The Significance of the Unusual: Removing “Reformist” Illusions in Reading North Korean Media

By | June 29, 2013 | 2 Comments

Variations on a Theme

Variations on a Theme | Original image: KCNA

Shirley Lee not only has her fingers on the pulse of information from Jang Jin-song and other North Korean defectors in Seoul, she is an astute reader of materials published by the Korean Workers’ Party ( 조선로동당;朝鲜劳动党)  in Pyongyang for internal and external consumption. Here, Lee turns her analytical tools toward the dissection of how these sources are read by the analytical community of “North Korea watchers” in the West, and in the process incites more than a bit of doubt about the DPRK’s path forward as a viable, integrated, and perhaps non-militant economic entity. — Adam Cathcart, Editor-in-Chief

The Significance of the Unusual: Removing “Reformist” Illusions in Reading North Korean State Press

by Shirley Lee

On June 5th, Kim Jong-un made a personal appeal to construction workers in a text splashed across the front page of the country’s standard-bearing newspaper, Rodong Sinmun. A personal appeal like this from Kim to workers–entitled, Let’s create Masikryeong Speed to embark on a new golden age of Socialist construction on all fronts! [“마식령속도를 창조하여 사회주의건설의 모든 전선에서 새로운 전성기를 열어나가자!"]–was an unprecedented move. As if its author and front-page treatment on Rodong Sinmun were not enough, Kim Jong-un’s essay was also highlighted as “urgent” by the KCNA service.

Such an essay raises questions about what I term the “significance of the unusual” in our reading of the North Korean state press. In the established tradition of scrutinizing that state press for policy shifts, an anomaly such as this may count as evidence of some kind of fluctuation. However, if fluctuation is indicated, it also raises the question: of what kind?

Some North Korea analysts have developed the habit of inferring from any particular North Korean move that defies reasonable expectation that it is an indication of impending “reform [개혁]”  (sometimes synonymous with opening [개방] / improvement [개선]) or its opposite, “hardening.”

Opportunities for such analytical earmarking are legion, including land reform or the appointment of a “reformist” figure to a relatively senior position. Notably, since the appointment of Pak Pong-ju as Premier on March 30, 2013, Yonsei University professor John Delury has pointed, at various times, to the move as an indicator that reforms are in the offing.

When you see Pak Pong-ju, what goes through your mind? | Image: KCNA

When you see Pak Pong-ju, what goes through your mind? | Original image: KCNA

While “reform” in the North Korean context should be regarded as a positive thing, I argue that our preoccupation with hunting for its manifestations in any and all actions taken by the leadership may lead to missed opportunities, analytically speaking. In response, I propose advancing interpretations reliant on other axes, such as “power-politics” or “continuity.”  I suggest also that the prominence of reform as the interpretative focus may be a consequence of our analytical framework, rather than a reflection of North Korean reality itself.

A Hundred Flowers in Bloom, or Just Power Politics? | A prime example of this conceptual preoccupation with perceiving reform can be seen in the work of Robert Carlin and Joel Wit. In their aptly-titled work, North Korean Reform, the strengthening and weakening of ostensible military and non-military factions is filtered and perceived through changes in the tone and presentation of state media output, with the relative strength of each faction representing “hardening” or “reform.” In somewhat similar fashion, Patrick MacEachern’s Inside the Red Box posits a continuum of bureaucratic competition that implies the presence of nascent reformers within the North Korean system.

Discussing the Master Narrative? DPRK Officials Wait for Choe Yong-rim to Descend from Reformist China, 2010. Image via KCTV.

Discussing the master narrative? DPRK officials wait for Choe Yong-rim to descend from reformist China, 2010. | Original image:  KCTV

Readers of MacEachern, Carlin and Wit would do well to consider Rodong Sinmun‘s presentation of then-Premier Choe Yong-rim’s on-site inspections of late 2012. Because publicity of this kind had hitherto been solely reserved for the ruling Kim, commentary arose in South Korea and beyond indicating the unusual nature of the reports. Based on reasons such as his close ties with then-Light Industry Department Director Kim Kyong-hui, the inspections were interpreted as a sign of impending reform. But there are good reasons to look beyond this interpretation.

For one, the reports could have been a ruse, aimed at convincing the outside world that reform may be around the corner by promoting an image of North Korea as a nation that may be moved through dialogue. Such an image provides ammunition for believers to argue for placing dialogue with North Korea above other options. Dialogue would, according to proponents of such a view, encourage the “reformers” within North Korea.

Or alternatively, we may posit that neither a genuine desire to reform nor a propagandistic show of reform was the pressing concern for those involved. Instead, the sudden prominence of Choe Yong-rim could have been orchestrated for the primary purpose of building up perceptions of Kim Kyong-hui’s factional authority in the domestic political landscape: a very plausible scenario in the aftermath of Kim Jong-il’s death, as explained by Jang Jin-sung in this essay for New Focus. If that were the case, “Power-politics” rather than “reform” may thus be the more significant analytical axis by which to interpret the unusual in the North Korean state press.

