The North Korean Policy Changes That Dare Not Speak Their Name

The reluctance of Kim Jong Un's nervous regime to acknowledge it is adopting a market economy frustrates the legal changes needed to sustain nascent growth.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (C) visiting a process of quilt production at the Pyongyang Kim Jong Suk Silk Mill in Pyongyang, in undated photo released by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), Jan. 9, 2017.

Over the past five years, I cannot help but feel a bit strange when reading North Korean newspapers. Kim Jong Un inherited power in December 2011 and soon afterwards he, in fact, initiated reformist policies which are remarkably similar to what China had in the early 1980s, in the first years of Deng Xiaoping’s rule. However, in spite of all similarities, there is one curious difference: the North Korean media has not acknowledged that the country is reforming itself (with a measure of success, by the way). If one reads North Korean newspapers, it is impossible to escape the impression that the country remains the same stronghold of the Stalinist state socialism it used to be in the days of Kim Il Sung, the grandfather of the current leader. While little is actually left from the Soviet-style state socialism in the present-day North Korea, the North Korean newspapers and broadcasters are still talking about the socialist system, and seldom, if ever, mention the tremendous economic changes and the existence of the private economy.

It looks bizarre, but, if we have a better look at the problems of the North Korean leadership, this silence is not strange at all. From the standpoint of Kim Jong Un and his advisers, the country’s economic development is important indeed, but it is more important to make sure that the country  remains politically stable, with the Kim family and other hereditary elite groups staying at the top, no matter what happens with the economy. The necessary condition for maintaining stability is to ensure that the minds of the North Korean populace will not harbor dangerous, potentially dissenting ideas.

The best way to achieve this goal is, of course, to constantly monitor the populace and, if necessary, punish those who show the slightest signs of discontent. This is the task of police and security forces. However, surveillance and police control is not enough: It is also very important to ensure that populace remains secluded from dangerous information and subversive ideas. If ordinary people become suspicious of the state ideology, it will be much more difficult to control them.

This is why the North Korean leadership is trying to pretend that there is no change, let alone reform, in the country. If the North Koreans find out that there has been a change in their ideology, this might jeopardize ideological control. Indeed, Kim Jong Un’s  grandfather Kim Il Sung, as well as his father Kim Jong Il, both considered semi-divine creatures officially, once praised Soviet-style state socialism and, in the 1980s and 1990s, accused the Chinese reformist leadership of treason. If Kim Jong Un admits that now he is doing what the Chinese did in the 1980s, it would put his power under threat.

Euphemism for reform needed

This is the reason why the North Korean media remains silent about the ongoing reform. This is politically understandable, but, in the long run, these policies are quite problematic.

Market economies and societies based on them are very complex structures, where one cannot solve all daily problems in a secret or informal way, through contacts and connections, and lengthy personal negotiations. To make sure things function properly, such a society needs courts, clearly written and enforceable laws, a system of private contracts and many other similar things.

As soon as North Korea abandoned its anachronistic, Soviet-style state socialist economy, like China did in the 1980s, its economy began to improve palpably, and this is good news.

However, the market economy is inevitably wrought by internal conflicts and contradictions. For example, what if a company does not keep its promise and does not pay for delivery, or ships substandard items? In the market economy, there is a great number of arbitration institutions, including the courts of law, which can solve such problems. However, these arbitration agencies can only function if the existence of the private economy is admitted, and proper laws and regulations are introduced.

The North Korean leadership has no choice but to shift to a market economy and they seemingly understand this. Of course, while doing reforms they are not going to use the dangerous "R word," but, after all, you do not have to say ideologically suspicious words, like "reform" or "market." You can find nice-sounding euphemisms, like ‘economic improvement measures’ or ‘our style socialism’. However, some kind of recognition is vital. Without admitting that things are really changing, it will be impossible to create an environment to sustain such change and make most of it.