Though many analysts are skeptical, expert Andrei Lankov says North Korea's new leader Kim Jong Un is beginning to consider Chinese-style economic reforms. He speaks to RFA’s Executive Editor Dan Southerland:
Q: How do you interpret reports that North Korea is planning to reform the economy and the agricultural system? Do these appear to be signs of a serious effort at reform?
A: I think for the first time they’re taking steps toward Chinese-style reforms. But if they don’t move carefully, it could eventually mean instability.
Q: What are the signals that this is something really serious and not mere tinkering?
A: They’ve replaced almost all of the top military leaders. This allows for a shift from the military-first policy to a new emphasis on the economy.
First they replaced the army chief of staff, Ri Yong Ho. Two days later the commander of the navy was gone. Seven or eight military district chiefs have been replaced. Kim Jong Un has dramatically downsized the military-run enterprises. Many individual enterprises that were under the control of the military are now under the supervision of the cabinet.
Second, they introduced a new agricultural management policy. It would allow the government to take 70 percent of their crop. But the farmers would keep 30 percent. Think of the reforms in China in the late 1970s.
Q: Is this coming from Kim Jong Un’s Swiss education, from Chinese pressure, or from both?
A: From both. Kim Jong Un wants to go down in history. He knows that his father’s politics have no future. But he probably doesn’t know how risky his new reformist policy is.
Q: You say they’ve downsized the military-run enterprises. Does this mean shifting the military’s control of the foreign trade companies to civilian control? If that’s the case, wouldn’t this mean a huge transfer of wealth away from the military?
A: Yes, of course.
Q: If economic reforms are implemented, what implications would they have for North Korea’s foreign policy?
A: They need investment money, and the investment can come only from overseas. Therefore, they will continue to court China. But they’ll also seriously try to improve relations with the United States and Japan and, of course, South Korea.
Q: They seem to be shifting away from the old “military first” policy. But at the same time, we see reports this month that they’ve now placed the dome on a light-water reactor at a nuclear plant. So presumably, they’ll forge ahead with their nuclear program. No compromise on that?
A: They will absolutely make no compromise on the nuclear issue. They saw what happened to Colonel Gadhafi, who surrendered his nuclear program in exchange for economic promises. They feel they must have a nuclear deterrent. And it’s also important, just in case, as a tool for blackmail.
Q: So they really believe that the U.S. might invade?
A: Yes, and why not?—They’ve seen what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Q: What dangers would that light-water reactor pose for South Korea and the region once it’s up and running?
A: Two dangers: First, a light-water reaction can be used for the production of weapons-grade plutonium. Second, it’s a dangerous creature. It’s dangerous to maintain. It requires a high level of technological skill, equipment, and material. So it creates the potential for a Chernobyl-style disaster in North Korea. The danger is of an explosion, or the reactor getting out of control.
Q: A major change in North Korea is in the realm of information reaching the North Korean people. You wrote a paper recently about the “crumbling wall” of censorship in the North that’s been aimed at blocking information from the outside world.
A: Kim Jong Un as well as his father before him have been unlucky in one regard. They’ve been running a system based on isolation from outside information at a time when the fastest growing technology is IT. This makes it increasingly difficult to try to control. MP3s, DVD players—all these things have their dangers.
And, of course, international radio stations might be the most politically significant media, since their audience largely consists of real or potential opinion makers. Radio also remains the only source of up-to-date political information and opinions.
Q: Couldn’t the combination of greater access to information plus a more open economy lead to the downfall of this regime? And isn’t there a danger that if Kim Jong Un goes ahead with everything that’s talked about he’ll be trying to do too many things at one time?
A: I think that he faces a really high probability of regime collapse in a few years. And I don’t think he fully understands this. The rest of the world, meanwhile, is unprepared to deal with this. The unification of North and South Korea will be extremely expensive. Who's going to control the nukes? And who’s going to run North Korea? The Americans, the Chinese, and the South Koreans need to start talking about contingency plans in a serious way.
Q: As you know, some experts and senior North Korean defectors are saying that talk of a major economic reform on the horizon is just a smokescreen. The leadership hasn’t made a public commitment to any such reform. As in the past, couldn’t they easily reverse everything that’s been talked about?
A: Yes, all of this would be easily reversible at its current stage. And a hard-line backlash is quite possible. But I think this is the beginning of the most serious attempt at transformation that I’ve ever seen.
Q: But there’s no public commitment by the leadership to any of the things that are being rumored and discussed.
A: Officially, they can’t make an open commitment to a reform. In the North Korean view, the country is run by the greatest geniuses who ever lived. To admit that reforms are necessary would be to acknowledge the mistakes of the past. But they can argue that no system is perfect and that improvements can always be made.
Q: Kim Jong Un has introduced his wife to the country through several public events. What’s the significance of that?
A: Kim Jong Un’s father, Kim Jong Il, never allowed any of his wives to be seen at public events. His grandfather’s wife was present only at diplomatic receptions. So this is something very new. And for the North Koreans it’s a sign that Kim Jong Un is not God.
Q: So this might make Jong Un more likable or accessible. But wouldn’t this destroy the personality cult of a leader who is supposed to be above the status of a normal person?
A: No, the personality cult is still there.
Q: What are we to make of the introduction of American symbols into a concert in July attended by Kim Jong Un? They were featuring Sinatra’s “My Way,” Mickey Mouse, and the theme song from the movie “Rocky.” Is this an attempt to reach out to the United States?
A: Yes, but only to a limited extent. It’s largely for domestic consumption. It’s an attempt to make the country a more enjoyable place to live in.
Andrei Lankov is a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul