Thursday, April 19, 2012
Is Kim Jong Un Preparing to Become North Korea's Economic Reformer?
When young Kim Jong Un stood before the assembled throngs in Pyongyang on April 15, insisting that come hell or high water he would persist with his father's "military first" policies — even in the wake of a humiliating failed missile launch — the young dictator uttered one sentence that was mostly ignored in the speech's aftermath: "It is the party' steadfast determination to ensure that the people will never have to tighten their belt again, and make sure they enjoy the riches and affluence of socialism to their heart's content.''
Talking about "the affluence of socialism" in today's North Korea is, of course, ludicrous. The economy "Lil Kim" inherited from his father is a disaster. Marcus Noland, the deputy director of the Peterson Institute of International Economics and a close North Korea watcher, estimates that per capita income today is "lower than it was 20 years ago, and by some reckonings is only now attaining the level it achieved in the 1970s." He further notes that since a disastrous currency reform three years ago, inflation for basic goods like rice and coal has been running at about 100%, and on the black market, the North Korean currency has fallen by about the same amount. Aping his father's economic policies, in other words, would be about the stupidest thing Kim Jong Un could do.
The line in the recent speech telling people they d never have to "tighten their belts again'' might have been one signal that Kim Jong Un at some level understands this. And now there may be more evidence that he knows something's got to give in his poor, benighted country. Earlier this week, Japan's Mainichi Shumbun, a Tokyo-based daily, reported that its Beijing correspondent had received documents that purport to be an account of a Jan. 28 meeting Kim had with unidentified Korean Workers' Party officials in Pyongyang. In the written account of the meeting, Jong Un complains that policymakers who might disagree with the grim economic autarky that has prevailed for decades in Pyongyang rarely speak up, because doing so subjects them to criticism that they are "trying to introduce capitalist ways." He ordered, according to the paper, the attendees to "find reconstruction measures suiting the nation through discussion without taboos." The newspaper then quotes what it identifies as a source "within the Korean Workers' Party" saying, "Recently Comrade Kim Jong Un gave the order: 'If there are any excellent methods that we can use, whether they are Chinese methods or from Russia or Japan, implement them.'''
If this story is accurate — TIME has been unable to verify the authenticity of the documents Mainichi obtained — the implications are important for obvious reasons. It may mean that young Jong Un, who spent a few years as a teenager going to school in Switzerland, may be willing to acknowledge the blindingly obvious: that what North Korea has been doing for decades economically doesn't work, and that there are plenty of examples right in the neighborhood — South Korea and China most obviously — who have over the same period gotten a lot of things right economically.
Kim's father, Kim Jong Il, visited China numerous times during his life, and each time journalists would write stories about how the visit surely meant that North Korea would now embark on China style economic reform. But policy analysts in the region as well as former diplomats and intelligence officials say that the late Kim never trusted the Chinese, and did not want to implement policies that would effectively allow North Korea to become an economic appendage to Beijing. If the sentiment and frustration expressed in the Mainichi story are real, it may well be that Jong Un is willing to accede to reality: China is the world's second largest economy and it sits right across the border; increased trade with it as a result of reform policies in Pyongyang would likely enhance living standards in North Korea.
Even in Kim Jong Il's last years, North Korea had taken baby steps toward setting up the sort of special economic zones that kicked off China's growth more than 30 years ago. North Korea has been involved in negotiations with Chinese investors on three separate locations, including building a new container port in Rason in the country's northeastern corner. China earlier this year had rejected a draft law to be applied to the other two special economic zones in which it is interested in investing, apparently worried about, among other things, the remittance of profits. Analysts believe young Jong Un could send a signal that he's not nearly as paranoid as his father about China by getting these deals done.
There have been hints here and there that Jong Un may be much more willing to experiment economically — hints which suggest that the sentiments expressed in the Mainichi documents could be authentic. In an interview in Pyongyang with the Associated Press on Jan. 16, Yang Hyong Sop, vice president of the presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly, said, "Kim Jong Un is focusing on building a knowledge based economy and looking into cases of other countries' economic reform, including China's."
North Korea watcher Cheong Seong-Chang, senior fellow at Seoul's Sejong Institute, says that remark was notable because senior officials in North Korea tend not to speak speculatively about possible policy changes; they only speak publicly, and in particular to the outside world, about things that are already decided. That, if true, would be a hopeful sign that, however much he's following his father's footsteps on military and foreign policy, the young Kim may understand that he's got to break with the past in order to make good on his "no more belt tightening" pledge to the abjectly poor North Korean people.
Source : http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2112567,00.html#ixzz1sXKMLax1