A Debate (Again) in Bloom

By | June 25, 2012 | 4 Comments

"And Water Flows Beneath the Ice" North Korea arts exhibition in Vinzavod art center, Moscow. An artistic tribute to Songun Korea. | Image: Mikhail (Vokabre) Shcherbakov

“And Water Flows Beneath the Ice” North Korea arts exhibition in Vinzavod art center, Moscow. An artistic tribute to Songun Korea. | Image: Mikhail (Vokabre) Shcherbakov

A Debate (Again) in Bloom

by Steven Denney

In a recent Sino-NK post, “Keeping Up with 38 North,” Adam Cathcart points to an assertion made by  James Church (“Keep Your Eye on the Duck,” 38 North, June 19) that Kim Jong-un “may in fact be initiating ‘creeping Dengism.’” Church’s [1]  suggestion that reform may indeed be afoot in North Korea is an issue that divides many scholars and analysts. Would economic reform bring down the house?


According to propaganda reader and North Korean literature bookworm B.R. Myers, it most certainly would. Myers’ logic goes as follows: permitting economic reform would be a tacit acknowledgement that the North Korean economic system is inferior to its southern competitor and no longer worthy of supporting. Logically, North Korean citizens would then ask: why suffer under a second-rate economic system when unification with the South could more rapidly alleviate our social and economic woes?  Furthermore, shifting focus towards economic issues would require a shift from a “military first” (songun 선군/先军)  political society, whose entire raison d’etre is to sustain a strong (and sometimes provocative) military as a way to compensate for difference in economic performance between the North and South. Thus, the implementation of any meaningful economic reforms would precipitate the dissolution of loyalty and dedication awarded to the political leadership and the Great Leader. Political leadership is legitimized through songun politics. Thus, in the words of Myers: “[South Korea] cannot shift focus from military affairs to economic affairs without becoming a fourth-rate South Korea.”

Myers is clearly unafraid of standing apart from other analysts on any issue, but he has some significant backup on this particular question. Andrei Lankov, in this recent interview, more-or-less agrees with Myers’ understanding of North Korea, attributing the North Korean elites’ reluctance to reform to the existence of a challenger to its legitimacy in the South. Like Myers, Lankov believes that enacting economic reforms would plant the seeds of demise for the current regime.

Songun is as Hallow as Juche: Towards a Church School of Thought | There is, however, an alternative school of thought regarding the foundation of political legitimacy and the interpretation of North Korean elite behavior, particularly the attitude of Kim Jong-un towards military-first politics. Church’s central argument, that a military first politics is giving way to an economic-first (or at least a “military-1.5” politics), represents a resurrection of his original argument made with Joel Wit in 2006 that between 2002-2005 there was a “debate in bloom” between conservatives and so-called “reformers.”

What separated the reformer camp from the conservatives was the former’s insistence that the nation’s economic power is not strengthen by concentrating efforts on strengthening military power, but is instead best strengthened by improving the livelihoods of the people. Thus, diverting a higher proportion of the national budget to the “people’s economy,” at the expense of the national defense industry, would better serve the macro-economy. This line of thinking represented a reversal of the conservative, military first line that had been the predominant way of thinking since, presumably, military first politics was first declared national policy in 1996. Most important to us here, though, is how Church and Wit justify the presupposition that economic reform would not result in North Korea “becoming a fourth-rate South Korea.” Their explanation serves as a direct indictment of the “Myers-Lankov school of thought” and is worthy of a full quote:

[M]any observers … are distracted by the constant repetition of the term ‘military first’ in the North Korean media. There is a tendency to take this literally and to assume that every reference to the term constitutes a reaffirmation of it. But the military first concept is no more than a sound guideline to real North Korean policy than was that of juche (self-reliance) in earlier years. These are not policies but slogans. [emphasis added]

If this (re)interpretation of the military first politics is accepted, Myers own critique of juche — that it is nothing but an empty slogan full of complexities meant to confuse reality — could then be used against his own argument that North Korea’s military first politics is the sword by which North Korea lives and dies. In the end, both juche and the military first politics as ideological-based concepts are void of any real significance. Although Church’s latest piece goes into far less detail than his original, his interpretation of “what looks to be a jaw-dropping contradiction” of tightening belts for the military makes clear that the Respected General Kim Jong-un is on the side of the reformers.

