Is Chinese Style Economic Liberalization a Possibility for North Korea?

In fact, the question of whether the current regime can survive or not can be said to come down to whether or not Chinese-style economic liberalization and reform (referred to by the Chinese government as “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics”) can succeed in North Korea. Many people believe that a similar kind of economic development is possible in North Korea, reform which is represented in the North by mild moves such as efforts to make prices and wages realistic, legalization of private business, family-centered farming, and construction of the Kaesong Complex. However, it seems that the reason why people believe that full-scale Chinese-style economic reform is possible is because they do not see that there is a big difference between today’s North Korea and China of the 1970s.

The Chinese model in more detail.

It has been 27 years since China actively began to pursue liberalization and reform. The three people who led the Chinese liberalization for the first ten years or so were Deng Xiaoping, Hu Yaobang, and Zaozyang, who recently died.

China’s reform was a great shock to the world. At the time, the international communist movement was entering very troubled waters. Although Russia and Eastern European countries were officially communist states, their people were disinterested in communist ideology. On the other hand, the percentage of the population enthused by the communist ideology in China was relatively much higher compared to Russia or Eastern European countries; in fact, China had 90% of the total number of the communists in the world at the time. Not only that, the decision to go after economic liberalization was made only few years after the Cultural Revolution; a very intense ideological struggle. It was shocking that such a country was moving ahead with reform.

In fact, “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” was a very bold move at the time, and it required contemplation. At the time, Yugoslavia’s Josip Broz Tito was trying something a little different from standard communist practices, but there had been no attempt to fully accept the market economy in the so-called Eastern Bloc. Not only was China making the first attempt, but it was a shocking idea that had its basis in a very creative thought – the coexistence of communist rule and the market economy. At the time, the core of communism was perceived as “communist dictatorship, a planned economy, and national ownership of the means of production.” These three were seen as inseparable. However, under the condition of maintaining communist rule, the planned economy was to be changed to the market economy, and some fundamental changes were to be made regarding state ownership, but these were something not easily to be accepted by the orthodox logic of the time.

In truth, the outside world did not even understand what “liberalization and reform” really meant. They couldn’t comprehend fundamental economic reform of a communist state, especially by an existing ruling elite, and thus many in the west even thought of it in terms of the overthrow of Krushchev in the 1964 Soviet palace coup. It was 1993, fully 15 years after China started the process, when the world finally started to believe that it had some truth in it and that there was a possibility of success.

There are many people who still think of Chinese liberalization and reform as a simple matter, and believe any country can successfully open up like China did. However, this is a misunderstanding. From the end of the 1970s, there were about 50 to 60 communist or quasi-communist countries in existence (mostly African states), but only China and Vietnam succeeded in liberalization and reform. There are states that collapsed in the process of or for denying liberalization, and there are some that pursued liberalization for many years but failed to make any progress, and still more, including North Korea, tried to keep their regimes closed. In any case, Chinese style liberalization and reform was a very difficult task, which required political stability and capable leadership if it were to have a hope of success.

Chinese liberalization and reform succeeded. Why?

First, the condition that communism and international communist dignity presided and were respected. In other words, the nation was in a condition where it was less affected by political ideological waves.

Second, the high status of the Chinese Communists in particular. Although many Chinese communists experienced a great amount of difficulty and suffered defamation during the Cultural Revolution, they still maintained a high degree of dignity.

Third, the atmosphere was one which allowed things to be determined and decided by the Chinese Communist Party (and decisions respected thereafter). Although politics seemed to be in confusion, there was a strong belief that if there was any decision made by the Communist Party, it had to be supported and followed. If such sentiment had not existed, then it would have been difficult to object and overrule the arguments of Premier of the People’s Republic of China and Chairman of the Communist Party of China Hua Guofeng during the Party Congress at the death of the 1970s.

