North Korea is slowly changing and an entrepreneurial spirit developing but Pyongyang is in a “stop phase” to assess how market reforms have affected the communist system so far, a leading aid worker said on Tuesday.
Kathi Zellweger of the Catholic aid organization Caritas said at Seoul’s Korea University inflation was out of control, the gap between rich and poor was growing, poverty was less evenly spread and energy shortages hit industry and agriculture alike.
Yet there were positive elements, too, such as the surprising sight of in-line skates for hire on Pyongyang’s long-hallowed Kim Il-sung Square.
“Unthinkable three years ago,” said Zellweger, who has visited the North 47 times since famine gripped the country in 1995 and now finds restaurants competing for business. “So there is definitely a spirit of entrepreneurship developing.”
North Korea experts say the authorities are monitoring the scope of the reforms they introduced in July 2002 by freeing many prices and raising wages. Farmers’ markets were also legalized.
'Very slow pace'
“Regime change is what some groups of people hope for. But I believe what is happening is that very slowly the nature of the regime is changing, albeit at a very slow pace,” she said.
“Right now I think it is somewhat like a stop-and-go situation. And at present we are definitely in a stop phase. The government is reassessing the steps they have taken. But I do hope we are not regressing too much.”
She noted the North Korean authorities had told aid agencies in September Pyongyang would no longer cooperate with the U.N.-led program known as the Consolidated Appeals Process, which is typically used for the poorest countries.
The North also said monitoring—crucial so charities can see where aid goes—should be simplified and the number of non-governmental organizations scaled back.
“We don’t really know what all this means,” said Zellweger, who has traveled widely in the North.
“But to me it showed clearly that our partners, and that’s mostly the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, are at the present under pressure, very likely under pressure from the security because they feel there are too many foreigners in the country running around the country.”
The defense and security forces are hugely influential in North Korea, which is one of the world’s most militarized states and in a standoff with regional powers over its nuclear plans.
Diplomats say the military banned mobile phones after a train explosion in April that killed 161 people. Zellweger said foreigners could hire mobiles again but North Koreans could not.
She said food aid still had a crucial role to play in the North because chronic malnutrition had replaced famine, and runaway inflation had put farmers’ markets beyond many.
“For the average North Korean, it’s getting up in the morning and thinking how can I feed my family,” said Zellweger.
She had so far felt no impact from the new U.S. North Korean Human Rights Act, which earmarks up to $24 million a year for grants to non-profit groups supporting rights and market reforms.
“Personally, I believe when I hear of some of the ideas, it will bring about a tightening up of the situation for the local people,” she said. “And also for us.”