The Journalist Perspective: Corroborating Church | On Sunday morning the East-West Center hosted an early morning panel on “Covering North Korea in the Digital Age.” While Seoul’s nightlife denizens were sleeping, Joo Seong-ha, defector and reporter for the Dong-a Ilbo, and Chris Green, Managing International Editor for Daily NK, were busy informing fellow journalists and graduate students about how information is obtained from within North Korea, methods used to “fact check,” and the current and past conditions within North Korea, insofar as they can be known.[2]

Although Church, Lankov and Myers are esteemed scholars with highly informed and respected opinions, journalists like Joo and Green are in positions to check what scholars write against actual events going on inside the country. Besides the sometimes-banal job of simply reporting the quotidian daily activities, journalists also serve another role as the world’s best fact checkers.  Thus, in the context of the dichotomy at hand — economic reform is viable/unviable — we can look at Joo’s analysis of the citizens of Pyongyang and Green’s general assessment in a way that either mitigates the positions held by Myers and Lankov or supports the opinion of Church that reform is afoot.

According to Joo’s, residents of the capital city are both the highest ranking in North Korean society (the Brahmins of the songbun caste system) and the most free, relatively speaking. Aside from being the well fed (citizens of Pyongyang never go hungry), those residing in Pyongyang enjoy higher standards of living and the spoils of modern society, such as mobile phones, DVDs and televisions. Although nowhere near the affluence of even a typical South Korean, Joo asserts: “It is in Pyongyang where South Korean lifestyles are most closely imitated.”

More importantly, Joo finds that — contrary to past times and current popular perception — Pyongyang citizens openly defy government officials who are responsible for ensuring obedience to the rules set by the government. Only those in the countryside represent the type of highly oppressed and deeply indoctrinated citizens that the outside world, and perhaps B.R. Myers, believes is most able-bodied persons. In a city like Pyongyang, Communism and the military first politics, as leading-ideologies, are dead. Joo believes that despite the “layer upon layer” of surveillance, loyalty to the party — and thus an acknowledgment of the state’s legitimacy — is limited throughout the state.

Green, more or less, agreed with Joo’s analysis, adding the important caveat that “Kim Jong-un will be judged based on his ability to improve the material well-being of North Koreans” – a notion “Joo’s Pyongyang citizen” would certainly second. Green’s corroboration of Joo’s central argument is hinted at, between the lines, in his latest Sino-NK article on the Namyang “border market” opening. Although Green is hesitant to come out and say that “Deng has entered the building,” he is explicit in stating that given the current conditions of North Korea’s economy, the need to keep the 2-3 million residents of Pyongyang and the military elites happy will require that North Korea “open up a little.”

Conclusion: A Debate Again in Bloom | Viewed together, Joo and Green’s analyses further mitigates Myers’ position that loyalty is secured through an unwavering commitment to the military first politics and Lankov’s insistence that North Korea’s vulnerable moral legitimacy precludes the elites from enacting reform. It also substantiates the claims made by Church and Wit that the military first politics is simply a hallow shell of an ideology that does not accurately reflect the whole truth about what is actually going on inside North Korea. The initial reforms that ran from 2002-2006 may have been snubbed out by Kim Jong-il out of fear that the state was losing too much power over the economy; however, following the devastating effects of the 2009 currency reform, further economic isolation resulting from additional sanctions in 2006, 2010 and 2012, in addition to the multitude of other problems the North’s socialist economy faces, citizens across the country, particular those in Pyongyang, may not care to tightening their “belts” anymore. Kim Jong-un may fell he has to oblige them.

Special Afterword: Myers’ Coup d’Grace? | What would the top Western North Korea Watchers say to each other, regarding “the debate in bloom,” if they sat down together at a roundtable? No such debate has yet occurred, but our friends at Witness to Transformation have reconstructed a “metaphorical match, 12 rounds” including the biggest names covering North Korea, Wit (Church) and Myers included. To get a chorus of views as sharp as a butterfly knife, read “The Joe Robert Memorial 12 Rounder.” This edifying compilation of views, despite its excellence, seems to have gotten buried under the barrage of news following the death of Kim Jong-il three days after the post went live. Although the final verdict is left for the readers to decide, the author finds Wit taking home the belt after these intellectual heavyweights throw their punches.

If your eyes are tired or sore after taking in “the debate,” have SinoNK’s own Adam Cathcart read it to you!

[1] James Church is the pseudonym for Bob Carlin. The name James Church is used throughout this essay, in honor of his literary accomplishments.

