North Korea's Leader Wants an Affluent, Tightly Controlled Country

A commentary by Andrei Lankov
South Korean actors of the popular soap opera, 'Cheer Up, Mr. Kim,' which featured as a major supporting character a young North Korean defector in Seoul, in a file photo.

North Korea has always banned South Korean movies and publications. But South Korean TV shows and films have been widely watched in North Korea since video cassette recorders and, later, DVD players began to proliferate inside the country in the early 2000s.

While the government has always considered South Korean videos to be a danger, North Koreans had relatively little chance until recently of getting into trouble for enjoying a smuggled copy of a South Korean TV show in the comfort of their own homes.

Essentially, there was safety in numbers. Too many people were enjoying this forbidden fruit for the government to stop its spread. Thus, while the government occasionally punished the less fortunate viewers of South Korean videos, the vast majority remained unnoticed and safe.

Things have seemingly begun to change, however. In 2012, Kim Jong Un established the so-called 1.14 Units. These are special joint task forces, composed of party and security police personnel, tasked with stamping out South Korean cultural influences in the North, specifically the consumption of South Korean video material.

Reports indicate that these units have begun to operate on a remarkably ambitious scale. People who copy and sell South Korean videos are being arrested and, according to some reports, even executed.

And the efforts of the 1.14 units and similar agencies are beginning to bear fruit: Many North Koreans admit nowadays that they have become far more reluctant than before to watch South Korean videos, let alone shop for such things at the market.

Contradictory trends

But these efforts appear to contradict other trends, as the North Korean government has recently initiated some quiet, but generally successful, economic reforms.

The partial introduction of a family responsibility system in agriculture, de facto partial and conditional privatization, began in 2012 and was a major contributing factor in the success of last year’s harvest.

In industry, managers have also been given more freedom, and this policy has obviously also resulted in some successes as well.

At first glance, these trends in economic policy markedly contradict those in the regime’s political and social policies. But actually, this is not the case: Tightening the ideological screw might well be a necessary condition for successful economic reforms.

Of course, in this case, what we mean by “success” is the combination of political stability and economic growth – the only scenario that the North Korean government will be happy with.

The major problem with Chinese-style economic reforms, a modest variety of which Kim Jong Un is apparently considering now, is the potential of such reforms to bring the North Korean people more information about the success of neighboring countries, especially South Korea, whose population speaks the same language and is officially considered a part of the same nation.

The North Korean government has always described itself as the only force that knows how to achieve economic success. Thus the spread of information about its own spectacular economic failures would be a major problem – especially when contrasted with the brilliant successes of the South Korean economy.

Reforms may erode control

Additionally, the further advance of economic reforms would make the North Korean people less dependent on their government in their daily lives. Market economies usually reward efficiency, not ideological zeal. Therefore, economic reforms will erode the regime’s ability to control the population of North Korea.

Thus, one should not be surprised that while Kim Jong Un’s government promotes economic changes, it also wishes to maintain and, where possible, intensify existing social controls and political surveillance. Attempts to eradicate South Korean cultural influence are only one of the many campaigns we have witnessed in the last three years.

For example, we could recall the rather successful attempts to increase border controls and reduce the number of refugees fleeing North Korea. We could also recall the greater emphasis put on propaganda about the real or alleged achievements of Kim Il Sung.

One should not blame Kim Jong Un and his entourage for these policies. After all, it is laudable that they are at least trying to do something about the sorry economic state of their country, and it is not surprising that they are attempting to ensure that reforms do not provoke a revolution.

Have you ever seen a political elite that was willing to voluntarily surrender its power and privileges?

It remains to be seen whether the intensification of social controls will be sufficient to keep the North Korean people in line and to counter the potentially destabilizing social effects of economic reforms.

At any rate, it is increasingly clear what Kim Jong Un wants: He wants to run a more affluent country, but also a country that is very tightly controlled.

Andrei Lankov, a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul, is a Russian historian, North Korea expert, and regular RFA contributor.


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