In my series on North Korean strategy I wrote that I saw small-scale trade as one source of effective change.
If trade comes from people in the country, as opposed to institutions or government, North Korean decision-makers will have a hard time stopping it. If it comes with information about the outside world, it can change ordinary North Koreans; perspective of it.
The Wall Street Journal today reported on large increases in imports of luxury goods into North Korea, mainly from China.
The North Korean leadership’s appetite for imported luxuries, highlighted by three Lincoln limousines at Kim Jong Il’s funeral, has spread to growing numbers of the country’s elite, despite U.N. sanctions designed to force Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear-weapons program.
An examination of U.N. and Chinese trade data reveals that exports to North Korea of products including cars, tobacco, laptops, cellphones and domestic electrical appliances all increased significantly over the past five years. Most items crossed the border from China.
One might first consider this change a step away from increasing freedom within the country since it seems to violate the intent of sanctions imposed after North Korea’s nuclear tests.
I see otherwise. This trade brings in information of the outside world and increases communication that decision-makers will have a hard time stopping, all the more so to the extent nobody documents it.
The trade has multiple effects, both supporting and undermining the system.
“The sanctions don’t work because as long as China allows the export of luxury goods, the North Korea elite will be paid with them to support the regime,” said Jiyoung Song, an associate fellow at London-based think tank Chatham House, who has studied North Korea since 1999.
At the same time, she added, “Things like DVDs and mobile devices will help to change North Korean society in a gradual manner by teaching them about the outside world, and showing them these things don’t just come through the benevolence of their leaders.” She said last year she interviewed a North Korean defector—the daughter of a trade official—who claimed she had been given an iPad and two laptops by the “Dear Leader,” as Kim Jong Il was known.
The increase in trade implies segments of the population independent of the loyal elite are growing, which implies a decrease in loyalty already underway. Lower loyalty undermines the population’s compliance with the regime, its major source of power.
The growing demand for Chinese consumer goods is no longer confined to the political elite, according to Andrei Lankov, a leading expert on North Korea at Kookmin University in Seoul.