6.28 Back on the Docket?: Economic “Improvement” Hints Return

By | May 13, 2013 | No Comments

Truth, Reality, Perception, and North Korea.  G'head, which one's which?

Truth, reality, perception and North Korea. Which one’s which?

In early summer last year, anecdotal evidence from the DPRK suggested that the fledgling Kim Jong-un government was preparing to roll out a new economic policy, one that was never going to solve the country’s problems but was still deemed broad enough in scope to categorize alongside the “reforms” of July 1, 2002 (7.1경제관리개선조치). Even the officially sanctioned international media presence in Pyongyang was being shown around a farm in Sariwon by mid-September, while the best collection of inside source articles on the subject is still available at Daily NK here.

However, by October the trickle of information had dried up, and nothing was happening. Or, rather, nothing visible to the outside observer (or sources inside the country, for that matter). This incited a number of explanations, one among which was that the People’s Army (조선인민군) had objected to the liberating steps, implying that overall policy control remained in the hands of hardline conservatives with big hats.

Yet, the Pyongyang elite’s natural proclivity for baby steps (permanent revolution is but a rhetorical means of justifying power retention, rather than a policy reality), plus a brief look at the agricultural calendar suggested at least the possibility of an alternate explanation.

First and foremost, given its alleged aim of remodelling incentive structures in the agricultural and industrial sectors so as to raise production, the 6.28 Policy (6.28방침), as it is/was/may again be known, was surely not intended for nationwide implementation in full within the three-month window cited by inside sources (some of whom rashly declared that it would occur on October 1).

In addition, July and August are no time to be implementing substantive agricultural management changes, one might argue, given that they lie in the middle of the farming season. Moreover, in the event that such measures were to be introduced in mid-summer, one might imagine it would make more sense to do so in a piecemeal manner in carefully chosen experimental zones (a concept that was alluded to by some sources at the time).

Well, cometh Pak Pong-ju, so cometh some new anecdotal data points, this time from the official side of the tracks. On May 10, Choson Sinbo (조선신보), the pro-North Korea “organizational bulletin” (기관지) published by Chongryon (재일본조선인총연합회) in Japan, released an article in which some regime officials asserted that research into economic improvements has in fact been ongoing since last year, and that experimental changes are being implemented, observed, and reviewed on a rolling basis.

사진! 최고령도자의 관심속에 내각과 생산현장이 긴밀히 련계 “우리 식의 경제관리방법” 연구완성을 “Under the Gaze of the Supreme Leader, the Cabinet and Producers Work Closely” “Research into <> Complete” | Choson Sinbo screen capture

Cabinet and producers, working together… May 10, 2013 | Choson Sinbo screen capture

For those who felt hope at the elevation of alleged reformer Pak to Cabinet Premier (내각 총리) at the end of March, the news may seem to be of great importance. To others, it is surely all part of the same old tired propaganda experience. As ever, multiple interpretations are possible, and probably being encouraged. To wit, some quotations:

1) In Chosun, a proportion of factories, enterprises, and cooperative farms have been experimentally implementing new administrative management measures since last year under the guidance of the Cabinet. On shop floors, these measures are arousing the drive of workers and leading to increased production.

2) The Marshal has been suggesting research tasks to Cabinet officials and scholars, and has also set out the specific direction of their work.

3) Now, the Cabinet is giving guidance by investigating those problems raised on production sites and continuously progressing the work of devising the necessary countermeasures.

4) It is the point of view of scholars and the officials in charge that there are a number of issues related to production plans, pricing and currency circulation that must now be worked out for the completion of the ‘Our-style Economic Management Method,’ in addition to bringing the law and institutions into line with it.

Such statements are encouraging, up to a point. However, two further phrases stick out:

5) The task of completing research into the ‘Our-style Economic Management Method’ by Cabinet officials marks the materialization of General Kim Jong-il’s aim…

…which may imply that the whole thing is simply a ruse to add value to post-Kim Jong-il “legacy politics” (유훈정치). And:

6) The work of improving economic management by sticking to socialist principles and realizing our key interests has been going on in Chosun since 2002…

…which optimists will observe is par for the course in North Korea, a place where reform is only ever “improvement” (개선) and post-liberation history is the one permitted guide to the future. However, it also implies that full borne reform and opening (개혁개방) is as far away as it ever was.

In the end, then, the article leaves more questions than answers. Unlikely as it sounds, is North Korea trying to change? Or is Choson Sinbo simply playing the same game as its grander, more overtly propagandist in-house Workers’ Party cousin, Rodong Sinmun (로동신문)? As ever, only time will tell. Or, equally possible, it might not.

Blog by: Christopher Green

No Comments

  1. Solid piece, Chris.

    This also recalls one of the lines from KJU’s new year’s address which struck me:
    “We should hold fast to the socialist economic system of our own style, steadily improve and perfect the methods of economic management on the principle of encouraging the working masses to fulfil their responsibility and role befitting the masters of production, and generalize on an extensive scale the good experiences gained at several units.”
    “우리는 우리 식 사회주의경제제도를 확고히 고수하고 근로인민대중이 생산활동에서 주인으로서의 책임과 역할을 다하도록 하는 원칙에서 경제관리방법을 끊임없이 개선하고 완성해나가며 여러 단위에서 창조된 좋은 경험들을 널리 일반화하도록 하여야 하겠습니다.”

    Ignore the hackneyed filler in the start, the significant part is the last line (“generalize on an extensive scale the good experiences gained at several units / 여러 단위에서 창조된 좋은 경험들을 널리 일반화하도록 하여야 하겠습니다.”) which basically seems to be KJU legitimizing – in a new year’s address no less – the strategy of experimenting with different model(s) in a few local areas and then rolling out “good experiences” to broader areas. This strategy is perfectly sensible if you are risk averse yourself and also have to overcome internal resistance from party poopers.

    The key questions that seem to flow from this at the moment are how much governance innovation (or in PY-speak, “experimentation with new administrative management measures”) will be tolerated, and how quickly change will be allowed to spread across the country.


  2. That is of course one of the key questions, but there are others, not least the degree to which the government will allow the fundamental, abundantly clear limitations of its system to change. There needs to be a seismic priority shift, in other words.

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