North Korea has been in the news lately for a reshuffling of the military’s deckchairs in order to solidify the position of their new leader Kim Jong-un as supreme commander. Recall that Kim ascended in 2011 when daddy Kim Jong-il departed the throne (and Earth) and is continuing many of his elder’s policies, including badgering his south-side kinsmen and Americans too (the bomb). But he also evidently kept in place a curious ban on bikes, which seems to have emerged as a bellwether to those who look for signs of where this closed nation and reclusive leader will next turn.
No, we’re not making it up. Bikes is news to North Korea watchers. And why not? As a recent article in the New York Times notes, there is an evident return under the younger Kim to higher hemlines and a greater prevalence of bikes too. And why not? Bicycles promote freedom of movement and promise individual autonomy. Hemlines too denote a complementary relaxation from social strictures. And both are popular in hipster haunts. Remember how his dad boasted a pretty cool visage?
Yet one cannot overestimate the extent of the cultural and economic lockdown since this nation of 25 million people reinvented itself after Japanese occupation. First as a Soviet client state and later, allied with China, big brother to the north, as its own thing entirely. With its reputation for hearty self-reliance and lately a global pariah status, North Korea has blazed a decidedly singular path. Bikes were slow to make an appearance there.
Fast forward to sixty years after the North proclaimed independence in 1948 and observers began seeing more bicycles than ever on the road there. And not only in the capital but in the countryside too. Yet North Korea had no bicycle production facilities. And certainly no retail shops. And observers recorded no state-sanctioned effort to provide them. How did those bikes make it into a country with steeled borders and an intolerance for the ‘live free or die’ spirit among its citizens?
The influx of bicycles suggested an intolerably porous border or a statehouse that seemed to tolerate some measure of mobility emancipation for its people. After all, give a gal a bike and who knows what kind of productive activity she’ll wind up doing. Planned or accidental? Nobody knows. But the change seemed to come on suddenly. According to a former American ambassador speaking at a recent Brookings Institution symposium on North Korea:
A lot of [bicycles were] in the North Korea countryside, many of them imported from Japan at a time when relations between the countries were less chilly than they are now. The ferry between Japan and the DPRK used to bring in lots of secondhand Japanese bicycles, many of which are still doing sterling duty around the North Korean countryside…..[but] bicycle repairmen, who were almost nonexistent when I first came to Pyongyang in February 2006.
By the time I left in July 2008, they were everywhere. And they were really very good. It’s an interesting parallel with China at [its] early stage of its opening. Those of you who knew China at the time might recall that one of the first things that happened under Deng’s reforms was bicycle repairmen.
This seemed to be not only a promising domestic development but perhaps a signal to the outside that the elder Kim was loosening his grip.
Change came quickly in 2009 with a ban on low hemlines and bicycles. Maybe cycling represented to the elder Kim too much of a creeping interrelationship with his neighbors. Or too much freedom in the hands of ordinary people. Regardless, the change in policy was noticed by the Korea Times late in 2009. It noted that scofflaws faced heavy fines and even confiscation.
More than a fashion statement, though, the bike seemed to signify much more. The turn away from bi-pedal mobility, the paper suggested, reflected an intent to cut to the heart of an emerging shadow proto-market.
In North Korea today, where the vast majority of the population, especially women, almost completely depend on this market system to earn a living and bring food home, a woman losing a day’s wages due to a fine or the confiscation of a bicycle may lead to her entire family going hungry.
That’s one ironclad grip on control! Back when cash business was more prevalent on city streets and even rural folks took to saving whatever money they had to battle the uncertainties of their wily leadership, the elder Kim sent a signal and caused some pain. In one fell swoop he prohibited private-sector businesses, devalued the currency, and nipped of the freedom to ride.
Of course he was taking aim at newly mobile women. Propriety & modesty make a convenient hook on which to hang a ban on women riding. But his message seemed more, well, structural. For a communist nation, the elder Kim seemed to be taking out of the hands of the would-be proletariat the means of production. Marx would have a fit! But then again, this is not a Communist nation so much as a totalitarian one. Bikes represented one freedom to many, evidently.
As the Times highlighted, the younger Kim may be taking a different tack. Rumored to like Disney, maybe he’s a fan of the films Breaking Away and A Sunday in Hell?
Time will tell if the younger Kim is sending a message to his people and the world, or if one day soon the short hemline and the bikes we’re seeing lately will again be added to a list of prohibitions and their enthusiasts consigned to the hoosegow.
And what of those bike repair men the Ambassador mentioned? Perhaps keen North Korea watchers could do worse than parsing bike repairmen as a sign of economic liberalization. This is grassroots capitalism at its best: very low barriers to entry, low cost of supplies, and a growing cadre of clients make for a steep revenue growth curve for the smallest of the small-business entrepreneurs.
Moreover, the opportunities to branch out are endless! Thirty years after Deng’s reforms were cemented we saw on the streets of major cities bike-mounted newsstands and BBQ grilles and indeed anything that could be mounted to a safety bike frame was hawked at the curb and in parks. Now, the Ambassador didn’t see any mobile bike barbershops like he saw in China, but then he’s probably not looking to get his hair cut on the Pyongyang street. Stay tuned!