks simultaneously,” Rüdiger Frank, a DPRK specialist at Vienna University, writes in Global Asia. “The countryside and the poor must trust in future improvements; the middle class in the capital must be given assurances of continued upward mobility; and the top elite must feel safe about its privileges without becoming too confident.”

North Korea needs foreign investment most of all. But as long as the country persists in simultaneously developing its nuclear capacities and its economy, international sanctions will hinder production growth. According to the economist Marcus Noland of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, “contradiction has become a state doctrine.”

A voluntary or forced transformation? Controlled opening with unavoidable constraints? North Korea is changing, but no one really knows how, or how much. No one, starting with North Koreans themselves.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

At the Mango Festival held in Aswan, Egypt

Nada Arafat

ISMAILIA – Every year during the month of July, crowds gather in the mango farms of Ismailia, in northeastern Egypt, to pick the delectable summer fruit during its relatively short harvest season. But this year, as a result of erratic weather patterns throughout March and April, the usual bountiful mango harvest was severely affected with farmers witnessing a precipitous drop in yield. Some 300,000 farms saw an 80% decrease in productivity, leading to a supply shortage in the market and a corresponding 40% increase in the price of mangoes.

The effects of these climate fluctuations could have been mitigated by farmers, yet according to experts who spoke to Mada Masr, the agriculture minister failed to play a role in raising awareness among farmers and in providing agricultural guidance services.

Heatwaves kill crops

Mangoes are highly sensitive to changes in temperature. For germination to occur, the ideal temperature should be between 10 °C at night and 28 °C during the day, according to agricultural consultants. In Egypt, this weather pattern usually occurs in February. Mango trees then flower and the flowers turn into fruits that take 40 days to grow and be ready for harvest, according to Karam Suleiman, an agricultural engineer.

This year, however, according to mango farmers in Ismailia who spoke to Mada Masr, the beginning of the winter farming season experienced a sudden heatwave followed by another heatwave at the end of March. In both March and April, the temperature dipped to as low as 5 °C at night and as high as 25 °C during the day. Due to these erratic weather fluctuations, the mango flowers that develop into fruit fell before they could mature.

The typical average mango yield from one feddan (approx 1.03 acres or 0.40 hectares) ranges between 6 to 8 tons. This year however, the yield per feddan averaged between just 1 to 2 tons, according to several sources.

Frozen mango suppliers multiply purchases

A farm owner in Al-Tal al-Kebir on the Ismailia Desert Road, who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, said that his farm produced approximately 35 tons of mangoes last year, whereas this year his yield did not exceed 4 tons. He added that many farmers in the surrounding area, which is famous for mango cultivation, experienced the same steep declines in yield.

The limited mango yield and the subsequent hike in prices has also prompted frozen mango suppliers to multiply their purchases from farms in order to capitalize and sell them next year at an even higher price, according to Ali Saqr, an agricultural engineer in a fruit export company, along with a number of other farm owners who spoke to Mada Masr. Mangos can stay frozen for up to two years.

Khaled Eweis, who buys mangoes and stores them in rented freezers then later sells the frozen mangoes to juice and dessert shops, explained to Mada Masr that juice shops usually use the Zebdia variety of mangoes, whereas dessert shops use Keitt mangoes. The latter is expected to be priced at 25 Egyptian pounds ($1.5) this year after having been sold for half the price at the same time last year.

Last year, Eweis bought Zebdia mangoes for 10–12 Egyptian pounds ($0.6–$0.7) per kilo then resold them for 16 ($1) after freezing them. This year, the Zebdia prices ranged from 17–21 ($1–$1.30) per kilo, and Eweis expects that the price after freezing will reach as high as 25 ($1.5).

Photo of an Egyptian man shouldering a basket full of mangoes

The typical average mango yield from one feddan (approx 1.03 acres) ranges between 6 to 8 tons


Threat to water security

This is not the first time that mango production has been hit hard as a result of fluctuating weather patterns. A similar crisis in the mango harvest took place in 2018, and other crops, such as olives, potatoes, wheat, rice and cotton, have also been adversely affected over the last few years, according to Mohamed Fahem, the head of the government Climate Change Information Center. And human-induced changes to global weather patterns as a result of climate change point to increased agricultural challenges in the future.

The deadly heat waves, fires, hurricanes and other extreme weather events that have dominated headlines in recent years will only become more frequent in the coming decades, according to a United Nations report on climate change released in August. In its sixth assessment report, the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change called human-induced changes to global climate systems "unprecedented." While the report calls for drastic cuts to the global emission of greenhouse gases, much of the effects of climate change are already locked in for decades to come.