[2] Joo Seong-ha and Chris Green spoke at the 2012 International Media Conference hosted by the East-West Center at Yonsei University. Their panel, “Cracking the Hermit Kingdom: Covering North Korea in the Digital Age,” took place Sunday, June 24. AP Bureau Chief Jean Lee and former CNN Beijing Bureau Chief Mike Chinoy also sat on the panel. (click the link for the audio file)


  1. I can see Myer’s and Lankov’s point, re legitimizing the South by reforming the North – but if improving the lives of North Koreans should become (or have become) imperative, the North Korean “elites” may draw some assurance from how China has handled reform.

    It has been argued through the decades past 1978 that the Chinese leadership would encounter legitimacy problems if they weren’t able to come up with some particularly Chinese ideology, something people could identify with. It has also been argued that Chinese people might resent development patterns that would be merely “foreign”. German sinologist Wolfgang Bauer was one of them.

    I’m not suggesting that the CCP has been able to offer the Chinese something very positive or constructive, but it has, in recent years, been able to harp on mortifications which have long been there, to an extent which is obviously hard to quantify. “Ordinary” Chinese people are much more inclined to become angry when facing foreign “advice”, than what they were in the early 1990s. My guess is that they were insecure when they were rather open to foreign ideas, and that they are more proud of recent achievements – and still insecure. Hence the openness in previous decades (fenqings would refer to that openness as “worship of foreign concepts”), and the comparatively high degree of anti-foreign resentment now. But openness never went without saying, and insecurity is the result of a self-perception that has always acted on the assumption that there is nothing like China.

    If I were a cynic, I’d just recommend a similar formula to the North Korean dictators: reform, but koreanize it – if not in substance, so at least by your rhetoric. Paint the Southern political class as lackeys to the barbarians, and keep banging about on how your market economy /state capitalism is different, i. e. truly Korean.

    That, of course, only if people simply won’t put up with the current status any more, and if the “workers’ party” expects serious trouble from maintaining it.

    And all that said, I don’t know a great deal about North Korea.

  2. The debate seems to miss the points. North Korea “opening up a little” is not exactly “creeping Dengism.” And songun is less an ideology than an existential strategy of regime survival. Further, the gap between North Korea and South Korea, which is now obvious to all, is also not going to undue the regime, as soon as North Koreans figure out exactly by how much the gap exists.

    More than these, the stumbling block to economic reform is the interwoven trinity of the Kim cult, juche and the totalitarian police state, a Gordian Knot of sorts – which has been developed in the unique North Korea setting.

    Due to this, at best, it appears that North Korea is attempting a top-down reform short of privatization and broad based political economic reform. That is, it will try to use the state organizations – from the military, provincial governments, to the party to create state enterprises that work with foreign enterprises – mainly Chinese for now – to develop SEZs and major domestic industries.

    Due to this, broad based economic reforms will be delayed because true reform requires some amount of political reforms, and political liberalization is the only way to untie the Gordian Knot. Put another way – the regime fears broad based bottom up economic development and is afraid to embark on the requisite limited political reforms required to seriously pursue broad based reform – for fear of losing their primary control apparatus – that trinity of the Kim cult, juche, and the totalitarian police state.

    It is possible to finesse broad based economic and political reforms and yet maintain both the regime and moderated elements of the trinity, but the North Korean leadership appears to be at a loss on how to do it for now.

  3. The recent changes to North Korea’s constitution gave credit to Kim Jong-il for being the leader who raised North Korea to the level of “nuclear-possessing state” built on military-first politics with the end goal of making the state “strong and prosperous.” If Kim Jong-un achieves economic growth, throughout the process, and sometime near the end of his reign (if his reign lasts that long), the North Korean propaganda machine would have little problem attributing the great success of the North Korean economy to the brave and virtuous leadership of KJU. How much–if any–focus is placed on military-first politics is debatable.

  4. The type of broad based economic reform you speak of comes in the form of “shock therapy” does it not? Even for many countries that did not have societies as “tightly wound” as North Korea’s (viz. Cumings’ description of the concentric circles emanating from the Great General) did not fare so well following broad based political and economic reforms.

    In any case, the “debate” is more about the degree to which songun drives decision-making in post-Kim Jong-il North Korea. Some would say its influence has subsided, whilst others would say it was never really the principle through which North Korea should be understood.

    Whether “opening a little” is “creeping Dengism” is certainly up for debate. Does one border market at Namyang or further development of Rason indicate a broader trend towards economic reform? Perhaps. Perhaps not. However, it should be recalled that the implementation of the two-track system in China was a small step that eventually lead to the market “growing out of the plan.”