North Korean Economic Change as Relinquishing of Party Control

The veteran reporter Choe Sang-hun has produced one of the most interesting analyses to follow in the confused aftermath of the non-event that was the North Korean set piece for foreign journalists in mid-April.  It is entitled “As Economy Grows, North Korea’s Control over Society is Tested,” and was published in the New York Times on 30 April 2017.

Apart from quite a bit of detail provided by interviews with recent defectors, the reporter’s core argument is as follows:

But a limited embrace of market forces in what is supposed to be a classless society also is a gamble for Mr. Kim, who in 2013 made economic growth a top policy goal on par with the development of a nuclear arsenal.

Mr. Kim, 33, has promised his long-suffering people that they will never have to “tighten their belts” again. But as he allows private enterprise to expand, he undermines the government’s central argument of socialist superiority over South Korea’s capitalist system.

There are already signs that market forces are weakening the government’s grip on society. Information is seeping in along with foreign goods, eroding the cult of personality surrounding Mr. Kim and his family. And as people support themselves and get what they need outside the state economy, they are less beholden to the authorities.

 Unfortunately, the whole “Kim Jong-un has promised to avoid any further belt-tightening” notion is by no means etched in stone in North Korea’s social compact. The country underwent no fewer than two early Soviet-style speed campaigns last year, and more are probably on the way. Whatever comes out of Kim Jong-un’s mouth or state media about a desire for improved living standards does not prevent the state from taking such extraordinary (or indeed, ordinary) measures like the Stakhanovite campaigns, nor do such statements stop the state from demanding what amounts to corvee labour to construct “monumental edifices” like the Paektusan Youth Hero Dam near the Chinese border.

In a recent interview with New York magazine, Jean Lee returned to a familiar theme that Kim Jong-un had marked a kind of signal change with the way that North Korean leaders related to the population — without recognizing that Kim Il-sung had been arguing for both guns and butter since at least the origin of the Byungjin line in 1961-62, and that North Korean leaders — like all of their counterparts around the socialist world before it collapsed — have always held forward the promise of leisure alongside economic strain.

More to the point, there is also the minor fact that North Korean state media continues to use the “belt-tightening” meme, most recently obliquely complaining to China that the nuclear deterrent had reached maturity under Kim Jong-un’s command:

The DPRK’s nuclear deterrence for self-defence, its army and people built by tightening their belts to defend the sovereignty and right to existence of the nation [自卫性核遏制力是朝鲜军民为捍卫国家和民族主权和生存权而勒紧腰带打造的], is by no means a bargaining chip for getting something.  

Source: Jong Phil, “Are You Good at Dancing to the Tune of Others? / 还好意思随波逐流?,” KCNA, 21 April 2017. Emphasis added.

Nevertheless, Choe Sang-hun is obviously onto something important, just as James Pearson is in his book and Andrei Lankov in some of his more research-driven work. And my colleague Christopher Green has been working on some of the erosions of North Korean monetary sovereignty (if I am phrasing that properly) with respect to the rise of the Chinese yuan.

Secondly, among the things I find to be too often missing in the “markets are eroding control over society” argument is role of mass organizations. In other words, to consider the economy in isolation risks deemphasising the various non-economic means by which Party maintains control.

Primarily, I am referring here less to exclusively coercive organs of public security and more to the KimIlSungist-KimJongIlist Youth League and the Women’s Socialist League. These are institutions built to extend “Party life” and to operate as instruments of social control. (One can read Suzy Kim or Ruth Barraclough on the late 1940s, or consult, as I did in Berlin, the archives of the East German socialist women’s league to gauge how much the women’s league they have changed since inception).

To be clear, those organizations need attention not just for the effective political cohesion or the appearance of it for Kim Jong-un, but also as participants themselves in foreign currency earning. This takes the form of setting up foreign enterprises like restaurants for young workers, and the farming out of DPRK labourers to China (probably with the help of the Socialist Women’s League, since in most cases in China the labour is female). My assumption is  Justin Hastings deals with this in his intriguing new book.

In other words, if my hypothesis is correct, marketization can strengthen the bottom line and therefore the control of mass organizations, to the extent they participate in market economics. The high placement of youth work in the portfolio of officials like Choe Ryong Have and Jon Yong-nam indicates that they are no strangers to managing currency operations even as they maintain heavy political propaganda for their charges.

Linked here is the common assumption that exposure to black or official markets, along with perhaps some exposure to Western or South Korean media operations, immediately and irrevocably wash away North Korean anti-imperialist education. The articles further implicitly argue that state propaganda has no effective means of contextualizing or critiquing capitalism of either the US, South Korean, or Chinese varieties. As Green and Denney have shown, North Korean state organizations have in fact made very good use of the “double defectors” to craft a rational response to South Korean capitalism — such counterpropaganda is far from bulletproof, but it exists.

Finally, for a more fleshed-out counterargument to the shattering implications of the Choe Sang-hun article and others in the same pattern, see Adam Cathcart, Christopher Green and Steven Denney,“How Authoritarian Regimes Maintain Domain Consensus: North Korean Information Strategies in the Kim Jong-un Era,” Review of Korean Studies, co-authored with  Vol. 17, No. 2 (December) 145–178.

Image via Myanmar Business Today / Reuters, May 2013. 

One thought on “North Korean Economic Change as Relinquishing of Party Control

  1. It is also a major blow to the “Kim Jong-un as an economy-first developmental dictator (to quote Prof. Delury)” school of thought that Kim Jong-un conducted the fifth nuclear test when the northern provinces were struggling with floods.

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