North Korean Economic Change as Relinquishing of Party Control

By | May 03, 2017 | No Comments

The 4th Rason International Trade Expo opens in 2014 | Image: Rodong Sinmun

The past few weeks have seen a veritable gusher of articles and essays about North Korean nuclear and missile issues, as well as the country’s often venomous relations with regional and world powers. The presence of several hundred foreign journalists in Pyongyang in mid-April barely made a dent in changing the overall emphasis on the potential for a US-North Korean military clash. Amid the clangor of war drums, writings about the internal situation in the DPRK — for instance, stories about the projected harvest, internal stability, and defections — were left aside. But the marshaling of the foreign press corps to watch Kim Jong-un cut the ribbon on a new street of skyscrapers in the capital on 13 April indicated that the regime was interested in promoting a different narrative, to a point.

Fortunately, there is more to life than missiles and nuclear tests. Recognizing this fact, veteran reporter Choe Sang-hun produced a challenging analysis of the North Korean economy in the New York Times at the end of last month.

Sourced in large measure by interviews with recent defectors and Seoul-based media analysts, the core argument in the article is as follows:

But a limited embrace of market forces in what is supposed to be a classless society also is a gamble for Mr. Kim, who in 2013 made economic growth a top policy goal on par with the development of a nuclear arsenal.

 

Mr. Kim, 33, has promised his long-suffering people that they will never have to “tighten their belts” again. But as he allows private enterprise to expand, he undermines the government’s central argument of socialist superiority over South Korea’s capitalist system.

 

There are already signs that market forces are weakening the government’s grip on society. Information is seeping in along with foreign goods, eroding the cult of personality surrounding Mr. Kim and his family. And as people support themselves and get what they need outside the state economy, they are less beholden to the authorities.

The idea that “Kim Jong-un has promised to avoid any further belt-tightening” and has therefore hitched his reputational wagon to further years of sustained economic growth is commonplace, at least among foreign analysts.1)This is not true in informed corners of the South Korean press, as Christopher Green notes. In a recent interview with New York magazine, Jean Lee returned to the familiar theme, saying that Kim Jong-un marked a signal change in the way that North Korean leaders relate to the population. She did so without acknowledging that Kim Il-sung argued for both guns and butter from at least the origin of the Byungjin line in 1961-1962, and that North Korean leaders — like all of their counterparts around the socialist world before it collapsed — have always held forward the promise of leisure alongside economic strain.

For its part, North Korean state media pointedly continue to use the “belt-tightening” meme without constraint, most recently in the process of broadsiding China for its inability to praise rather than undermine the nuclear deterrent which had reached maturity under Kim Jong-un’s command:2)Jong Phil, “Are You Good at Dancing to the Tune of Others? [还好意思随波逐流?],” KCNA, April 21, 2017. Emphasis added.

The DPRK’s nuclear deterrence for self-defence, its army and people built by tightening their belts to defend the sovereignty and right to existence of the nation [自卫性核遏制力是朝鲜军民为捍卫国家和民族主权和生存权而勒紧腰带打造的], is by no means a bargaining chip for getting something.

Moreover, the country actually underwent no fewer than two Soviet-style speed campaigns in 2016 alone, and more are doubtless on the way.

At a mass rally in Pyongyang, January 3, 2012 | Image: Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Whatever comes out of Kim Jong-un’s mouth or appears in  the state media about a desire for improved living standards does not seem to change the economic structure or prevent the state from taking extraordinary (or indeed, rather ordinary) measures like these. Nor does it stop Pyongyang from mobilizing what amounts to corvée labour for the construction of “monumental edifices” like the Paektusan Youth Hero Dam near the Chinese border.

Quite apart from the ubiquity of the belt-tightening theme even in supposedly post-tightening times, it is worth pointing out that the notion of markets as a tool for eroding control over society is an analytical oversimplification. It implicitly posits the market and the state as in opposition, which is not the case. Peter Ward has written extensive and informed analyses about the contemporary marketization phenomenon for Sino-NK, while Christopher Green explicitly covered the co-option of market forces by the state. Elsewhere, we have also written about the role of mass organizations in North Korean social practice, a relevant point as these organizations serve to incorporate, albeit imperfectly, market actors into pre-existing structures of the charismatic party-state. To consider the economy in isolation from such variables risks de-emphasizing the various means by which control is maintained.

Mass organizations also oblige our attention not only for their effective maintenance of political cohesion (or the appearance of it) for Kim Jong-un, but also as participants themselves in foreign currency acquisition. Institutions such as the KimIlSungist-KimJongIlist Youth League have the right to establish and operate foreign currency-earning enterprises like restaurants, and are active participants in exporting DPRK laborers to China (probably with the help of the Socialist Women’s Union of Korea, since in most cases in China the labor is female).

In other words, marketization may even strengthen the bottom line of mass organizations, and therefore contribute to reinforcing their control function. The prominence of youth work in the portfolio of officials like Choe Ryong-hae and Jon Yong-nam indicates that they are no strangers to managing such operations even as they maintain heavy political propaganda for their primary charges.

Linked here is the assumption that exposure to black or official markets, along with exposure to Western or South Korean media, will ultimately wash away North Korean anti-imperialist education, and implicitly argues that state propaganda has no effective means of contextualizing or critiquing capitalism of either the US, South Korean, or Chinese varieties. As Christopher Green and Steven Denney have shown, North Korean state organizations have made very good use of the concept of the rueful and appreciative “double defector” to craft a rational response to South Korean capitalism. North Korean counter-propaganda is far from bulletproof, but it exists and is increasingly sophisticated.3)For a fleshed-out counterargument to the more dire implications of the Choe Sang-hun article and others in the same pattern, see Adam Cathcart, Christopher Green and Steven Denney, “How Authoritarian Regimes Maintain Domain Consensus: North Korean Information Strategies in the Kim Jong-un Era,” Review of Korean Studies 17 no. 2 (2015): 145–178.

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1. This is not true in informed corners of the South Korean press, as Christopher Green notes.
2. Jong Phil, “Are You Good at Dancing to the Tune of Others? [还好意思随波逐流?],” KCNA, April 21, 2017. Emphasis added.
3. For a fleshed-out counterargument to the more dire implications of the Choe Sang-hun article and others in the same pattern, see Adam Cathcart, Christopher Green and Steven Denney, “How Authoritarian Regimes Maintain Domain Consensus: North Korean Information Strategies in the Kim Jong-un Era,” Review of Korean Studies 17 no. 2 (2015): 145–178.