‘Regime’s Reforms’ Leaves More Questions than Answers

A high level North Korean official has caused a stir recently after divulging that Kim Jong Eun is researching the lessons of countries which have adopted large-scale economic reforms, such as China. In the first official western media interview with a senior official since Kim Jong Il’s death, Yang Hyung Seop, the vice-president of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, hinted that Kim Jong Eun is focusing on efforts to create a knowledge-based economy, and is even considering reforms and loosening of the government’s control over the economy.

Yang is regarded as an influential figure in the halls of North Korean power, having been a senior public servant since the Kim Il Sung era and a close associate of Jang Sung Taek. To put it bluntly, people listen when he speaks. In 2010, he was also the first member of the North Korean leadership to officially confirm Kim Jong Eun as successor.

The content and details of Yang’s comments do not appear to be him thinking out loud. On the contrary, it is not totally unreasonable to suggest that Kim Jong Eun or other members of the core North Korean leadership concurred with the decision to make these comments. However, it would be nearly impossible to ascertain just how much of the leadership would have been in agreement. The issue of economic reforms would surely be a major talking point internally were they to become a popular course of action, but the only way to know when and in what form such changes would take place is to wait and see.

Leaving aside for a moment whether or not economic reforms will actually be realized, the direct reference to learning from China makes a clear point: that North Korea is counting on receiving the continued backing of China. When Kim Jong Il visited China last year he was directly told of the need for economic reforms and emancipation by the Chinese leadership, including premier Wen Jiabao. By confirming their desire for economic reform and liberation, senior members of Kim Jong Eun’s regime are sending a signal intended to encourage China’s support now in overcoming the current economic difficulties as well as into the future, should the nation choose to follow a path of reform and liberation.

Yang’s comments also had a message for South Korea. To begin with, they help light up the public debate within South Korea about providing material support to North Korea in following such a path. ‘Sunshine’ academics as they are known in South Korea (those who strongly favor engagement policies) may even welcome this as the already-overdue first act of liberation and reform of Kim Jong Eun’s government. Those who lobby policies of engagement will no doubt play this development in a manner to suit their own arguments, however, such major changes within North Korea would force them into dealing with a problem they have long worried about: maintaining the stability and of government and public order in the face of seismic internal changes.

If it does turn out that members of the leadership talking about liberation and reform has come from Kim Jong Eun himself, then this must be welcomed. His close associate and uncle, Jang Sung Taek, has also seen the progress of South Korea with his own eyes and is well aware of the China economic success story. However, just how such an approach would fit into their plans to maintain the third dynastic regime’s authority is impossible to tell at this stage.

That being said, unless there are some drastic new developments it is hard to see the regime achieving any meaningful economic reforms. If it were possible to make only the reforms which are palatable to the regime and help it to obtain its goals, Kim Jong Il would surely have made them. North Korea’s forays into special economic zones and the July 1 measure of 2002 also show how complicated such changes are for the regime to accept. Kim Jong Eun is therefore faced with a dilemma, knowing that to go down the path of reform and liberation would potentially plunge his regime into a crisis; and equally, not to follow that path would surely eventually invite a fatal crisis of its own.

For Kim Jong Eun to succeed with economic reforms and liberation, his first move has to be denuclearization. If North Korea is able to establish a concrete, verifiable process of denuclearization, aid will flow not just from China but from South Korea and the US as well. By the same token, ‘reforms and liberation’ are words that do not mean much while the country continues to possess nuclear weapons and goes about expanding barbed-wire fencing to lock its own citizens in. It is clear that the regime has much to lose by following such a course, and yet, the comments of Yang Hyung Seop hint that just perhaps, the regime is conscious of an even greater threat to its existence should it continue to resist those changes.