[p2p-research] Barbara Demick discusses the North Korean famine: Audio Slide Show : The New Yorker

Paul D. Fernhout pdfernhout at kurtz-fernhout.com
Thu Nov 12 02:07:18 CET 2009

A slideshow:

 From the article it relates to:
ABSTRACT: REFLECTIONS about a woman who survived the famine in North Korea 
during the nineteen-nineties. Song Hee-suk (whose name has been changed) was 
a model citizen of North Korea. Mrs. Song raised four children while working 
ten-hour shifts six days a week at the day-care center of the Chosun 
Clothing Factory. After work, Mrs. Song was required to spend several more 
hours in ideological training. When the writer first met Mrs. Song, in 2004, 
she (Mrs. Song) had been living in Seoul, South Korea, for two years. Mrs. 
Song said she left North Korea only for her daughter and remained a true 
believer until the day she left. Even after three members of her family died 
of starvation, Mrs. Song believed that North Korea was the greatest nation 
on earth. Mrs. Song used to go twice a week to a food-distribution center 
near her apartment, in the coastal city of Chongjin. Mrs. Song would hand 
over her ration book, a small sum of money, tickets from the garment 
factory, and the clerk would calculate her entitlements: seven hundred grams 
each per day for her and her husband, three hundred grams for her 
mother-in-law, and four hundred for each school-aged child living at home. 
For all its rhetoric about self-sufficiency, North Korea was dependent on 
the generosity of its neighbors. By the early nineteen-nineties, the 
Russians, impatient with North Korea’s failure to repay loans, raised their 
prices for food, fuel, and raw materials. Enduring hunger became part of 
one’s patriotic duty. When the public-distribution system was cut off, 
people tapped their deepest wells of creativity to feed themselves. Mrs. 
Song was nearly fifty when the food supply ran out. Describes the businesses 
Mrs. Song tried to start over the years, including, tofu making, pig 
farming, rice trading, and cookie baking. In 1995, during a trip back from 
the coast with four large backpacks stuffed with rice, Mrs. Song survived a 
train derailment that may have killed hundreds of people. Tells about the 
death from starvation of Mrs. Song’s husband, Chang-bo. By 1998, it is 
estimated, between six hundred thousand and two million North Koreans had 
died as a result of the famine, as much as ten per cent of the population. 
Mrs. Song adapted quickly to South Korea. She was by no means an apologist 
for the North Korean regime, but she did profess a certain nostalgia for the 
idealism that used to propel her out of bed early to dust the portrait of 
Kim Il-sung.

What is relevant here is a failure of a "socialist" system here, one that 
revolved around inspiring people to produce for the commons (while some 
elite skimmed off the top).

As I see it, North Korea may be one end of a spectrum, and failing because 
of it, but that does not mean the other end of the spectrum, the USA with a 
million plus homeless children and ten million unemployed (plus a legacy of 
the destruction of Native Americans) does not have problems too. As Manuel 
de Landa suggests, we need an appropriate healthy balance of meshworks and 
hierarchies in our system designs.

Anyway, I think this issue is worth confronting head on, because when people 
say collective work on a commons will never work or is bad, which is the 
usual pushback when I post about these themes in other contexts, example 
slashdot, this is probably the kind  of reference story (or Stalin's Russia 
or the larger failure of the USSR) that they have in mind.

When this article (sorry the text is not online) talks about farmers 
abandoning their collective efforts to focus on their private plots, that is 
coming after years and decades of difficulties and encroaching scarcities 
(failing electric power and transportation as fuel supplies previously 
imported stop coming). (Another reason a country really should be energy 
independent for intrinsic security.)

When I argue for the success of the commons, the logic is different. What I 
argue is that, out of abundance and massive productivity improvements 
related to computers and automation and collective knowlegde, we are 
reaching the point where one individual, augmented by automation and other 
tools and information, can produce enough to support thousands of other 
individuals in basic services like food or energy. Surrounded by abundance, 
people will be less likely to hoard or want to do one-to-one exchanges. This 
is a very different scenario than many people "sacrifice" themselves while 
they and those around them starve from scarcity and a few people skim off 
the top.

They may be related, especially in a USA that ideologically does not much 
value contributions to the commons and is willing to let its artists and 
free software developers suffer to the point where they need to become 
wage-slaves again, but they are not the same. Now it is true that sometimes 
in times of difficulty and immediate scarcity like a natural disaster a 
community will come together for a time, but again, that is different from 
decades of grinding poverty leading people to move from solidarity to 
eventually every-person-for-themselves.

So, that is what is different about P2P coming out of a culture of abundance 
rather than assuming it would emerge from a culture of scarcity, like North 
Korea became. P2P emerging from abundance, where people contribute to 
Wikipedia for fun rather than necessity, is very different thing than from a 
P2P emerging where everyone is forced to contribute to Wikipedia or they 
just don't eat, and where starvation is always just around the corner, and 
people might sell private information products instead to ensure their own 
survival. (Actually, ironically, I am soon facing that in the USA -- to stop 
contributing to the commons to shift to focusing on private gain; maybe why 
I notice it. :-)

It is especially sad to read that story for me, both because my own mother 
saw extended family starve to death during the Hunger Winter in Rotterdam 
during WWII, but also because I know from my own researches that all the 
North Koreans had to do was grind up rock and they would have had all the 
fertilizer they needed. Likewise, as the German did in WWII, they could have 
converted their coal to liquid fuels, or used it to produce electricity by 
modifying their systems. But I can imagine if I had lived there, I would not 
have been able to learn these things, and even if I had, no one would listen 
when I said these things. They made a point about how the leaders considered 
themselves experts at everything. It's easy to think about success that 
flows from when you have the ear of a dictator in some authoritarian 
society, but it is much more likely you would be on the wrong side of all 
that, and even suffering more from seeing a better way that was not 
ideologically acceptable for whatever reason. Still, like now seeing the 
vitamin D situation in the USA, with hundreds of billions of dollars and 
hundreds of thousands of lives lost each year from a simple lack of adequate 
sunlight or supplements, in part because that is not profitable to big drug 
companies and so the CDC does not want to know, it is sad to see the history 
of North Korea and the failure from social ideology that individual 
initiative was evil. We need some sort of balance in our societies. Either 
extreme fails in various different ways.

That's why a more balanced (in some ways) Europe or South America or maybe 
even China may show more progress in the near term to coming up with new 
approaches to deal with our changing technology (like a basic income that 
Brazil was working towards).

Or to quote ex-Governor and conservative icon Sarah Palin speaking to Sean 
Hannity of Fox News: :-)
"What we're doing up there is returning a share of resource development 
dollars back to the people who own the resources. And our constitution up 
there mandates that as you develop resources it’s to be for the maximum 
benefit of the people, not the corporations, not the government, but the 
people of Alaska."

Ah, if only Sarah Palin had gotten to be president and really implemented 
that philosophy on a national basis. :-)
"[p2p-research] Basic income from a millionaire's perspective?"

(I know, I know. Sarah Palin for president? :-) Really, I'd rather elect the 
people who put that system in place in the first place, rather than someone 
who just inherited it and might have fought against it decades ago given the 

--Paul Fernhout

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