“Hu Jintao has just bailed out North Korea,” says Park, citing deals in economic development, tourism, and education that manage to circumvent the resolution adopted by the United Nations Security Council after North Korea’s second underground nuclear test in May 2009.
Although the relatively small number of people who run the country and control the economy are the main beneficiaries, he says, “the market benefits from cooperation with the Chinese side.”
Trickle-down economics, North Korea-style
In a North Korean version of trickle-down economics, Park finds “formal and nonformal trade” going on in a system in which free markets are inevitable regardless of regulations banning or highly limiting their activities.
“Markets are opening up,” he says. “It looks like the Chinese are moving in,” exporting a wide range of items, providing food, fertilizer and other necessities and investing in distant mountainous regions rich in coal and other minerals.
Ha Tae-keung, president of Open Radio for North Korea, which broadcasts news and views into the North for two hours every day, credits the deals struck by Kim Jong-il with forcing the North to ease up on customs control.
“That’s why businessmen feel it’s easier to trade with China,” says Mr. Ha, whose station picks up information from cellphone contacts inside the North, “Because of loose customs control, the markets are more open.”
Food shortages still abound
The image of somewhat improving conditions, however, is highly anecdotal, say analysts, and does not reflect the suffering of a majority of the country’s 24 million people, always short on food, medicine, and other daily necessities. Life inside North Korea differs widely depending on the geographical setting as well as the social and economic class.