Despite the fact that the foundation of North Korea is socialist, citizens of the secretive nation have started using words more associated with capitalism.
North Korea is subject to a great deal of attention from the outside world, with many people intrigued as to how the hermit kingdom continues to exist despite its crippling isolation from the world at large. Now it appears that capitalist thinking is taking hold, at least in the words people use, writes Seol Song Ah for Daily NK.
Citizens of North Korea using capitalist language
Socialist North Korea regularly pumps out anti-capitalist propaganda which paints Americans as evil imperialists to be fought off by Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un and his dedicated service to the people. However officials in Pyongyang have been opening up to foreign business, slowly but surely, since the 1990s.
While they may have intended to boost the troubled economy, there has been an unintended side effect of the move. North Korean workers have started to use the language of capitalism.
Instead of the “management secretaries” and “operations” of old, North Koreans now speak about “bosses” and “companies.” Companies were non-existent in North Korea as a ban on private ownership was enforced for years, meaning that there were no bosses. These days that ban is still officially in place, but de facto private companies have become commonplace.
“Boss” a sign of respect for North Koreans
As a result, bosses have also become a feature of North Korean society, although the word can have different meanings. “If you travel to Sinuiju City’s Chae-ha market, the vendors will call out to the passing customers from behind their stands. They say things like, ‘Boss, nice to see you,’” said one source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
In North Korea, as in many places around the world, it appears that the word “boss” is used to massage the ego of passing customers. “It generally puts them in a good mood,” the source continued.
The language of capitalism arrived at the same time as foreign businesses, which were invited into the country as a way of easing food shortages following years of famine. The ruling Workers Party, the armed forces and ordinary citizens tried to attract foreign investment by setting up businesses, but they were called “factories” or “operations” in order to toe the socialist line.
Capitalist language arrived from China in late 1990s
Despite fears that socialist principles would be compromised by this vocabulary, it has become normal. A similar phenomenon occurred in China, where businesses had started calling themselves trading companies in spite of the socialist government.
Those Chinese companies then moved into North Korea in the late 1990s, introducing the idea of employees and bosses. Up until that point, factories were run by Party members known as management secretaries or under-secretaries, and the leader of the unit was referred to as a manager.
These days many North Koreans use the word boss to refer to a person who works with foreigners to earn money. These bosses saved many people during the famine of the 1990s, bringing food and opportunity to people in dire need.
That is one reason why the word inspires such respect to this day, evoking memories of those enterprising North Koreans and the status, jobs and skills that they hold. The fact is that many North Koreans now aspire to be bosses.
Companies offer a route out of poverty for ordinary North Koreans
Life in North Korea is strictly controlled, but company life is one area where people can be promoted on merit. To get a government post, you need to come from a good family with strong Party loyalty, which gives you a high ranking in North Korea’s caste system, which is known as songbun.
In contrast even those with poor songbun can advance through the ranks of a company, providing a sense of meritocracy not often found in North Korea. People who tried and failed to enter the Workers’ Party can become bosses.
Sources report that the key factors in becoming a boss are connections, knowledge and an ability to mobilize funds to start business with China. If you can manage that, you can secure favorable living conditions without having to use military or Party connections.
“I think becoming a boss is the ultimate goal of many North Koreans,” the source said.
Despite Kim Jong-un maintaining strict control over almost every aspect of life, private enterprise offers a route around government control and the possibility of a better life. For North Koreans scarred by the memory of famine and food insecurity, relying on their own entrepreneurial skills is a more attractive option than counting on the government.