It has been four years since Kim Jong Un
assumed leadership in North Korea. There are still questions as to whether he
has solidified his power, but what we should turn our eyes to is where his
philosophy and direction of governance are headed. Looking at it in broad
brushstrokes, it appears he could go down one lane or the other: adopting the
policy of pragmatism, or holding on to the Juche philosophy. Adherence to Juche
means using Kim Il Sung’s philosophy as the basis and highest of all values,
and this practice continued on through Kim Jong Il’s reign.
In that sense, the North has never once
been able to walk down the line of pragmatism, and it likely assumed that doing
so would endanger not only the leadership but the state system as well. This is
why it is unable to accept China’s ‘socialist market economy’ model. However,
it is unclear whether this is a decision coming from the leader himself or the
power elites that support him. I believe it is the latter, and that those in
the upper echelons remain much more conservative than the highest in power.
Under absolute leadership, those in
positions of power are the greatest beneficiaries. Those surrounding the leader
are typically even more conservative than the leader, and they want to maintain
status quo by bringing forth the risks behind change or blinding the leader’s
vision in order to preserve their power across generations. In comparison,
leaders want to keep their absolute status, but they also want to build up
great legacies and hope to further solidify their grip on power through those
achievements. Both Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il had shown sporadic movements of
reform and opening up society while solidifying their power, even though they
kept an iron grip on their leadership.
Kim Il Sung focused greatly on building up
a stable socialist economic system during his reign, but in the early 1980s,
when the limitations of this started to become visible, he started making his
first steps toward opening up the economy through measures such as
‘joint-investment (with foreign capital)’ and ‘Khozraschyot’ (planned running
of an economic unit from the Soviet Union) among others. These efforts didn’t
produce results of any significance, but the move does come with its own
importance in the sense that it shows recognition of the limits within the
original social economic model based on the spirit of providing for oneself.
The task of reviewing and assessing ways of opening up the economy was then
passed on to the successor Kim Jong Il.
Following three years of rule in accordance
to his father’s leadership, Kim Jong Il in 1997 assumed leadership as the
Workers’ Party General Secretary and rolled out his own style of leadership in
the country. At this time, what I focused on greatly was where his state
strategy would be headed. Especially in 2001, when he visited Shanghai in China
he commented the city had ‘undergone an earth-shattering transformation’ and
assessed that this was due to the communist party’s reform measures.
why he was able to make this evaluation was because he had visited Shanghai
back in 1983 before it was developed, and the changes that he saw in 2001 would
have been sufficient to warrant this response. During his 2001 visit to
China, Kim Jong Il showed some interesting traits: he went to Shanghai first
without going through Beijing, and he was accompanied by key members in power
across the Party, government, and military.
The takeway from this trip is embodied in the 2002 decision to designate Sinuiju as a special economic zone. In 2004
and 2006, he visited China again, and during his 2006 trip, Kim said “The
memory from five years ago of seeing Shanghai’s dramatic transformation is
still vivid in my head, and this time we’re looking at various special economic
zones that have contributed greatly to China’s unique socialist modernization
model. This time, he visited without Party and military key elites and instead
with key figures related to the economy. Aside from Senior Vice Minister of
Foreign Affairs Kang Sok Ju, the members were the ‘brains of the economy’ such
as Premier of the Cabinet Pak Pong Ju, director Pak Nam Ki, Ri Kwang Ho from
the Workers’ Party, and Vice-Premier Ro Tu Chol.
Based on his underlying intentions that
were expressed during the trip, the author interpreted Kim Jong Il’s
state policy as being headed for market open and reforms. However, these
expectations were mercilessly crushed by his ‘songun’ policy [“military first”
or “primacy of the army”]. In January of 2004, the North put forth an ‘all-out
songun ideology campaign’ signaling it would revert back to its conventional Juche
movement. The primary reason behind this was due to Kim Jong Il’s lack of
confidence in building up his own leadership that would be tantamount to Kim Il
Sung’s, but structural reasons also seem to have played into this change.
Partisan powers that made up the backbone of military elders at the time were
reluctant on reforms and opening up the country.
Kim Jong Il likely decided it would be
safer to center his leadership on the power of the elders, which is why he
sought to integrate the development of nuclear weapons and missiles with the
realization of his policy of building a ‘strong and prosperous nation’. He
believed this would be a safer option, as he would be able to set out a new
vision for the public, while leaning on Kim Il Sung’s leadership legacy and
senior officials in the military for support instead of cultivating his own
style of rule. Putting the military at the forefront took on an extreme form under
Kim Jong Il. He encourage members of society and the public to study the
culture of the military and adopted this as the core value of his leadership as
well. This is in stark contrast to his initial exploration of reform and market
opening in the early stages of his reign.
The reform policy Kim Jong Il had initially
considered was lost without gaining any traction. One of the key reasons for this being the resistance from power elites backed by the
military. In order for absolute power to maintain stability while receiving
support from the public, new blood must be pumped into the circle of power
elites. The newly recruited elites must not be from the political circles but
technocrats with expertise in the economy, public administration, and science
and technology. But in the North, instead of supplying new talent, power elites
have been more keen on hereditary succession to ensure they can maintain their
grip on power.
