Last week’s first session of the 14th SPA and a high-level 4th Plenum of the 7th WPK Central Committee were, as usual, marked by a reshuffle of top officials.
While key players in North Korean can be demoted or promoted at pretty much any time, established tradition dictates that it is preferable to use meetings of North Korea’s ceremonial assemblies as venues to declare who is in, who is up, and who is out.
In most cases, such reshuffles, despite being very interesting to media, are of little serious value to North Korea watchers. Too little is known about the key players, and it usually looks like yet another group of faceless officials in greyish suits or medal-overloaded uniforms risen to replace predecessors who look and behave just the same.
But this time the changes seem to be meaningful and, to some extent, decipherable to outsiders.
And, unfortunately, what we can read from the news does not bode well for those who, like this author, have long hoped for a gradual transformation of the North Korean state and society.
It seems that reform-minded forces in the North Korean leadership have suffered a setback (how big, remains to be seen).
While the immediate consequences of this are likely to be minor, in the long run, the recent changes reduce the chances that the “North Korean problem” will not end in a dramatic and bloody climax.
Two major details about the reshuffle were made public at the SPA session. Firstly, Choe Ryong Hae, who for a long time had been seen as Kim Jong Un’s second in command, has been promoted to a number of new positions.
These new appointments, taken together, make Choe arguably one of the most powerful officials in the entire history of Kim family rule in North Korea.
Never before has somebody not a part of the Kim family been able to concentrate so much power in their hands.
Second, Pak Pong Ju, who had served as head of the DPRK Cabinet since 2013, has been replaced. This should not necessarily be read as a fall from grace: the veteran technocrat was rewarded with a new position, as vice-chairman of the WPK Central Committee.
However, it remains to be seen to what extent he will be able to continue to pursue economic policy from these new offices.
Reform-minded forces in the North Korean leadership have suffered a setback
The WPK vice-chairmanship is an important job, to be sure, but only time will tell whether Pak Pong Ju will be able and willing to maintain control over the economic situation in this new capacity.
This is bad. Pak Pong Ju is one of few North Korean top officials who has a known political alignment and is a long-time supporter of the market-oriented economic reforms.
His name is firmly associated with the first attempts to emulate Chinese reforms (albeit, in very modest and partial; way) in Korea, and it is generally agreed that Pak Pong Ju was the mastermind of the 2002 reforms or, at the very least, supported the reformers with his political weight.
He was made the prime minister first time in 2003 when the reform drive reached its height and lost his job in 2007 when Kim Jong Il was disappointed in his initial reform drive.
Pak Pong Ju survived his first failure with little damage, working as a manager in the countryside, and made a comeback in 2010.
In 2013, he was made prime minister again, and his return coincided with another outburst of market-oriented reforms. He presided over and, it is believed, led the massive revival of the North Korean economy which lasted until the impact of the sectoral sanctions began to be felt around 2017.
Little is known about Kim Jae Ryong, his replacement. Until recently he was the party secretary of Jagang province, a major center of military production, little touched by the winds of marketization.
It seems that a person with a life-long and proven commitment to marketization has been replaced by an official who is likely to be a champion of the old-style command economy.
This ties into what we have seen recently: since late 2016 the reform drive which had determined North Korean policy since the beginning of Kim Jong Un’s rule has seemingly receded.
The news is not good
No new reform-oriented rules, laws, or regulations are known to have been introduced since early 2016. The further advancement of industrial reforms has seemingly been halted. In agriculture, there are even signals that some earlier reforms have been partially rolled back – with the predictably negative impact on productivity.
Furthermore, in recent months we have seen reports of occasional crackdowns on private businesses. This is anecdotal evidence, no doubt, but stories come from different sources with alarming frequency.
This is a revival of old patterns: before the rise of Kim Jong Un, campaigns against semi-legal entrepreneurs were a recurrent feature of North Korea’s economic policy.
Once Kim Jong Un took power, he reportedly ordered that rich people be left alone. This policy of tolerance and tacit acceptance has been partially revoked — or so it seems.
So the news is not good. The major problem with the entire North Korean reform program, initiated around 2012 by Kim Jong Un, was its complete dependence on the leader’s good-will.
North Korea is, for all intents and purposes, an absolute monarchy, and all changes could be stopped instantly if the sovereign feels like stopping them.
It’s obvious why the DPRK is reducing the speed of reforms: sectoral sanctions are beginning to have an impact on the economy, and after the failed Hanoi summit it is clear that they are not going to be lifted any time soon.
North Korea will have to survive in a tough environment, and in this situation, supporters of mass mobilization and control are more likely to gain the upper hand.
As it has been predicted many times, tough sanctions and pressure only help the opponents of marketization and political liberalization.
The possible triumph of the hard-liners is, then, likely to have grave consequences for all interested parties, including the North Korean elite itself.
Tough sanctions and pressure only help the opponents of marketization and political liberalization
If North Korea continues to delay reforms, the economic gap between it and its neighbors will keep growing, and the probability of a violent and bloody collapse will increase.
Without market reforms, there will be no economic recovery, and without recovery a “hard landing” for the North Korean regime will be far more difficult to avoid.
And, as we’ve seen in Libya and Syria keep showing us, there is nothing particularly nice about a hard landing.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: KCNA
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