North Korea: A danger to itself

On January 26, Professor Stephan Haggard, Krause Professor of Korea-Pacific Studies and Director of the Korea-Pacific Program at the University of California at San Diego, came to the University of Pennsylvania to give a talk titled “North Korea After Kim Jong Il: Quo Vadis.”

Quo vadis, Latin often translated “Where are you going?,” refers to the crossroads at which North Korea stands today. It has so many different opportunities that political scientists today are either left in headaches or where they started when investigating North Korean political maneuvering.

Haggard gave an overview of some of his research, which primarily consisted of survey data from Korean refugees. It was incredibly telling of not only the situation within Korea, but also of how it had developed since the great famine.

When the ration system, characteristic of the communist system, collapsed during the famine with the fall of the Soviet Union, people were left vulnerable and were forced to fight for their own survival, with 12.7% of the refugees surveyed from that time period reporting that they relied on foraging as their mains source of sustenance. The only confusing thing is that today, the economy is still smaller than it was before the famine started and the volume of food delivered by the ration system, according to the World Health Organization, cannot possibly feed the population, which has been growing since the turn of the century.

According to the interviews of refugees, an organic market-based system of trade has developed within Korea to distribute food based on demand, since the government ration system is not efficient enough to supply the whole country. Many people believe that engaging in either these market activities or criminal activites such as bribing officials to continue private market activity are the best ways to make money and get ahead.

The closing remarks and questions revolved around reunification, the increasingly prevalent market economy, and the potential for an internal democratic movement. Haggard responded with little hope for reunification, and the belief that North Korea will not tend towards an official endorsement of a market economy, especially since China refuses to use sanctions to coerce North Korea to accept this change.

So little information is readily available on North Korea that most people know little other than the occasional headline, such as the recent change in leadership, the shelling of Yeonpyeong, or other skirmishes. If interested in further reading on North Korea, Professor Haggard keeps a daily blog, North Korea: Witness to Transformation.

The talk was held in Stiteler Hall and was introduce by Dr. Jacques DeLisle. The event was co-sponsored by the Center for East Asian Studies and the James Joo Jin-Kim Program in Korean Studies.

F. Miller SAS ‘13