Therefore, if you get a close look at the
new power elites that have climbed up the ranks, they have mostly benefited
from the fame of their fathers or grandfathers. On top of that, as Kim Jong Il
was more than accepting of this and made efforts to embrace this, many of the
existing power elites came to wield greater influence. In the North, while it
may be possible for technocrats to ascend in status and ranks, it is near to
impossible for them to actually join the group of influential leaders. During
Kim Il Sung’s and Kim Jong Il’s respective eras, albeit in limited nature, some
reform measures were introduced and pushed forward, but the reason why this
abruptly came to an end along with the purge of technocrats involved is because
of opposition from the power elites. In the name of ‘security for the
leadership’, these officials would have argued against reforms, citing
significant risks stemming from political and social confusion.
Does this mean reforms and opening up the
country is a done deal? I believe there is a very high possibility that the new
leader Kim Jong Un will actually implement changes. First, his style of
leadership suggests he is making great efforts to build up his own charisma.
Rather than modeling after his father, he is going after the leadership
approach of his grandfather, and this indicates Jong Un himself is confident
that he has the charismatic leadership of Kim Il Sung. He is not shy to deliver
official speeches, and he is eager to have images of himself mingling with
people out in the public eye.
He is also willing to let it be known that he has
enough confidence to rule the country with an iron fist. We have already seen
the merciless eradication of anyone who has the potential of challenging his
leadership regardless of age and family ties. In order to secure his base of
leadership, he is not relying on any other hidden source of power but instead
attempting to transcend all conditions and exert that influence himself.
Based on knowledge made available so far,
it is unclear as to what groups of people have actual power within the leadership.
This is also more similar to the model of leadership seen under Kim Il Sung
rather than Kim Jong Il. If this successfully takes root, it would make it much
easier to push forward with reforms. Under a weak platform of power, not only
must you rely on others behind the scenes pulling the strings, you also lack
vision and the willingness to pursue any kind of vision you may have as a
As of now, Kim Jong Un’s state vision has not yet been made clear, due
to the fact that he is at the stage of suspended operations. In other words, he
will first build up a solid foundation for his leadership first and then move
on to establish his own state vision.
Kim Jong Un’s step away from songun policy
and toward reinforcing the Workers’ Party is also a good sign that he may push
forward with reforms. As all of these changes unfold comes news that he will
hold the 7th Party Congress in May. This being the first Party Congress in 36
years, it will be a big event that leaves a mark on North Korea’s political history.
As a country that strives for socialist values, the state’s policies should
descend from decision-making system that reaches its height at the
From the late years of Kim Il Sung’s rule, that structure
started to disintegrate and the country had been operating on a distorted
system almost as if it is under a state of emergency. Under Kim Jong Il’s
leadership, that abnormal state of rule took an even greater turn and became
similar to governing under martial law. However, ever since Kim Jong Un came
into power, he has been openly ‘training’ leading military officials and moving
to rebuild the Party organization that had become so weak. It is hard to argue
that the rebuilding and resurrection of the Party will without question lead to
reforms. However, in comparison with the opposite scenario in which songun
drives state policies, the likelihood of reforms and opening up the country
becomes much higher when the Party is properly established.
The reforms in this
case will not be modeled after China’s. North Korea’s reforms will likely
follow approaches that were created under the era of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong
Il. The difference, however, is changes under Kim Jong Un will likely be
broader in scope and more flexible in implementation. This assessment is based
on the approach toward his leadership and his bolder and relatively carefree
personality that has been reflected so far. The framework of the country’s
reform program will likely surface at next year’s 7th Party Congress.
There is another reason why it’s likely Kim
Jong Un will gravitate toward reforms in his state vision: the underlying
currents of change in the country’s economy. The food supply is improving, and
although the changes are small, the economy in general is beginning to gain
more vitality. This energy comes from the expansion of markets and private
exchanges with China. North Korea’s dependence on markets within the economy
has already increased significantly, and state restrictions on these activities
have instead decreased. A report from the U.S.’ Congressional Research Service
issued in July also assessed that the North’s economy is little by little
gaining more traction thanks to market forces. The signs of recovery gradually
being detected within the economy are said to be mainly due to the proliferation of markets.
The 7th Party Congress next year will be a
prime opportunity for Kim Jong Un to officially lay out his state vision. In
the past, when China, the Soviet Union, Vietnam, and other socialist states
adopted reform measures, there were declared through Party Congresses. The fact
that Kim Jong Un announced he will hold a Party convention comes with historic
significance, but the accompanying special impact will far exceed that.
The five years until now have been used for
solidifying his political charisma. Now, the Party Congress will become one of
the greatest political events at which he will announce state strategies
including issues of personnel management. It will include a generation change
within the leading elite, and more importantly, it looks likely to become a
platform for the country’s development strategies. Here, we will no doubt be
able to get a clear look at the framework for the North’s new reform programs.
*Opinions expressed in Guest Columns do not necessarily reflect those of Daily NK.