Kim Jong Eun’s Dual Approach: Pursuing Nuclear and Economic Development

It remains unclear whether Kim Jong Il provided his son and heir Kim Jong Eun with any clear instruction to proceed with economic reform and opening. The late North Korean leader was ambiguous when it came to reform. Indeed, any economic cooperation with China may have been purely for strategic purposes. Thus prospects for reform under the Kim Jong Eun regime must be assessed according to the young leaders’ own policies and attitude, rather than any clear directive from his father.

Kim Jong Eun lacks his own power base, and this has forced him to depend largely on the authority of his deceased father. Nevertheless,he has recently been acting independently, most notably on the “Equal Emphasis Policy for Nuclear and Economic Development” (known as the “Byungjin Line”).

The Chosun Workers’ Party adopted the Byungjin Line during a Central Committee of the Party plenary meeting on March 31st.The leadership has since stated that the policy is a new and improved version of Kim Il Sung’s and Kim Jong Il’s “Equal Emphasis Policy for Economic and National Defense.” Originally presented in 1962, that policy focused more on national defense than economics, and is closer to Kim Jong Il’s military-first policy. Yet in many ways Kim Jong Eun’s central message is different. That is, while North Korea will not abandon its nuclear weapons, the fact that they are now in possession of them means they are able to focus on building the economy.

While Kim Jong Eun promotes his policy as merely a successor to the ones before it, he has also demonstrated a desire to pursue economic construction, stating,“We need to focus all of our efforts on making the shift to an economic powerhouse.” In an April editorial published in the Rodong Sinmun, he again emphasized that the policy had “…established the beneficial conditions for focusing resources and efforts toward the fight for economic construction and improving the lives of the people.”

During the Central Committee meeting, Kim Jong Eun presented plans to increase economic production, stabilize the people’s lives as fast as possible via a focus on agriculture and light industry, and simultaneously move forward with developing the country’s nuclear and hard water projects. He also ordered trade diversification, the development of a knowledge economy, construction of tourist zones in Wonsan and at Mt. Chilbo, and the creation of provincial economic development centers.

At the meeting of the Supreme People’s Assembly on April 1st, the Korean Worker’s Party Head of Light Industry Park Pong Ju was appointed Prime Minister. Park has previously been touted as an economic reformist.

Despite frequent visits to military facilities last year, the leader’s visit to ‘Base 405’ in April was his first visit in two months. He has instead been taking tours of factories, adding further strength to the claim that his focus is squarely on much-needed economic development.

Is this dual strategy workable? Many experts forecast inevitable failure, as foreign investors will avoid North Korea should the country continue to insist upon the development of nuclear weapons.Yet while not entirely incorrect, this logic is based on false assumptions formed following the 2006 nuclear test. Many believed at the time that if North Korea continued to engage in confrontation with the West over its nuclear weapons, its economy and government would soon collapse. Yet North Korea’s economy has improved as a result of China continued patronage.

Following North Korea’s third nuclear test in 2013, China supported international sanctions against the regime. Arguably, that North Korea did not react strongly to these moves may mean that the two countries had met prior and agreed upon the measures. If the sanctions ultimately prove useless, and bilateral economic cooperation actually improves, North Korea’s dual strategy may even succeed.

The question remains: What was China thinking in its attempt to improve relations with North Korea after the second nuclear test in 2009? While it seems likely that China requested North Korea cease and desist on the nuclear weapons issue, Kim Jong Il answered ambiguously. He probably gave a lengthy reply on the Korean Peninsula’s unique position, or was simply evasive.

Viewed from this perspective, while China did consider international opinion, it ultimately decided to strengthen its ties with its errant neighbor.China’s continued efforts at a relationship can be seen as tacit acceptance of past and future North Korean nuclear tests, as well as Pyongyang’s ownership of nuclear weapons.