Among the areas most vulnerable to climate change is agriculture. A 2018 report titled Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Changes in Egypt found that climate change can have drastic effects on agriculture through changes in temperature, rainfall, CO2 levels and solar radiation. Meanwhile, a 2020 European Union report also found that climate change will pose a threat to global food production in the medium to long-term through projected changes in daily temperature, precipitation, wind, relative humidity and global radiation.

According to various studies, climate change gradually reduces the duration of spring, autumn and winter, which in turn affects the crops that are cultivated during those seasons. In Egypt in particular, the country's agricultural crop map will likely change as a result of a prolonged summer season, according to a study by former Agriculture Minister Ayman Abou Hadid, published in 2010 when he was heading the Center for Agricultural Studies. The study predicted that grain cultivation will gradually move north from Upper Egypt due to increases in winter temperatures, though it did not give a projected timeframe.

Cold and heat waves

Climate change also increases salinity levels in soil due to rising sea levels, which in turn renders the soil only suitable for crops that can handle high salinity yet still require intensive irrigation to mitigate the salinity levels. At the same time, Egypt is currently facing a threat to its water security due to the changes in rain patterns and droughts as well as the potential effects of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

According to Fahim, the increased cold and heat waves Egypt has experienced has led to the emergence of new, mutated varieties of pests and fungal diseases that are resistant to chemicals. For example, in 2018, aphids and whiteflies spread due to the shortened winter season, and the accumulation of these pests led to huge losses in potato and cotton yields. Meanwhile, palm trees were harmed due to the appearance of red palm weevils.

How farmers counter mango losses

The severe losses in the 2021 mango yield were hard to avoid, but is there a way to counter them?

Karam Suleiman, an agricultural engineer, believes that better methods of agriculture, irrigation and fertilization, along with raising awareness among farmers about the dangers of climate change and how to monitor weather fluctuations could succeed in mitigating such outcomes.

However, Egypt appears currently incapable of providing sufficient safety networks to farmers in order to enable them to confront the effects of climate change.

An example of this is apparent in the failure to enforce mechanisms for warning farmers about potential difficulties in upcoming farming seasons. In June, a report by the Center for Agricultural Studies warned about a decline of as much as 85% in the productivity of farms in Ismailia, where mangoes are mainly cultivated, as well as farms in Sharqiya, Suez and Beheira, due to climate change. However, this report only reached about 13 farmers and owners of mango farms, according to agricultural sources who spoke to Mada Masr.

Ahmed Asal, a mango farmer in Qantara in Ismailia, told Mada Masr that there has been no guidance from authorities in helping farmers understand climate change and how to respond to it. "No one told us what to do and we never received any compensation for our losses," Asal said.

Photo of a hand picking a mango from the tree in Egypt

Mangoes are highly sensitive to changes in temperature

Ahmed Gomaa/Xinhua/ZUMA

Agriculture engineers must become climate engineers

Agricultural guidance is a service offered by the Agriculture Ministry to raise awareness and educate farmers about all aspects of farming. The service is usually provided through agricultural engineers who are based in the agricultural cooperatives that exist in every city and town.

Fahim, the head of the Climate Change Information Center, works to play a similar role through his Facebook page and, at times, on various TV channels and newspapers, by raising awareness about weather fluctuations and their effects on agriculture. However, his insights do not have a wide enough audience, particularly at a time when the agricultural guidance is dwindling despite the opening of the Agricultural Guidance Center in Qantara earlier this year under the auspices of the Agriculture Ministry.

"Agricultural guidance has been doing a good job lately, but only in the media, not on the ground," said Alaa Khairy,* an engineer at the Central Laboratory for Climate Change. "If they were really working on the ground, farmers would not have lost as much as they did."

More important crops like wheat will be next

What exacerbates the crisis is that those who are harmed the most are small farmers — those who have between 10 to 20 feddans of land — who cannot afford to take preemptive precautionary measures to mitigate erratic weather patterns nor hire experts who can help them make better decisions about how to handle sudden climate fluctuations. Those farmers also cannot afford to provide covers for their fruits during hot seasons, which is one way to prevent crop damage that is quite costly.

This year's crisis is expected to be repeated in the coming years due to the rapid consequences and effects of climate change on global food security. Aside from mangoes, the effects of climate change are projected to affect far more important crops, such as wheat, with reports showing global wheat crop losses due to heat and drought, a particularly worrisome development for Egypt — the largest importer of wheat in the world.

"In the coming period, agricultural engineers must become climate engineers as well," Suleiman said.


Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!