North Koreans May Have to Prepare For Job Transformation

A commentary by Andrei Lankov
north-korea-factory-it-workers-aug-2014.jpg North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (C) visits a factory in Pyongyang, Aug. 8, 2014.
AFP Photo/KCNA via KNS

One of the most remarkable changes that could be experienced in the former Soviet Union after the USSR collapsed was the massive change in the status of various jobs.

Some jobs that were very prestigious under communist rule lost their allure, while many that had hitherto been seen as mundane or even degrading occupations suddenly became much sought after.

There is little doubt that North Korea is likely to undergo the same transformation, and perhaps, the list of new found losers and winners may be the same.

Historically, the Soviet Union, as well as nearly all other state socialist economies, was a country where distribution—and control over distribution—mattered greatly.

Thus, people who had control over supply channels had numerous advantages. Of these advantages, the ability to obtain otherwise very difficult to find goods for oneself and one’s close relations was probably the most innocent.

Usually, sales clerks and managers of state-run shops went much further in abusing their positions. Instead of selling their goods over the counter at their shops they often sent these goods to the market to be sold at a much higher price or used the goods in many different kinds of barter deals.

This meant that in the Soviet Union of the 1970s or in North Korea of the early 2000s, it was profitable and prestigious to work in retail.

Changes abound

Things were to change with the collapse of the USSR. The marketization of the former Soviet Union eliminated the possibility of reselling high quality goods at massive mark-up, and those employed in the retail sector in low-level jobs suddenly found themselves near the bottom of the urban job market.

Another set of people in the Soviet Union whose jobs were considered to be prestigious was those lucky enough to frequently traveled overseas or interacted with foreigners.

They included fishermen, seamen, tour guides and even workers at construction sites overseas. These people had access to foreign currency that had tremendous purchasing power in state socialist economies. They also could acquire prestigious foreign-made goods.

This is still the case in North Korea. Such jobs, related to foreign trade, still enjoy great prestige there.

But in post-communist Russia such prestige has diminished greatly. Foreign currency has lost much of its earlier allure in the open market economy. Therefore, while such jobs are still relatively popular, they are no longer seen as exceptional.

There were winners, of course, as well. For example, the 1990s was a golden age to be an accountant in the Soviet Union.

A number of new companies mushroomed, and all of them needed people with the basic skills required to do basic paperwork. The marketization of Russia meant that many kinds of financial documentation needed to be dealt with.

Accountants, hitherto seen as having a job that was poorly paid and menial suddenly found themselves with a great deal of well-paid work.

Market transformation

There is little doubt that the same transformation might occur in North Korea if it is going to become a market economy.

Another group of winners included skilled manual workers, although in their case it took roughly 10 years for the market transformation to bring this group rewards. Many of this group had enjoyed a degree of prestige in communist times, but around 2000, when the transformation was largely complete, it was suddenly discovered that their skills were going to be in high demand.

Nowadays, in Russia a skilled worker enjoys a markedly better income as well as a greater level of job security than a run-of-the-mill clerk.

And there are jobs that used to be prestigious under the old system and retained their high standing after the collapse of communism. For example, one could mention IT specialists who began to appear in the Soviet Union around 1980.

In the days of communism, these people, privy to the mysterious word of thinking machines, were often employed by military research centers and powerful state agencies.

After 1990, the same people discovered that they were in high demand in the rapidly expanding private sector.

Again, the same is applicable to North Korea: IT specialists are doing well now, and they are likely to weather all future political and social storms quite well.

All of these changes are likely to happen in North Korea in the future.

Given the experience of post-Soviet Russia, one should advise North Koreans not to spend much time on preparing their children for work in the booming retail industry.

Some of them will probably succeed, but on balance it might be a better idea to give them some technical skills or encourage them to study accounting.

And of course, foreign languages and computer skills are going to be of high value in both the current climate and going forward.

Andrei Lankov, a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul, is a Russian historian, North Korea expert, and regular RFA contributor.


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