North Korea Appears to Seek Economic Reform Without Openness

A commentary by Andrei Lankov
2015-09-11
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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspects tomato plants in undated photo released by state media on June 13, 2015.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspects tomato plants in undated photo released by state media on June 13, 2015.
AFP

Nearly four years have passed since the sudden death of his father made Kim Jong Un the new leader of North Korea. This period of time is long enough to make educated guesses about the direction the young leader wants to take, and the goals he wants to achieve. To put things simply, he seemingly wants to initiate policy which in many regards is similar to the ‘reform and openness’ policy of China under Deng Xiaoping. However, unlike China, Kim Jong Un seemingly wants what can be described as ‘reforms without openness’.

Like it or not, this policy makes sense if judged from the point of view of North Korean decision makers. They need growth, but they need stability even more. Perhaps the common people of North Korea might have a different opinion on the issue, but their opinion has little impact on the future of the country.

It is easy to understand why Kim Jong Un needs economic reform – and actually, has already initiated some reformist policies. The Soviet Stalinist economic model he inherited from his father and grandfather ceased functioning a long time ago. His father understood this, but was deathly afraid of reforms and obviously hoped that the system would remain stable for another decade or two. For Kim Jong Il, who was in his 60s, it was long enough, but his son understands: with a crumbling economy and a fast-growing per capita income gap between his realm and neighboring countries, it is unlikely that the system would survive long enough.

If he wants to die in his palace 40 or 50 years down the track, he needs to revive the economy to some extent. As the experience of all ex-communist countries has demonstrated, the only way to achieve this goal is to implement market-oriented reforms which worked so well in China and Vietnam.

Of course, both China and Vietnam remain authoritarian countries where the ruling communist parties preside over the high-speed growth of a brutal, if efficient, variety of capitalism. However, in both countries the economic liberalization paved the road for a measure of political openness and relaxation. China looks pretty dictatorial to Westerners, but compared to the situation of the 1970s, Chinese now enjoy a great deal of freedom.

Alas, this is unlikely to happen in North Korea. The major political problem the North Korean government deals with is the existence of the rich and attractive South Korea, whose population does not merely speak the same language, but is officially considered members of the same nation. The per capita income ratio between the two Korean states is between 1:14 and 1:40. To put things in  perspective, the ratio between West and East Germany was merely between 1:2 and 1:3.

If the North Korean common people learn about the South’s prosperity, it will become dangerous for Kim. China does not face such a challenge. The Chinese public is aware of the economic prosperity of the developed world, but prosperity enjoyed by the Americans or Japanese is, from the Chinese point of view, a prosperity of other nations whose history, culture and conditions are dramatically different from those of China.

In North Korea, the spread of information about the outside world, combined with the political liberalization, might become very risky. If North Korea’s general population finally comes to realize how much their country is lagging behind its southern neighbor, and if they become significantly less afraid of the authorities, there is a fairly high chance that they will do what the East Germans once did: get rid of their government in order to unify with the alluring South.

This means that in order to counter such threat, a reforming North Korean government will have little choice but to remain repressive – significantly more repressive than the government of China. While the economic reforms might bring about a substantial improvement of people’s material well-being, the surveillance, control and, if necessary, terror will remain a part of North Koreans’ daily lives. Contacts with the outside world are likely to be closely supervised and restricted as well.

This approach is not going to slow down economic growth. However, the North Korean decision makers do not need the type of economic growth that is likely to get them overthrown and sent to prison or even hung from lampposts. Hence, reforms are coming to North Korea, but it might take a long time before any openness will become a part of the North Korean way of life as well.

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