Pyongyang Rising

Will 2012 be the year that North Korea ceases being a nation in decline?
October 7th, 2011
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It’s hard to imagine that Kim Jong-il didn’t grin when his train pulled into Beijing this May. The visit to China, his third in two years[1], took many in the West by surprise. Kim has always been a canny operator, and should serve as a living reminder to the West of the potency of Sun Tzu’s warning that “if you do not know your enemies you will be imperilled in every single battle”. Amongst Western analysts and their South Korean counterparts there exists a consistent –and complacent- tendency to maintain that North Korea is in a state of terminal decline.[2] Recent trends and events have provided ample evidence to suggest that this relatively simple and eminently cost-effective approach will not be as effective as was once assumed. North Korea is reversing its fortunes, rebuilding its economy and repairing relations.  It looks set to become more stable than in any time in recent years.

Those who closely monitor Korean affairs will be aware of Pyongyang’s desire to change its fortunes. The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) declared to the world that North Korea would embark upon an economic and social campaign that would, by 2012, transform it into a ‘great and prosperous nation’[3]. The symbolic significance of the year shouldn’t be underestimated; 2012 is the 100th anniversary of the regime’s founder, Kim Il Sung’s birth, the 70th birthday of its current leader, Kim Jong-il, and the 30th birthday of the heir-apparent, Kim Jong Un. In a state which should be seen less as a Communist stronghold, and more as a militant theocracy, the importance of these almost spiritual dates should not be underestimated; Pyongyang intends 2012 to be marked not just by military parades but a real reversal in fortunes.

There have already been signs of economic progress. According to recent publications, the North Korean Government intends 2012 to be the year in which the first DPRK light water nuclear reactor is made operational[4]. It will also see the showcasing of a renewed Mansudae district, replete with the latest architecture.[5] Significant steps have been taken to realise these goals: there has been a recent cleaning up of Pyongyang and a large scale rebuilding campaign, as well as a concerted effort to inject new vigour into North Korea’s infamously weak agriculture – in 2009 there was a 150-day labour campaign, followed by a second 100-day campaign.[6] The Ryugyong Hotel in the middle of Pyongyang, unfinished for over two decades, has been given a facelift. [7] There was also a major house building campaign, the result of which was supposed to have been the building of a further 100,000 new houses. However, the plan was scrapped, and the exact number of houses successfully completed remains unconfirmed.[8] However, the seriousness and scale of the proposed project demonstrates the enormity of Pyongyang’s 2012 goal.

There are of course doubts as to the veracity of these claims, many of the figures and details originated from the KCNA.  But what is certain is that Pyongyang has been ‘spruced up’ considerably in the last year or two.

Photographic evidence shows how much brighter the city is by night and reports from those who have visited the capital suggest that it seems more stable and prosperous than before. While other cities haven’t seen similar investment, there have still been signs of recovery; NK News reported earlier this year that the factories are active in Chongjin and the rail infrastructure is working well. Even if not all parts of North Korea are enjoying the investment that Pyongyang is, economic decay in other regions seems, at the very least, to have been stalled.

North Korea’s foreign policy has also improved in the last year alone. Kim Jong-il ’s three successful visits to China in the last two years seem to indicate a stronger bond between Pyongyang and Beijing than the 2010 WikiLeaks cable might have suggested. Relations with the other traditional ally, Russia, have also recently improved, with Pyongyang seeming closer than ever to confirming a major trans-Korean pipeline gambit which could generate $500m a year in  transit fees.[9] There is also a strong possibility that there could be a future electricity deal with the Russians, bolstering the North’s failing power grid and industries. Medvedev made no mention of Pyongyang’s $11bn debt to Russia, seemingly suggesting that Moscow is willing to offer North Korea much needed breathing space to give it a chance to rebuild its economy.[10]

It’s not just Russia which is reducing pressure on Pyongyang: relief is also coming from the most unexpected quarters. In a move which is decidedly at odds with the Obama administration’s hitherto commitment to sanctions,[11] Robert King, the US special envoy for North Korea, is believed to have recently tried to persuade South Korean leaders to send food aid to the North.[12] There are also indications that the President of South Korea Lee Myung Bak may be relaxing his hardline approach to the North. He has just made a former ambassador to China South Korea’s unification minister. This new Minister has already said that he wants ‘flexible’ relations between North and South.[13] North Korea is being given much needed breathing room to rebuild its economic infrastructure. At the very least, distributing food to the North will strengthen the army, and particularly its elite forces, who, as commentators have noted, have been going hungry for several years. [14]

2012 combines a changing international climate with a renewed determination from Pyongyang to reassert itself; perhaps as much internally as externally. For the first time in many years, North Korea may be able to escape from a number of economic traps which, combined with a more liberal approach to aid from the international community, may see the situation on the Korean peninsula change dramatically. Recent talks regarding a gas pipeline seem to have echoed old, empty rhetoric- but this time it seems North Korea might be serious. If the pipeline is successful, it could mean a massive increase in revenue- or so the KCNA claims. This isn’t to say that North Korea is out of danger: there is still a great deal of evidence to suggest that North Korea will continue to face numerous threats to its survival: should the succession be anything other than smooth, it might precipitate a crisis of sufficient magnitude to bring about the end of the regime.

There is a chance that 2012 will represent the Renaissance of North Korea. For the first time in years the North has the necessary international climate to bolster its crumbling foundations, strengthen its fragile economy and cement old friendships. The available evidence so far suggests that Pyongyang has seized this opportunity and may well defy the expectations of our analysts. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised; after all, we’ve been told that North Korea has been in its death throes for the last two decades. Next year Pyongyang may defy expectations once more by not only surviving, but also thriving. At the very least we shouldn’t mistake our assumptions as facts; North Korea might confound us yet.


[1] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-13536931

[5] http://www.korea-dpr.com/kfa2012/kfa-delegation-apr-2012.pdf

[6] http://asiafoundation.org/resources/pdfs/CUSKPNewsletter111.pdf

[7] http://www.korea-dpr.com/kfa2012/kfa-delegation-apr-2012.pdf

[12] http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Asia-Pacific/2011/0919/North-Korea-envoy-ties-food-aid-to-human-rights

[13] http://english.peopledaily.com.cn/90777/7585248.html

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Alec Hadman



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