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Economic Change May Have Helped To Get North Korea To Nuclear Summit


President Trump has landed in Vietnam for a second summit with North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un. As NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Seoul, some experts believe that rapid economic changes in North Korea have helped bring Kim to the negotiating table.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Joo Chang Yang cut her teeth in the jangmadang, or free markets of North Korea's northeast Hamgyong Province, before she defected to the South in 2010 at the age of 19.

JOO CHANG YANG: (Through interpreter) Pine resin for sale. Get your pine resin.

KUHN: In an interview, she remembers how she used to hawk her wares. Sometimes she sold noodles or candy. Sometimes she bartered. Later, she found a more profitable trade. North Koreans call it daligi, which means running. Runners are black marketeers who harvest or purchase commodities which are normally monopolized by the government. They sell the goods to other runners who smuggle it out of the country and sell it for foreign currency. Of course this is all illegal in North Korea. The only way to get away with it, Joo explains, is by greasing official palms.

JOO: (Through interpreter) If you want to do business, you have to invite the secret police to your house, feed them well, bribe them on holidays and establish a connection. That way if you get caught, they can put in a good word for you.

KUHN: Joo says that the free market includes luxury goods, such as imported cosmetics, which are sold in many state-run stores discreetly from under the counter. The sales staff speak in the Seoul dialect to signal customers what they've got. It's got a distinctive lilt and kind of sounds like (vocalizing) this.

JOO: (Through interpreter) Hey, sis; we've got what you're looking for; come in here, they would say, dragging out the last syllables the way people talk in Seoul.

KUHN: Joo was also a discerning consumer of banned cultural imports. She listened to the Voice of America and watched more South Korean and Hollywood movies in North Korea than she has in Seoul. As a result, she says, she was able to see through the government's propaganda.

JOO: (Through interpreter) People are more aware than before. It's just that they can't express their thoughts freely. Even though they can't communicate over the Internet, people who are aware recognize each other. It's like a kind of human network.

KUHN: Things have come a long way since the old days when North Koreans gave everything they produced to the government. In return, they got ration coupons to get food, clothes and consumer goods. The system fell apart with the collapse of North Korea's patron, the Soviet Union. Kim Byung-yeon, an expert on North Korea's economy at Seoul National University, explains.

KIM BYUNG-YEON: So this kind of marketization is a widespread phenomenon now in North Korea. But it started in 1990s when North Korea experienced a great famine when about 700,000 North Koreans died of starvation.

KUHN: Kim estimates that the majority of North Koreans' household income now comes from buying and selling on private markets. One caveat is that Kim got this data by surveying North Korean defectors in South Korea who are disproportionately involved in the private sector. Kim argues that free-market transactions help build trust among strangers and increase the free flow of information. He believes that Kim Jong Un accepts this transition to a market economy, and it may have motivated him to return to the negotiation table to bargain away his nukes.

KIM: I think Kim Jong Un really understands the impact of this marketization on the controlling power. In long run, marketization can push him up...


KIM: ...Toward market economy. Otherwise, can't survive.

KUHN: In his public pronouncements, Kim Jong Un has focused on building up his country's economy and raising people's living standards. But Joo Chang Yang refuses to give him credit.

JOO: (Through interpreter) The free markets were made by the power of my parents' generation. My generation was subjected to less brainwashing and relied more on the markets. I believe that we are the generation of hope in North Korea.

KUHN: Joo says the real heroes are those who persisted in trading on the free markets despite the risk of arrest and execution. She says she hopes others will encourage them and help them to break out of the big jail that is North Korea. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.

(SOUNDBITE OF ATTUNE'S "THRILL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.