Subsequent to the recently failed negotiations between North Korea and the US, North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un has called on his nation to return to its notorious values of self-reliance and frugality. 

Throughout the year, the North Korean government has consistently emphasized the need for a more frugal affairs of state as well as more recycling initiatives. Already in April, Kim Jong Un had emphasized the need for increasing thrift for a more efficient economy during the Korean Workers’ Party’s (WPK) plenary meeting.

He further appealed to his people to restrain themselves from supplies and energy use in order to enhance the country’s independence. This message was picked up and promoted in opinion editorials in the North Korean newspaper Rodong Sinmun as well as in other media.


The Korean Central News Agency reported on Oct. 29 that Kim Jae Ryong, North Korea’s Premier, had visited several enterprises in Pyongyang, among them the Automation Appliances Factory, the Ryongsong Bearing Factory and the city’s Rubber Factory.

After familiarizing himself with the production status, he called for a more sensitive handling of North Korea’s resources and finances. According to Kim Jae Ryong, this would require a new management system which prioritizes scientific and technological advancements in the nation. The premier also called for optimized, energy saving labor processes and demanded the country focused primarily on the production of domestic goods.

The government’s attempt to boost their economy by taking a more frugal approach seems reasonable at first glance. However, the increased pressure on factories and enterprises will most likely have a negative impact on their workers, many of whom are already struggling financially.

Considering that North Korea is already dealing with extensive energy and supply shortages, the leaders’ appeal to its people to chastise themselves even further thus appears quite ironic.


The current economic system in North Korea is quite arbitrary. For the country’s companies this means they are not operating in state-planned socialist economy let alone a free economy. With the exception of enterprises tasked with national projects, all factories and producers have to act according to the changing demands of the domestic market.

This forced “self-reliance” not only provokes inequality. As no policy exists to create and sustain one consistent North Korean economy, it also causes major conflict.

Previous attempts to revive the economy have consisted of so-called “shock” tactics in which the government provides only specific areas or regions with resources. But whenever the North Korean authorities issued “shock” teams to deal with a deficiency in one part of the country, another deficiency popped up somewhere else. The result: the nation’s economy has become even more unbalanced.


The North Korean government continues to put its military defense before anything else. Thus, the country’s leaders invest in missile launches, the development of nuclear weapons and sustaining its armed forces instead of directing funds and resources towards the economy.

North Korea’s economy is therefore steadily disintegrating. In order to prevent its total collapse, the government needs to refrain from imposing any further unstructured, aggressive and impromptu “frugality” measures and promoting such ideological values like self-reliance.

North Korea’s self-reliance policies will actually take the nation down a self-destructive path. Policies which emphasize frugality as a way to enhance a country’s self-reliance are no incentive for workers to increase production. Just the contrary – they will only stir up feelings of resentment among the many North Koreans who are already in need of food and basic items.

The key to saving North Korea’s economy does not lie in such concepts as self-reliance. Rather, the government needs to break away from its existing structures and create a new system – one that relies on the trust of the international community and, most importantly, on cooperation.

Jo Hyun’s previous column can be found here.

*Translated by Violet Kim and edited by Laura Geigenberger

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