About the Author
View more articles by Andray Abrahamian
Andray Abrahamian is the 2018-19 Koret Fellow at Stanford University
Long before the Seventh Congress of the Worker’s Party of Korea, Kim Jong Un very clearly sought to associate himself with his grandfather in rhetoric, mannerisms and visual appearance. He has also sought to emphasize economic growth in the way his grandfather did but his father did not. Indeed, his personal brand is very much associated with the economy. Kim Jong Un has also worked to emphasize the DPRK’s military might, in particular its nuclear arsenal, calling this dual track “the Byungjin line.” He’s referenced it several times since the congress opened.
The major question is: Can he develop both the economy and nuclear weapons? To many outside observers this seems like trying to have one’s cake and eat it, too, despite other countries developing both their military and economy simultaneously. The answer, for Pyongyang, lies in how skillfully they manage China and the U.S., especially given that the latter (and increasingly the former) seeks to force the country to choose one or the other.
At this point, it would be helpful to see Byungjin as a form of hedging
At this point, it would be helpful to see Byungjin as a form of hedging. If things go well on the economic front and the leadership feels secure, we may see a tilt toward economic growth. This would necessarily include better business practices, better rules governing business, and greater efficiencies in the market economy. (Kim, unfortunately, did not reference these in his speech over the weekend.) If, however, the leadership feels insecure or that conditions will make economic growth difficult, one has to believe they will have no problem focusing on the military and reiterating the strictness in their society that simultaneously hurts economic growth but provides such security advantages over its enemies.
Kim Jong Un’s grandfather also hedged when he made a shift at the fourth WPK Congress in 1961: He introduced a seven-year economic plan that emphasized light industry and the production of consumer goods to improve quality of life in the DPRK. The first years of the plan were to make sure that heavy industry was able to supply the inputs necessary for light manufactures to take off. This came after two extremely successful economic plans of three years (1954-1956) and five years (1957-1961). Those both reported hitting their targets ahead of schedule.
But he also felt that international conditions compelled a military buildup around the same time. In the 1960s, DPRK military spending shot up, during a period where the U.S. was demonstrating willingness to go to war in another divided Asian country and when political stability in Seoul appeared tenuous. Some estimates suggest that the military’s share of GDP went from 2.6 percent of GDP per year to around 30 percent in just a few years in the mid-1960s.
In 1963 Kim Il Sung said the buildup had the goal of “turning the whole country into a fortress and thus preventing our enemies from venturing to provoke us.”
And indeed, it is hard to argue that the DPRK has not achieved this goal, at least mostly. But it has certainly come at a cost. The seven-year plan lost steam and was extended to 1970, when at the next Worker’s Party Congress Kim himself admitted the price of the military buildup had been high in terms of quality of life. The cultural and economic ramifications persist to this day.
After all, one of the slogans ahead of the Party Congress this year was “let us thoroughly implement our Party’s policy of arming all the people and making the whole country a fortress!”
But another slogan for the Congress is “let the defense industry sector make a positive contribution to building an economic giant and improving the people’s standard of living!”
This one is new, only appearing about a year ago, and hinting at a concept we referenced earlier, and is one with which other countries have been long familiar: military innovations and expenditures can drive economic growth if resources are well-allocated and the government, military, private industry and academia are well-coordinated. In California alone, for example, government grants would drive research at Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Labs, feeding into innovations in aviation and transportation by nearby Lockheed, which would then be turned into products for military bases in-state, elsewhere, and for customers overseas. (Personnel on those bases in California, it should be noted, get paid and then spend money in the local economy, too.)
From Pyongyang’s perspective, their operating environment is extremely hostile
North Korea faces a different reality from California, however. From Pyongyang’s perspective, their operating environment is extremely hostile. Or as Kim put it on Saturday: “the imperialists strained the situation constantly for decades to keep our people from living at peace even for a moment and blocked all the pathways to economic development and existence through all manner of blockade, pressure and sanctions.”
If Kim does want to continue to shift influence and resources away from the military, the previous investments into his nuclear arsenal may pay off, allowing him to argue that other expenditures are less necessary. He will have to keep overseeing competing domestic political concerns over such issues, of course, but he will also have to manage his foreign relations.
For example, China would likely be content to allow the DPRK’s economy to grow through more trade and investment, provided there are no more nuclear or ballistic missile tests. Even the mood in Washington, which has recently been energized against Pyongyang by sanctions and human rights bills, could grow muted if there were an extended quiet period of talking and a moratorium on testing. Would Pyongyang countenance such a period?
After all, their usual inclination is to push back harder against pressure to demonstrate that their willingness to endure crisis and potentially even war is greater than that of their neighbors. Moreover, their testing program indicates a strong will to gain the capacity to strike at U.S. territory and make their enemy feel the threat that they’ve long felt. Finally, thus far they’ve managed to grow their economy while pushing ahead with the nuclear program, perhaps imbuing the sense that they will keep being able to do so.
Assuming the current trajectory holds, other actors will seek to punish North Korea by making economic growth more difficult through unilateral and multilateral means. And even though Kim clearly wants his era to in large part be focused on economic growth, the hedging narrative structure of Byongjin means that the DPRK will be able to buckle down, blame imperialism and endure economic pain for the sake of the country’s military concerns.
They’ve done it before.
All images: Rodong Sinmun