An Axis of Power-Politics over “Reform” | Another recent example of how unusual events tend to be construed in terms of reform can be seen in reactions to the appointment of Pak Pong-ju as Premier. The dominant narrative that framed North Korea analysis at the time focused on the strengthening of military tendencies (owing to the nuclear test and ensuing escalation of war propaganda). Yet the appointment countervailed these readings – perhaps precisely because of its “unusual” nature – and was interpreted largely as a possible indicator of North Korea turning towards reform.

The Associated Press (quoting John Delury) led this line of interpretation, which relied not only on the fact that Pak had been partly responsible for certain policy changes between 2002-5, but also on the assumption that these policy changes had been reformist in nature.

But what if, in fact, these policy changes were simply forerunners to the “hardline” economic measures taken in 2009? Several high-level defectors now working in research institutes see the policy changes of 2002-5 as deliberate attempts on the part of the regime to regain economic control that had slipped from its grasp.[1] When these views are taken into account, not only does the interpretation of Pak’s appointment as signaling reform become a moot point, but the notion that we should automatically interpret his elevation in terms of reform at all may also be questioned.

Analyzing Masikryong is fraught with pitfalls | Original image: Rodong Sinmun

Analyzing Masikryeong is fraught with pitfalls. | Original image: Rodong Sinmun

An Axis of Continuity over Reform | One common and rather simple method of announcing reformist signs stems from reading of North Korean media announcements related to civil works. What, after all, could be clearer? When Kim Jong-un gets in a tank, it thus appears that the “hard-liners” are winning, but when he says nice things about living standards and the Party, the “reformers” are on the march.  Such is the binary.

Far better would be to suggest that neither reform nor hardening is the reality behind these events and their presentation, but rather, “continuity”. This axis may manifest itself in either repetitive or innovative forms of expression, or some combination of the two. More specifically, continuity exists in terms of how the state fuses the civilian and military spheres.

Although the appeal and supporting piece regarding “Masikryong Speed” may be unusual in many ways, they nevertheless offer a variation on an orthodox theme of “speed campaigns.” Moreover, the writing betrays fundamental continuity in core semantics: it is a proposal that encourages the sublimation of private spaces in favour of the communal, akin to sublimating personal relationships in favour of the collective.[2]

If we interpret in terms of the “reform” continuum, references to civil works, instead of military works alone, can be seen as a sign of reform over hardening, But if we interpret according to another framework, such as the axis of continuity, then the seamless semantic transition between civil and military spheres leads us to the conclusion that civilian references are not in binary opposition to military ones.

North Korean writing about the miracles of Masikryong are suggestive not of the civil instead of the military, but the civil being subsumed into the military – in order perhaps to reinforce socio-political cohesion between individual and state. Posing a binary opposition between the civil and military spheres in DPRK state media as a valid dichotomy that reflects opposing “factions” is therefore highly questionable. In this regard, reading North Korean media in this way for signs of reform and hardening, respectively, may be an exercise in self-deception rather than illumination.

Conclusion | What makes news, any news, is a departure from the “norm” – such as the Maskiryong ski-ground announcement. This is perhaps why we more readily read such events in terms of how they depart from an established framework, rather than how they reinforce it, or indeed in terms of the appropriateness of the framework itself.

If the Party decides that living standards are its true goal, then it will reallocate resources from the country’s missile and nuclear programs to the wider civilian economy. External figures wishing for change need to find evidence of concrete policy changes such as this, rather than seeing reform in every one of Pak Pong-ju’s public utterances or Kim Jong-un’s onsite inspections. Until that time, reading North Korean media for signs of reform will leave one “waiting for the golden age.”

[1] Based on informal conversations.

[2] For example, see “Chapter 3 – The Barrel of a Gun” in Heonik Kwon and Byung-ho Chung, Beyond Charismatic Politics (Rowman and Littlefield, 2012).


  1. Thoughtful and thought-provoking. I don’t buy the argument about CYR’s rise as part of power politics — and much less a truly far-fetched, elaborate ruse aimed at the outside — because you got wrong when the premier solo visits began (Feb 2011) and failed to note that these visits have continued to the present day and under PPJ (also a Kim Kyong Hui acolyte?).

    Do agree that the framework dictates the conclusions and that some people over-read and indulge in wishful thinking. However, that doesn’t mean there is nothing to learn from noting departures from the norm. We’re all doing what we can with what’s given! You ask for evidence that the Party is reallocating resources; what if I ask you for evidence that it hasn’t already begun to do so?

  2. Thanks for your response! I’ll try answer your points in order.

    1. I didn’t say the visits began in 2012. It might not have been clear enough, but I meant that South Korean responses to his on-site visits indicating “reform” were running high in 2012.

    2. I didn’t ask for evidence that the Party is reallocating resources; I only asked that we might look for such evidence being advertised first before promoting the notion that reform is happening – to do so based only on insecure interpretations of ambiguous media is not convincing enough.

    3. This is not in response to any particular point, but I must stress that PakPJ being a “reformer” lies largely in his 7.1 credentials. But the 7.1 policies being “reformist” in nature is a very moot point. We must resolve that first before leaping to tag the “reformist” interpretation on Pak’s promotion.

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