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JH Ahn was an NK News contributor based in Seoul. He previously worked as an interpreter for United States Forces Korea.
Researchers on Thursday warned that “wishful thinking on the fall of North Korea” would becloud the process of making pragmatic inter-Korean policies.
The Institute for National Security Strategy (INSS) held a conference on Thursday looking back at the 4th year of North Korea under the rule of Kim Jong Un. There, they spoke of recent economic gains in the North which they say make its collapse unlikely for now.
“Raise your hand if you think the North Korean economy got better over the last four years,” said Cho Dong-ho, the professor from Ewha Women’s University.
“Many of you have raised your hands and agreed that the North Korean economy got better over time, but for the South Korean government, ruling party and conservatives, the North Korean economy ‘must’ get worse because they have been pushing May 24 Measures.”
Cho explained that today’s North Korean economy is tangled with both positive and negative sides, with mix of a market economy and socialist economy, raising the need for policymakers to be mindful in analyzing its complex structures of North Korean economy.
“The Bank of Korea’s data tells me that the North Korean economy has been growing around 1 percent every year, but I don’t believe in it.”
Cho said the rate of economic growth may be as high as 5 percent.
“The Bank of Korea used the old socialist economic model to analyze today’s North Korean economy. But North Korea has more than 400 markets and the numbers are growing every year.”
Cho claimed that practically “everyone” in North Korea is tied to the market economy in one way or another.
“Data from Ministry of Unification shows that 97 percent of North Koreans from 2011 to 2013 have bought goods from markets, and 25 percent of North Koreans from the same period have experienced selling something at the market too,” said Cho.
“Also, trade between China and North Korea has continued to increase over the years and the top two imports from China were energy and machinery. Those are both part of production goods to be used to increase the country’s wealth.”
Cho said that Kim Jong Un will focus more on the growth of the economy in 2016 to stabilize support from the common people.
“Leaders have to gain stability in both politics and economy. Politics is a tool that ensures loyalty from government officials, but the economy is the tool that does the same for the common people.”
Lee Woo-young, professor at the University of North Korean Studies also warned of the danger of “wishful thinking.”
“Back in the ’90s when I was in the national policy research center, we were bashed by the government, press and everyone else for announcing that North Korea would not fall to ruins,” said Lee.
“This is the problem: Making policies based on the assumption of North Korea’s fall will only blur policymakers’ minds. Such policies, made under false assumptions might be good for government propaganda, but are harmful in the long term.”
As a sociologist researching North Korean culture, Lee found out that North Korean and South Korean societies have something in common.
“The two countries are both heading towards extreme polarization,” he continued.
“Of course the quantity and quality of how the polarization is taking place might be different, but the blooming market economy in North Korea is turning the country into one following the law of the jungle, where the weak are eaten by the strong and where one can no longer be protected by the socialist system.”
Unlike many optimistic North Korean watchers, Lee shared his doubts as to whether recent developments in North Korea would help the process of democratization, similar to what happened in Ukraine in late 2004-early 2005.
“Some say that the increased use of cellphones would automatically bring the Orange Revolution. But you have to know that digital phones are one of easiest and most cost efficient ways to control the people. Now with 3 million cellphones, North Korea can hear and read what their people are doing with their phones.”
“Policymakers always have to see the both sides of social changes, no matter how positive or negative it might look,” said Lee.
Featured image: JH AHN