Long hair, new ways

Observations on North Korea

When I went to China for the first time, in 1987, I was surprised to see young men in hot pants and purple socks, often walking arm in arm with women wearing see-through tops. Only old men wore the Mao jackets I had expected to see.

These, I think, were the first signs of the youthful rebelliousness that was to bubble over in Tiananmen in 1989 and of a China that was ultimately to become the more liberal, westernised society we know today. Is the same now happening in North Korea? Maybe.

Last year in Pyongyang, I saw young men with long hair, couples canoodling by the river, and women in western fashions and make-up with children dressed like American kids. Men got expensively drunk and went to apparently all-night karaoke bars, casinos and massage parlours. I also saw private cars, scooters, ice-cream parlours, coffee shops and soap operas on the television. Yes, all that in Pyongyang.

But haven't the authorities just issued a regulation on the length of men's hair, warning that those who flout the law will be named and shamed? In fact, this is a sign of change. The regulation was introduced because young men had begun to protest about their regimented lifestyle. The same applies to the long list of changes to the criminal code - up from 161 articles to 303, with many new interpretations of old articles - that was issued in December. Many market-related activities are now crimes.

Yet these activities were inconceivable when the governing Korean Workers' Party was fully in control. Prostitution, barter, travelling (in search of food), bribery, theft, moneylending, private farmers' markets and black markets (largely based on smuggling across the open Chinese border) have all become commonplace since the early 1990s. And as in China, it looks as though members of the party itself and their relatives are most responsible for such activities.

Moreover, the criminal code has been modernised to bring it into line with one of the basic foundations of law in market economies: it now states that anything not prohibited by law is not a crime. Again as in China, the party is above the law, and when someone threatens the interests of the party or its influential members, ways will no doubt be found to define his or her activities as crimes. But at least the new code is a nod to the rule of law.

Foreign entrepreneurs are now welcome to invest in North Korea; many are doing so. They come mostly from South Korea, China and the Korean community in Japan, but investors from other countries, including Britain, are beginning to arrive. The new code makes some effort to protect their interests - for example, by criminalising the theft of intellectual property such as brand names and trademarks. New laws are being drafted that will protect Chinese-style special economic zones, two of which are being created, at Kaesong in the south, near the border with South Korea, and Sinuiju in the north, on the Chinese border.

So the length of young men's hair may be a way of measuring socialist countries' moves towards capitalism and the rule of law (Asian-style). Other measures might be the extent of graffiti, chewing-gum marks on the pavements, casinos, and night-time phone calls offering "services". North Korea has them all. Progress.

David Wall is an associate fellow at Chatham House