March 26, 2019 13:36
State-run factories in the Pyongyang have told their workers to go and fend for themselves now that production has ground to a halt, in the latest melodramatic response to international sanctions.
Workers were told to "sell goods and earn your own living since there is no more work to do," according to sources. The bizarre directive comes as the North complained recently of the "most severe hardship" in its history.
A raft of suicides have been reported among the moneylenders of Pyongyang's glitzy Ryomyong Street, an avenue of high-rise apartments that was a pet project of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, amid a new war on corruption.
The latest incidents paint a picture of grim times not only in remote regions but right in the capital as the elite start to feel the pinch. The exhortations came after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's summit with U.S. President Donald Trump in Hanoi collapsed last month. Kim had been hoping to win an easing of sanctions without offering any substantial steps toward denuclearization in return.
The command economy in North Korea has long collapsed, but the regime has been propped up by a newly rich class of merchants and traders dealing mostly with China as well as the moneylenders who support them.
One source said Monday, "Many large factories in Pyongyang like textile, film, food and tire factories have stopped running since early March due to a shortage of electricity and materials."
"When the factories became unable to pay and supply rations to workers, an order was handed out for them to stop reporting to work for the time being and sell goods," the source added.
The regime has encouraged factories to operate autonomously in its attempt to introduce an element of the market economy, requiring them to generate revenues on their own and pay their workers, since leader Kim Jong-un took power. The suspension of the factories has led to soaring rent for sales spaces in open-air markets in and around Pyongyang.
Several moneylenders in Ryomyong Street killed themselves recently after being investigated by authorities. The source said, "There were three suicides in Ryomyong Street in March alone. They were moneylenders who became targets of Kim Jong-un's 'war on corruption.'"
Choe Pu-il, the head of North Korea's Ministry of People's Security and Kim's former basketball coach, has been spearheading the war on corruption. The Wall Street Journal reported recently that the North Korean regime is "targeting his country's moneyed elite with asset seizures... The crackdown, portrayed as an anti-corruption campaign in state-run media, suggests [Kim] is looking to silence critics and shore up his regime's finances."
State authorities have also launched a major war on drugs after many North Koreans turned to selling narcotics as they desperately look for ways to make ends meet.
"Authorities have nabbed plenty of drug dealers during their crackdown, and they included military officers in charge of defending Pyongyang and [Kim's personal] guards."
Signs of public unrest are spreading. The official Rodong Sinmun daily said the present situation is "even more difficult than the post-Korean War period and 'arduous march' of the 1990s" when millions starved due to mismanagement of the command economy.
North Korea's exports to China last year plunged 87 percent compared to 2017, at least officially, and bilateral trade declined 8.4 percent in January of this year. The regime has made desperate appeals to nation founder Kim Il-sung's "juche" or self-reliance doctrine, but there is little to be self-reliant on.
One researcher at a state-run think tank here said, "North Korea's attempts to get on its feet appear to have run out of steam. As long as sanctions remain in place, the economic situation is just going to get worse."
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