If you’ve been paying close enough attention, you’ll have heard that change is happening in North Korea. Not just the grassroots changes that have been happening over the past 15 years, but the talk of change coming from the Kim Jong-un (KJU) leadership, and the marked contrasts with the Kim Jong-il (KJI) modus operandi.
SO WHAT’S GOING ON?
For a while now there have been a number of signs of change coming from the post-KJI regime, and it does look like KJU and the leadership around him is intentionally promoting the idea of change. At this point though, many of the changes have been PR-based, as we might expect; in the North Korean ‘political cycle’ it’s still early doors. At the time of writing we are still waiting for confirmation that any significant new policies have been implemented on the ground, and it will likely take quite a while to see evidence of the effects of those policies in any case. One thing we can be relatively certain about is that policy-level change will be frustratingly slow, incremental and inadequate. Indeed, some reports suggest that planned reforms have hit a snag before they’ve even started.
Why is the leadership giving off these change signals in the first place? Well, maybe it’s partly the “KJU wild card.” He’s young, he only had a short and rushed period of ‘leadership training,’ and his youthful ambition and confidence might lead him to genuinely think that he can take over the ailing family business and turn it around. More importantly, even if the ruling elite are only concerned with their own self-preservation, it might actually make sense to embark on some kind of economic reforms. In the long term – KJU has to think long term because he is not yet 30 – maintaining KJI’s politics of fear and repression is a losing strategy. Since the 1990s, people-driven grassroots changes have transformed NK society, and multiple trends such as bottom-up marketization, ideological erosion, corruption and new information flows mean that the people are breaking away from the regime and power of the state is decreasing. This all adds up to an unavoidable conclusion that this system as it currently stands is unsustainable in the long term.
The young KJU has made it clear that he wants to win the support of the people, which he knows can only be done by improving the economy. Empty propaganda just won’t cut it any longer. The leadership might think that economic reforms that have the potential to improve the dysfunctional state economy while regaining partial control over some of the grassroots change phenomena might be a better route to securing stability in the longer term. Embarking on economic reforms aimed at forging a better functioning version of state capitalism (think something along the lines of China) would be challenging and risky for sure, but the leadership may still believe that it’s the best option.
It is important to note though that even if we start seeing real economic liberalization being implemented, no one thinks that political reforms will be forthcoming in the foreseeable future, and that economic reform does not mean that all forms of control and repression will be loosened. Progress in such a system rarely happens in a linear manner. It could for instance be accompanied by efforts to increase repression and control over the border region and attempts to crack down on defections, as we have in fact seen since KJU took power.
Unsatisfyingly, this all leaves us with more questions than answers. We don’t know how fast economic liberalization will be allowed to happen or how long it will be allowed to continue for; is this the start of a new long-term change trajectory or will it just be a few short years before reforms are halted and the NK regime tries to once again stifle change and operate at a new status quo? What internal factional dynamics are at play here? Will the effects of economic reforms cascade and produce feedback loops that the leadership wasn’t even planning for? And does the regime even have the capacity and competency to really pull this off? These are all important questions that no one has the answers to at this time, and even the North Korean people themselves are left wondering.
For the answers… watch this space.
SOKEEL J. PARK | Director of Research & Strategy