Thursday, December 3, 2009

update on North Korean currency revaluation (Or, The Great Currency Obliteration of 2009, Day 3)

This is an important story and I've been watching it with great interest (before you go on, read this and then this). I must say that I was disappointed last night when I went to a gathering for Korea Peace Day 2009 (free food!) and found that virtually no one, except "M" who had gone with me, knew anything about it. More on that somewhat schizophrenic event in another post.

Rather than reinvent the wheel, I will guide you to the update by One Free Korea's Joshua Stanton (who calls it the Great Confiscation, though I prefer to call it the Great Obliteration, which goes to the heart of just wiping out the savings of people, and has more of a communist ring to it) as well as the links to Daily NK that he provided  (an excellent website that I should have added to my right-hand "Daily Breadth" column).

This first DailyNK post explains the rules that North Koreans first heard through public broadcasts. This second DailyNK post from the following day explains updated rules and the damage that they may have:
In the meantime, resident sentiment turned aggressive once the details of the proposed exchange became clear, and now the North Korean authorities have revised those details once again.

A source explained, “On December 1st at 10 A.M. an urgent meeting for cadres of Party and Administrative Committees was convened. As a result of that meeting, a new decree was released.”

“The maximum amount per household which could be exchanged in cash was initially set at 100,000 won, but overnight it increased to 150,000 won, then subsequently a new decree was handed down.”

“According to the new decree, the exchange rate is still 100:1 for 100,000 won, but now the authorities will only permit people to exchange the rest of the money at 1,000:1.”

As a result, if you take 200,000 won in cash to a bank, you get 1,100 won in new denomination bills. This emergency formula will do nothing other than destroy the fortunes of the people.

Another source reported that in the jangmadang practical trading had ceased, although rice was still on sale from traders dealing in the product from home. The price of a kilogram has apparently skyrocketed to 30,000 won in old denomination bills, a 15-fold increase.

Wealthy merchants generally do their business in Yuan or U.S. Dollars, so the harm to them is not so serious. At the other end of the scale, low end traders who live from day to day will not be hit too hard for the simple reason that they don’t have much cash.

However, people in the middle classes who have tended to hoard paper cash at home are facing a fatal beating.
Indeed, this is what I've been saying all along; yesterday I noted that the authorities have, in one fell swoop, wiped out the means which millions had used to scrape by and survive. Millions will be hit and hit hard, and, as Joshua suggests:
But I suspect that for many North Koreans, this will shift them from “disillusioned” to “dissenting.” This will create a rebellious predisposition among many North Koreans, although that’s a predisposition that will go unharnessed until an effective opposition movement takes shape.
a similar sentiment similar yesterday, specifically that in addition to all those who find that they are closer to the tipping point of death (i.e., the point where they and their loved ones are clearly more likely to die if they do nothing than if they do something), we now have all "those middle-level party cadres who run the show outside of Pyongyang [who] suddenly have a lot less stake in keeping the regime going."

I'm not a political scientist per se, with my post-baccalaureate academic in Korean Studies as a general field and with social mechanisms and public health in a more specific field. So while I'm ill-equipped to argue against the political theory that Joshua mentions above (i.e., that the anti-government or even anti-KJI sentiment "will go unharnessed" in the absence of an effective opposition movement), I can offer up my own theories of social mechanisms that may emerge.

I really do think the tipping point of death is a good working theory here (it's elaborated somewhat in yesterday's link, midway through). Mass famine today will be greeted differently from mass famine in the mid-1990s, when there was considerably less exposure to the outside world, including a buoyant South Korea and all its pop culture and success, an increasingly affluent China right across the river, and no more Great Leader but instead a Dear Leader who's increasingly seen as inefficacious.

This could alter perceptions of the tipping point of death if rumors spread like sparks on the dried-out tinder of the starving populace in the coming months. If these rumors seem to weigh down the "likelihood of death if you do nothing" side of the equation, they bring more people to the tipping point, but they may just choose escape (but, that could lead to a Vollerstenesque implosion modeled after the collapse of East Germany twenty years ago).

But if rumors spread (like, say, there's a store of food in such-and-such location), that supports the "likelihood of survival if you do something" while locally increasing the numbers enough that the "likelihood of death if you do something" seems to diminish.

In other words, movement (but not "a movement") at the local level that could contribute to a critical mass of dissent, whatever point that is. That critical mass itself may have been reset as local party cadres have seen the rug pulled out from under them. To put it another way, at what point will they become East German border guards who do not shoot at people trying to get over the wall... or into the storehouse, or out of the prison, or whatever.

There are, it seems, different critical mass points that can be reached. If Dr Norbert Vollersten is right, then a massive and quick exodus of people from North Korea into China (or Russia?) could lead to the political chaos that forces change from Beijing or enervates Pyongyang so greatly that political change is forced from within. If Pyongyang loses control of the provinces town by town and county by county, the same Beijing- or Pyongyang-driven outcome could be the same (but perhaps with considerably more bloodshed, depending on when Beijing or Pyongyang steps in).

One wonders also what role the travel pass system will play. Will dissent be contained in individual counties and provinces because the people there can't easily go beyond their own region's borders, or will disgruntled cadres and soldiers themselves just say "screw it" to those rules and allow the freedom of movement (perhaps with a price) that Pyongyang is trying to stop?

Forgive the disjointed babble. There is so much going on and I'm trying to absorb it all while at the same time write something meaningful about it based on the thoughts I've had swirling in my head. For now, it's best to echo what Joshua says, "It's difficult to say where we go from here and no one should pretend to know."

The value in trying to predict things in this way is to try to gain some bearings and make some sense of it, and it's good to hear different viewpoints. But in the end, the same people will be both right and wrong about their predictions, including me.

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