Yongusil 24: “Pockets of Efficiency,” Taking a Developmental Approach to North Korea

By | January 17, 2014 | No Comments

The end of 2013 did not augur well for political and institutional North Korea. Its final months brought a moment of existential rupture, great enough, some claimed, to de-legitimise the regime and undermine years of elaborately constructed charismatic authority. Jang Sung-taek’s death, of course, fits well in persistent narratives of North Korean collapse and disintegration (most recently evidenced by Bruce Bennett’s controversial report for the RAND Corporation), as well as conceptions of its institutional structure as chaotic, diffuse and incapable.

However, as is often the case with truisms, the reality of North Korea’s economic (in)capacity and economic and developmental strategy (or lack thereof) is more complicated, a point made by two recent Sino-NK related contributions to the British Association of Korean Studies journal BAKS Papers. The first, Christopher Green and Steven Denney’s article “An Institutional Approach to Economic Reform and Development: Towards a Developmental Understanding of North Korea” builds on analysis undertaken by Peter Evans in his book Embedded Autonomy: States and Industrial Transformation to show that North Korea’s highly distorted development strategy can in principle be unpacked within a wider frame, whereby economic and institutional development is rooted within local bureaucracies as they rise above the low standard of the rest of government. North Korea’s own peculiar institutional manifestation is considered within this frame, bringing into the analysis its Suryong system of leadership and what elite defector Kim Kwang-jin first termed the “Royal Court Economy,” along with the ideological approach known as Songun.

With impressive foresight, Green and Denney connect with some of the more cogent reportage that has followed Jang’s execution. Choe Sang-hun and David Sanger, for example, have argued that one impetus for Jang’s arrest and execution was the necessity felt by institutions and individuals linked to Kim Jong-un and the Kim family to co-opt controlling interests in relatively successful economic and trading institutions. Denney and Green assert that future developmental possibilities for North Korea can be glimpsed here in what Evans (and Choe and Sanger, for that matter) would recognize as “pockets of efficiency” within governing structures. Not everything in North Korea is inefficient or contra rational-legal organization. Some entities, like those once under uncle Jang’s administrative thumb, are seemingly capable of taking care of business and engaging in reinvestment. In the article, Green and Denney use material collected in their interview with Kim Kwang-jin, in addition to his previously published work, to offer a first-hand account of North Korea’s economy and where these pockets of efficiency might lie.

On the other hand, Robert Winstanley-Chesters, in his article “2032 Juche Oriented Environmental Futures,” builds upon previous work focused on North Korea’s historical developmental narratives and their relationships to its landscape and environment.  Examining the place of the environment within the narratives of charismatic authority during the funereal period for Kim Jong-il, Winstanley-Chesters utilizes this charismatic manifestation to build a case for an authentically North Korean future developmental approach based on environmental mitigation and conservation as well as its exploitation. An example of such an approach is then demonstrated through Winstanley-Chesters consideration of the role of North Korea’s commitment to the UNFCCC and CDM process and other environmental strategies under both the governance of Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un and what such strategies might mean for North Korea and its institutions in future in the light of the wider challenges and opportunities presented by climate change and global environmental crisis.

Both these articles serve to extend the realm of reportage and analysis focused on North Korea and its institutional structures, moving on from their current stasis in a seemingly permanent present illustrated by crisis, rupture, and sheer outlandishness to a developmental and institutional future in which this apparently most singular of states and polities might be analyzed and understood through the same economic and institutional prisms as every other sovereign polity and political developmental space. Green and Denney’s an acutely interesting and well grounded, if rather pessimistic, theoretical analysis of North Korea’s current developmental manifestation, while Winstanley-Chesters provides a futurological glimpse into its developmental possibilities.

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  1. Dear Yongusil,
    Kim Jong Un would never have dropped such a bombshell (the Jang execution)unless he had had solid evidence that Jang had been plotting a coup and a military one at that. This was the most serious charge against him and was backed by the ROK’s National Intelligence Agency, which said that Hwang Jang-nyop had told them of the plot when he defected in 1997. Otherwise, Jang would have been quietly removed — on the ground of ill-health or something — and, if need be, equally quietly bumped off on the operating table. The way it was done must have sent the jitters up the army, the geriatric power-holders in Pyongyang and the NK populace at large. Large stakes to play for if Jang had simply been corrupt or wallowed in a decadent life style, one would think.
    BTW An auger is a tool used for boring (perhaps there is a subtle pun here?). The word required is augur, from the Roman practice of divining the future by observing the flight of birds (aves).
    BTW2. Another of your pundits I seem to remember informed us that something “eluded too” when he meant “alluded to.” If he wasn’t one of yours please inform me, and I’ll make a grovelling apology.
    While we’re at it, can you prune the “narrative”s, not to mention the barbarous coinage “narratology.”? It makes SinoNK look like it’s running out of words.
    Yours sincerely,
    Paul White

  2. Thank you Paul White for the complementary copy edit and advice. Wish we could pay you!

  3. Paul,

    Fantastic stuff. Thanks for paying such close attention; it is most welcome. However, if you will permit me the right of reply:

    – We ought not to underestimate the inevitability of the purge of Jang Sung-taek. Ever since Jang emerged as a regent in the 2010-11 period, a number of analysts, most armed with little more than a passing familiarity with the works of Machiavelli, have been awaiting his demise.

    The need for Kim Jong-un to take power from his regents was obvious, then, and in the absence of any other means of so doing, the only way was always going to be at the barrel of a gun (or, if one is prone to ludicrous conspiracy theories, the baying teeth of 120 rabid dogs).

    Additionally, the bit about Hwang Jang-yop telling the NIS of Jang’s plans for a coup has also been quite well debunked.

  4. Dear Mr Denny,
    The word is complimentary, meaning “given free,” “as a courtesy,” not complementary, which means “in addition.” I suppose you should be paying somebody to correct your English, because the readers will assume that if you can’t even get the language right your analysis can’t be trusted.
    Paul White

  5. Thanks for taking the time to point that out, Paul. Sage advice. I’ll consider putting money away for a personal print editor and, more importantly, be sure to not mix up my i’s and e’s in addition to crossing my t’s and dotting my i’s.

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