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Class Divisions Widen in World's Last "Classless" Society

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North Korea expert Sergei Lankov, an associate professor at Kookmin University in Seoul who grew up in the Soviet Union, has watched a "remarkable income inequality" appear in the world's last remaining Stalinist state.

Lankov explains that, as "grassroots capitalism" took hold during the "slow-motion collapse of a hyper-centralized economy" over the past 20 years, the gulf between haves and have-nots in a society which, technically, is not meant to have either, has grown.

Writes Lankov:

Who are they -- the North Korean new rich? The upper crust of this social group consists of high-level officials. Some of them have gained their wealth through illegal means, but many have seen their business activities permitted and even actively encouraged by the government. Most of the money is made in foreign trade, with China being by the far the most significant partner.

But what the upper class -- in this supposedly classless society -- is buying to flaunt their (relative) wealth is perhaps the most startling detail of all:


It seems that the North Korean elite have encountered a rather mundane bump along the road to the adoption of Western-style larders (paralyzing famine among the majority of North Koreans notwithstanding).

"There are some peculiar problems that the North Korean new rich face," Lankov says. "For example, even Pyongyang, let alone smaller cities, has a very unreliable supply of electricity. Large batteries and small power generators are of help, but only to a certain extent. Batteries are enough to run a TV or a DVD player, but power-hungry air-conditioners and fridges need a constant supply of electricity that is not readily available."

He continues:

Surprisingly, many people in the countryside still buy fridges, even though the contraptions are unusable most of the time. I have frequently come across North Koreans who have boasted of the fridge they own, only to admit that they do not have electricity to switch it on.

To my perplexed question of why they spent so much money on such a useless device, my interlocutors would usually reply that a fridge was an important and even useful status symbol. An affluent household nowadays is expected to own a fridge, even if it is used as a bookshelf (as was the case with one of my North Korean acquaintances).

A 2006 photo obtained by the Daily NK showed what was "undoubtedly the home of a high ranking officer," as the mandatory pictures of Kim Il Sung & Co. on the wall had them in military uniform -- which "are only given to authorities, security officers, or officers with high ranking."

The caption reads, "There is even a refrigerator."

Alas, even party officials apparently run into the same workaday troubles as the proletariat:

Other reports have surfaced in regarding status symbols in the North.

In June, a source revealed that keeping large dogs as pets -- which "can cost 100,000 North Korean won, or more than 50kg of rice" -- is one more way for North Koreans to show that they've arrived.

“Affluent households need dogs to deter thieves, and a military dog can be raised for around seven years then it leaves meat to the house,” he said.

And, even though all but a very few highly-trusted North Korean insiders are permitted to access the Internet, it doesn't mean the status-seeking North Korean can't pretend.

“Teenagers nowadays may not know how a computer works, but will carry at least one USB memory stick along with their keys," another source pointed out.

Naturally, there are those North Koreans who (at least publicly) stick to the Kim party line.

Choe Myong Ho, a star player on North Korea's Ministry of Light Industry soccer team who left to play for Krylya Sovetov in Samara, Russia for two seasons before returning to Pyongyang, told a Russian newspaper that he had no use for a fridge.

"What is a refrigerator for? It allows you to get cold drinks in the summer," he told Sport-Express. "And if you do that, you could catch a cold and not be able to train."
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