In fact, Hua Guofeng also contributed considerably to Chinese liberalization and reform. After Mao Zedong died, Hua made the decision to get rid of the Gang of Four, thus he contributed much to the first step China made towards change. Furthermore, even though the Party Congress of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China decided on a path of liberalization and reform, and his line was beaten, Hua Guofeng did not conspire to cling to power like Mao Zedong or the Gang of Four had done, but admitted his loss, submitted and accepted the transfer of power to Deng Xiao Ping.. In truth, he was much younger than Deng and had relatively less experience in politics. While Deng Xiao Ping had held important positions in the Communist Party since his twenties and worked as one of the core members of the Party for fifty years, it was only few years that Hua Guofeng had enjoyed a position as one of the core members of the Politburo. While Deng Xiao Ping had an expansive base of connections among the Communist Party cadres, Hua Guofeng had rather a weak one. For this reason alone, some people say Hua Guofeng’s defeat was somewhat to be expected.

Nevertheless, Hua Guofeng was the person who held the positions of President and chief of the Party. Although he could have easily suppressed dissent, or limited the activities of the main middle status cadres on Deng Xiao Ping’s side so as to move the decision in his favor, he did not use any such vulgar methods. Furthermore, even after the decision of the Party Congress of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China was made, it was still possible for him to make the decision an illegitimate one or crush those who had opposed him, but he did not. Rather, he contributed to the stable management of the Communist Party and the state in the difficult times, so ultimately he contributed a lot to liberalization and reform, not to mention continuity. This could be due to Hua Guofeng’s noble character, but it was also a demonstration of the general mood; that the Party’s decisions must be followed, and that one must be loyal to the Party.

Fourth, the moral superiority of the leaders of the liberalization and reform movement. The biggest Achilles heel in modern Chinese history is the Cultural Revolution. As an indirect influence of the Cultural Revolution, as many as thirty million people died, and a wide range of people, especially political, economic and cultural cadres were persecuted and thus involuntarily could not fulfill their roles. Most businesses did not function properly and the entire national economy was in chaos, which caused a huge economic regression. Schools of all levels closed down for a long time, which created a big intelligence gap. The biggest error of modern Chinese history and the Chinese Communist Party is, then, the Cultural Revolution. However, the leaders who led liberalization and reform, Deng Xiao Ping, Hu Yaobang, and Zaozyang, were not responsible for the revolution, actually they were ones who were persecuted during the incident. This kind of moral superiority, along with the apparent urgency of the task, became important stimuli for the pursuance of liberalization and reform.

Fifth, the international environment was favorable to China. At the end of the 70s, as part of its intention to isolate the Soviet Union, the US put much effort into bringing China onto the Western side, and many Western countries agreed with American policy. Many Western media wrote positively about China, while China did not make hostile statements about the Western countries. Western countries incorporated China into international foreign relations. At the same time, they did not pressure China to hasten its liberalization process. It was only eleven years later, after the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, that the Western countries started to pressure China.

Note that although there are some differences, for Vietnam the process was more or less the same. Vietnam’s liberalization process (called “Doi Moi”) had its basis in victory in a long war, which also created a high sense of dignity and power that led liberalization and reformation efforts. This may be in part different from the Chinese precedent, but the two cases are fundamentally similar. The main point to take from this is that North Korea is not like either China or Vietnam.

The case for present-day North Korea is completely different.

First of all, now, the international communist movement has been completely demolished and the communist ideology is largely unwelcome everywhere in the world. Even in China, the number of people interested in communist ideology makes up less than 1% of the population. There is little possibility that North Korea could be sustained by communist ideology or the power and dignity of the international communist movement.

Second of all, the authority of the Korean Worker’s Party has diminished significantly, to the extent that it is incapable of leading the liberalization and reform of the country. Kim Jong Il has long been working alone, ignoring Party structures, and the cadres have had to be more concerned with the mood of Kim Jong Il rather than with decisions made by the Party. Such practices have now become a habit, and because the people blame the Party for the food crisis, human rights abuses and corruption, there is no case for the Party to hold any legitimacy. Even if the Party were to try to gain some legitimacy from communism or the Juche ideology, this would be impossible because nobody in North Korea is interested in ideologies any more. Therefore, even now, the Party is incapable of playing an important role, and for it to replace Kim Jong Il, in the case of his death, would be difficult. This is a big difference between North Korea and China; in China the Communist Party’s decisions played the leading role in moving China towards liberalization and reformation.

