Authenticity of alleged Kim Jong-un’s reform-mindedness

In this Sunday, April 15, 2012 North Korean leader Kim Jong Un delivers a speech during a mass military parade in Kim Il Sung Square to celebrate the centenary of the birth of Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang, North Korea. <AP/Newsis>

North Korea is currently undergoing its third-generation dynastic  succession, and this produced a great deal of speculation about the course North Korea is likely to take under Kim Jong Un’s reign.

Some people saw recent events with a great deal of optimism, and say that Kim Jong-un is a person of the modern world, and, hence, a likely reformer. His lengthy public speech, his willingness to admit the failure of the rocket launch and, above all, his overseas experience are often cited as proofs of his alleged reform-mindedness. The unconfirmed reports of the Japanese media also suggest that behind the closed doors of Pyongyang government offices the young dictator quietly talks about the advantages of the market economy. Therefore, optimists claim, we now might see the dawn of a new bright era, when North Korea will finally jettison its anachronistic Stalinist system of economic management and will embark on a path of reform and openness.

This indeed might be the case, but on the current stage there is a good reason to be skeptical about such optimistic predictions. Unfortunately, the leadership in the North has refused to implement Chinese-style reforms not because the Pyongyang leaders are paranoid and do not see the economic advantages of such policy. Rather, they exercise their non-reformist policy because of peculiar geopolitical situation of North Korea. As Pyongyang leaders understand very well, in their peculiar situation Chinese-style reforms will not bring a windfall for the regime but ultimately its collapse.

Their major problem is the existence of a prosperous competitor state whose population speaks the same language and belongs to the same nation. When the Korean peninsula was divided in 1945-48, the South was an economic backwater; but now the economic gap between the two Koreas is greater than any other economic gap that exists between two countries which border one another. Optimistic estimates put the gap at 1:15, whilst some estimates range as high as 1:40.

Right now, the average North Korean has begun to suspect that the South is doing well. For decades, the North Korean public was told of the hell that South Korea was. According to the North Korean media, the South was a land of hunger, despair and indiscriminate terror, populated by beggars, starving workers, greedy profiteers, prostitutes and, of course,heroic revolutionaries. But of late, the spread of South Korean videos (illegal, but still widely watched), combined with large-scale labor migration to China, has meant that the effectiveness of this kind of propaganda has diminished. Still, few North Koreans understand the scale of the economic superiority enjoyed by the South – and those who do are smart enough to keep their suspicions to themselves, since North Korea remains one of the world’s most repressive societies.

Unfortunately for the North Korean elite, Chinese-style reform would not work without political liberalization and significant relaxation of the information control. At present North Koreans are required to have a permit, issued by the police, for any overnight trip outside their area of residence. North Korea remains the only country in the world without mass internet access (the internet can only be used by foreign missions and high-level cadres).  It is a crime to possess a tunable radio set.

Of course, if the North Korean government is to start Chinese style reforms, all this will have to change. Reforms will further expose Northerners to knowledge about the outside world and will severely curtail the government’s ability to control the lives of their people.

It might be argued (and indeed has often been) that the Chinese political elite survived similar relaxation without much trouble, so North Korea’s state should not be too fearful of change. However, this argument misses one crucial factor which makes Korea so different from China. This factor is the existence of ‘another Korea,’ a rich and hence attractive South, whose population speaks the same language and is officially considered a part of the same nation.

No doubt, nowadays the Chinese are perfectly aware of the prosperity enjoyed by the people of the developed countries – like, say, the United States or Germany. However, from their point of view the US, Germany (or, for that matter, South Korea) are foreign countries, populated by people who belong to different nations and speak different languages. Their material prosperity cannot be perceived as evidence of the inefficiency of the current Chinese government. Added to that, China cannot unify with any of these countries: China cannot possibly became the fifty-first state of the USA or a Japanese prefecture.

The situation on the Korean peninsula is different. If North Koreans learn about the true extent of the prosperity of South Korea, this will be seen as proof of the inefficiency of their own state.  Even if reformers manage to set world records in economic growth rates, it will take a couple of decades to close the huge economic gap between the two Koreas. During this time, a reformist regime would be very vulnerable to domestic discontent, especially because North Korea’s reformers can emerge only from the top of the current regime and will hence be held responsible for the ruinous decades of the Kim’s family rule.

Furthermore, common people in the North are likely to presume that if they achieve unification with the South, they will immediately partake in the unimaginable affluence of their South Korean brethren. This is an illusion, of course. Even under the most favorable circumstances, the economic and social gap between the two Koreas will persist for a many years after a possible unification. However the allure of the South will be powerful.

In other worlds, in the peculiar geopolitical situation that North Korea finds itself in, means that economic reforms will not bring instant prosperity. Indeed, by far more likely outcome of such reforms might be a regime collapse.

The Pyongyang elite has good reason to be fearful of their (and their families) future in post-collapse North Korea. Even if these people will not be prosecuted for the human rights abuses of North Korea’s past and present, they will still have little chance of maintaining their currently privileged political and economic status if the North is absorbed in the triumphant South. At best, they will play subaltern roles in the new power structure, whose upper echelons are likely to be dominated by administrators from the South.

However, it seems that the major worry of the elite is for their own physical safety. The top bureaucracy is fearful that if their state were to collapse, they and their family members could either be lynched, executed or face long prison terms.

Therefore, for the two decades of his rule Kim Jong-il has acted on the assumption that imitating Chinese policies would amount to political, and perhaps even political suicide. Unfortunately, this assumption is by no means paranoid. We have good reason to suspect that this assumption will be shared by the emerging new generation of North Korea’s leaders – and, of course, it is shared by Kim Jong-un’s advisers, most of whom once were senior advisers of his father.

There is little doubt that General Kim Jong-un has been briefed on the likely threats posed by reforms. It is very likely that he has taken these warnings seriously. The young dictator might be a decent human being, an admirer of computer gadgets, rock music and cute kittens, but as a ruler he is not too likely to initiate policies which will bring ruin to him, his family and pretty much all the people whom he has come to know in his life.

Of course nothing is certain and one cannot completely rule out Kim Jong-un eventually initiating reform. The youth may recklessly ignore the warnings made by experienced bureaucrats and believe that their country will survive the reforms. They could even be so moved by the suffering of the people of the North. After all, history has shown that many descendants of brutal warlords and Machiavellian aristocrats had surprisingly bleeding hearts.

However, if this were to happen, the North Korean reformers are likely to pay a heavy price for their naivety and/or their idealism. I do not really mind such a turn of events: after all, this will mean a dramatic improvement in the lives of most North Koreans. However, it seems more likely that Kim Jong-un’s North Korea, at least in the first few years of his rule, will not differ that much from the North Korea of his father.

One Response to Authenticity of alleged Kim Jong-un’s reform-mindedness

  1. Pingback: ‘개혁마인드’ 김정은의 미래는? « All « THEAsiaN

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