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[Op-Ed] N. Korea’s ‘150-Day Battle’

Posted September. 17, 2009 08:37,   


After millions of North Koreans starved to death in the 1990s, small markets mushroomed across the Stalinist nation. The markets grew because the North’s ration system was inefficient. Even white-collar workers such as doctors, teachers and researchers had no choice but to work in the small markets on the side. Pyongyang then officially approved comprehensive markets in 2003. Merchants who hold officially approved stands can earn enough to make a living, but most of them are categorized as “grasshoppers” that open street stalls. “Runners” buy cheap products and then sell them at higher prices and peddlers hawk products. This means most merchants have difficulty making a living. Observers say it will be tough to restore North Korea’s economy.

In April, the North launched a “150-day battle,” or a campaign to spur its people to work harder to make their nation stronger by 2012. Under a policy that every person except the seriously ill should work in rural communities, North Korean security guards arrested every person they saw on the street and took them to the countryside. The campaign ended today but will be replaced by a “100-day battle” from Sept. 23 to the end of the year. Experts say the new campaign reflects the North’s recognition that its 150-day battle was a failure.

The North’s official daily Rodong Shinmun encouraged North Koreans to “show off the power of solidarity, which is stronger than nuclear weapons.” But this plea proved useless. Such a campaign has frequently used before Kim Jong Il took over as supreme leader. The first campaign was the “70-day battle” introduced in 1974. Since then, the North has launched almost 10 similar campaigns. Such frequent campaigns, however, have rather destroyed North Korea’s centrally planned economy since its limited resources and talent are concentrated in certain areas. The 150-day battle was led by Kim’s heir apparent Jong Un. Experts, however, say Pyongyang stopped the process of making Jong Un his father’s successor after he failed to lead the campaign.

Civic disgust with the government is running high in North Korea. Many of the people there say only coyotes (the powers that be) and foxes (rich merchants) remain. If small-scale merchants are forced to participate in a campaign, they can no longer make a living and face a de facto death sentence. Though pockets of people resist and wage small demonstrations, they usually face severe punishment. After North Korea conducted nuclear tests and launched missiles this year, the international community began imposing sanctions and stopped providing food aid. Yet international efforts to deal with the Stalinist country are instead adding hardship to the North’s innocent populace. The end of the Kim Jong Il era is inching closer.

Editorial Writer Yook Jeong-soo (sooya@donga.com)