Recent news leaves little room for doubt: the Kim Jong Un government is far more serious about reforms than I, or indeed most observers expected. According to recent reports, from next year, the North Korean government will implement a set of policies known as the “May 30th Measures.”
In a nutshell, these policies presage the dramatic acceleration of reforms that began with the “June 28th Measures” of 2012. If current reports are to be believed, from next year North Korean farmers will be allowed to keep not 30 percent but 60 percent of their harvest for themselves. In addition, they will be allocated large kitchen plots, measuring 1,000 pyeong (or 3,300 m2), which is unprecedented by North Korean standards. It is assumed that the “small production team,” normally consisting of two households, will become the main production unit in agriculture.
The “June 28th measures” were largely responsible for the record-breaking harvest of 2013, as well as North Korean farmers’ resilience in the face of drought this year, and the new agricultural policy is designed to make most of their success. However, these are not the only changes to set to be implemented in North Korea in the coming year.
(Factory managers) are also to be given the right to manage their workforce as they like, hiring and firing at will
Indeed, the “May 30th Measures” also include policies designed to transform industry. The “director responsibility system,” which has been tested in a few select factories and mines this year, is going to be made universal. Under the new system, North Korean factory managers will be given the right to buy spare parts and raw materials freely, from any suppliers that they deem fit, and sell finished products as they like. They are also to be given the right to manage their workforce as they like, hiring and firing at will. Members of two foreign delegations that recently visited the North have told the present author that their hosts emphasized that, under the new system, factory directors will be no different from a CEO in a market economy, and this seems to be the case.
All this means that we have good reason to expect a significant improvement in the North Korean economy, even though one should not expect a major economic breakthrough comparable to what China experienced in the early 1980s. Of course, the North Korean government faces a number of difficult problems like, say, a grave shortage of investment capital and a highly unfavorable international situation. Nonetheless, there is little doubt that the new system will be very good for North Korea’s people and the country’s economy.
NEITHER CHINA NOR VIETNAM
However, it is quite important to keep in mind what we can and cannot expect from a North Korean-style developmental dictatorship, which is seemingly emerging in Pyongyang at the present time.
To start with, we should not expect a reforming North Korea to be a more liberal place than it is now. In both China and Vietnam, the introduction of markets brought with it a gradual but dramatic relaxation of social control, but one cannot expect the same to happen in North Korea. The major reason is, of course, the existence of the very rich and obscenely successful South Korea nearby. Reforms will mean that people will be more difficult to control and more likely to come into contact with elicit information about the outside world. Thus, in order to prevent a repetition of the 1989 East German revolution, the North Korean government will have to remain highly repressive. While filling the people’s bellies with food, it will have to continue to fill the people’s hearts with fear.
One should also not expect the reforming North to suddenly become willing to surrender its nuclear program. It will still face the dual threat of a possible Western-led humanitarian intervention and a domestic rebellion. The leadership in Pyongyang are fully aware of the sorry fate which befell on the only dictator who agreed to swap his WMD capacity for Western aid and economic assistance, the ghost of Colonel Gaddafi haunts the corridors of power north of the DMZ.
Let us also not get our hopes up about North Korea’s foreign policy. North Korea is unlikely to stop using tension-building exercises (usually mis-termed “provocations”). The latter is indeed a misnomer because the North Korean government is only too aware that their “provocations” do not elicit direct responses. At any rate, in order to keep its people in line, the North Korean government will need to maintain a perception of a plausible external threat, and as a result, the occasional shootout on the DMZ, or mere outbursts of verbal bellicosity by North Korean news anchors and/or editorial writers, will help keep the people sufficiently united and full of national pride.
A measure of prosperity is liable to make people more prone to both dangerous thoughts and heretical talking
Last of all, a reforming North Korea will be less, not more, stable than the ossified and economically moribund North Korea of Kim Jong Il’s era. A measure of prosperity is liable to make people more prone to both dangerous thoughts and heretical talking. On top of that, the withdrawal of the state from economic management will make the people less dependent on the state in their daily lives and thus more likely to question the state. The unavoidable seepage of knowledge about the outside world, South Korea in particular, will further exacerbate the situation. Of course, North Korea’s agitprop workers and secret police personnel will work round the clock to counter the threat, but it remains to be seen how effective they will be.
A BETTER TOMORROW
Nonetheless, the world should see the changes, such as they are, as something to be welcomed and supported. While nuclear armed and occasionally prone to verbal theatrics, North Korea will be less likely to engage in nuclear proliferation, and will probably even keep its tension-building exercises under some limits in order to not scare away all potential investors.
Even if the Kim Jong Un government one day loses control and goes down in flames, a more developed country is likely to be present on the northern half of the Korean Peninsula
For the average North Korean, reforms will be bring a significant improvement in living standards. It will still remain highly unadvisable to express any personal opinions on politics, arts or weather that contradict what is written in the most recent issue of Rodong Sinmun. Nonetheless, for the majority of North Koreans who remain outside of its notorious prison camp system, life will become significantly better. For most North Koreans, starvation is already a thing of the past, but malnutrition still remains a part of their daily life. Reforms will mean not only fuller bellies, but also give North Koreans access to better education and healthcare. The Chinese and Vietnamese experience shows how these things usually pan out.
Even if the Kim Jong Un government one day loses control and goes down in flames, a more developed country is likely to be present on the northern half of the Korean Peninsula. The people who inherit power from the Kim dynasty will likely inherit a country that is in a substantially better position than the Kim dynasty currently finds itself in. Many South Koreans fear unification with present-day North Korea because it is so poor, but a more advanced and wealthier North Korea is likely to be a much smaller headache for Seoul when and if unification comes.
Let us hope that Kim Jong Un does not change his mind and proceeds with his plan to reform the country.
Main picture: Eric Lafforgue
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