Third, Kim Jong Il has moral defects. Kim Jong Il does not have anything to give; instead he is primarily responsible for the severe economic crisis, human rights violations, and widespread corruption. Yet, he is well known for his complex relationships with women, allegations of an absurdly luxurious lifestyle and mass embezzlement of the national wealth. If the luxurious life of Kim Jong Il and his family were revealed to the domestic populace, North Korean political stability would no longer be possible. The truth of Kim Jong Il’s personal life has been revealed by his entourage, including Lee Han Young (his wife’s nephew), Sung Hye Rang (his sister in law), Fujimoto Kenji(his former personal chef), and Lee Young Kook (his former bodyguard). Even from a North Korean society that is so tightly sealed, information flows out about Kim Jong Il. If the North attempted liberalization and reform, information flow would become torrential and would spread expansively; much of it would be fervently anti-Kim.

As it was in China in the 1980s, because demand for information would be so high and expansive in North Korea, stopping information flow merely by punishing people would be extremely difficult. A lot of information circulated underground in China in the 1980s, containing negative messages about Mao Zedong and favorable ones of the government of the time. Negative statements about Mao Zedong were prohibited and they seemed to be controlled, but information circulation did not ultimately affect political stability. However, underground information flow in North Korea mainly consists of negative information about Kim Jong Il. Even if Kim Jong Il were to realize the seriousness of the problem and try to stop the liberalization process, the information flow would not stop. Once information flow trespasses beyond a certain level, artificial efforts to stop it will not work. It has its own driving inertia. Especially in a country like North Korea where much of the government structure has collapsed, controlling information flow would rapidly grow to be almost impossible.

Fourth, the current international environment is not favorable to North Korea. Most of the people in the world think of North Korea as one of the poorest under-developed countries, one ruled by a tyranny where human rights violations occur as standard. There is no reason why the countries of the world must give advantage or privilege to North Korea, and they have more reason to pressure North Korea. From the North Korean perspective the only reliable tools it has are Chinese assistance and nuclear weapons, but these two can both become boomerangs easily enough. While international society has tended to go easy on North Korea’s nuclear problem, it could always become a reason to pressure North Korea, or even attack Pyongyang. China is currently supporting North Korea, but it feels less and less like doing so. If China believes North Korea must have its regime changed, China could become the most dangerous enemy of all.

Fifth, the biggest difference between China and North Korea is the existence of South Korea. Although China has Taiwan, with only 1/58 of the population and 1/265 of its territory Taiwan is incomparable to the mainland. Furthermore, since not many supported the Kuomindang (KMD) before they escaped to Taiwan, the existence of Taiwan is not a threat to mainland stability. This is an entirely different problem from how people think about communism or the communist party. Even if people hated communism or the communist party, they do not think of Taiwan or the KMD as their alternative. Actually, for Taiwan, mainland China is a threat. However, for North Korea, the situation is very different. South Korean territory is a little smaller but has twice the population. Furthermore, although the figures may differ depending on how GDP is calculated, South Korea has a 30 to 100 times bigger economy than North Korea. Furthermore, from the human rights aspect, South Korea is in an incomparably superior position to North Korea. Although people say the gap between the people of the North and the South has grown large, because Koreans altogether have high desire for unification North Korea will be greatly affected by influence from South Korea. Once the people start to think of South Korea as the alternative, as more and more the South and the North are compared, dissatisfaction among the North Korean people could develop into major political instability.

Thus, as I have explained, even though liberalization and reform in China are successful, it does not mean that following the same footsteps could lead all other nations to the same finale, and it would be especially difficult for North Korea. Since Kim Jong Il holds all authority and power in his hands, deciding to pursue liberalization and reform would not be a particularly difficult step. “Hawkish wing,” “conservative wing,” “liberal wing” and “progressive wing” are mere words without any underlying significance in North Korea. Anything can be done with a nod from Kim Jong Il, and there is nobody to oppose him. Therefore making a decision to open up could be easier than in any other country. However the possibility of success is extremely low. Actually, it would be close enough to say that success is impossible. After pursuing liberalization and reformation for a few years, as factories normalized and China and South Korea assisted the North, the economic situation in North Korea would improve. However, as political instability mounted, whether it chose to try and stop the liberalization process or press onwards, the extant regime of Kim Jong Il’s North Korea would be doomed to fall.