The Limits to Growth: Kim Jong Eun’s Chosun

Will North Korea’s new economic development policy succeed?

In favor of this proposition, Kim Jong Eun and his leadership do appear to keenly desire economic development. Furthermore, his authority seemingly faces no immediate threats, North Korea still possesses an educated and hardworking populace interested in making money, and the country receives support from China, its giant neighbor.

Yet there are forces that could work against future economic development. The most prominent of these are the potential threats to the nascent Kim Jong Eun regime. Kim Jong Il’s failure to enact economic reforms was not because he was stupid or reluctant to do so. This was instead the result of an overemphasis on ensuring regime stability. Following the enactment of haphazard economic policy, ordinary North Koreans could not be proactive in their economic activities and distrust grew amongst international investors.

Ultimately, North Korea will find it challenging to see through reform of any meaningful sort. This is due to several factors. Firstly, North Korean society is in tatters. Corruption is so rampant that it would be difficult for normal economic activities to take place. If outside investors or the domestic moneyed class attempted to invest through official channels, their capital would be devoured by this corruption. Even Chinese investors, who operate under some level of corruption in their own country, are disgusted at the extent of it in North Korea. Even foreigners operating a bread factory producing food for North Korean children have been targets for bribery.

While mid-level cadres may demand bribes or shave off a little for themselves, higher-level leaders will do whatever it takes to acquire kickbacks from high-earning industries. This will prevent investment in any normal sense of the term. North Korea’s moneyed class will either save their earnings or send it abroad; they will not bother to invest domestically.

Of course such corruption will not be permitted, but it is unclear whether the regime has the capability to tackle such an endemic problem.

Secondly, the North Korean regime is not strong enough to cope with economic opening. When China began reforming in 1978 the Chinese Communist Party leadership was strong. There were no signs that the international communist movement would falter, and Taiwan was not seen as a threat to the regime. Moreover, Deng Xiaoping, Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, all liberal reformists victimized during the Cultural Revolution, led the reform process.

The world is very different now. International communism is dead, and the Chosun Workers’ Party is not as strong as the CCP had been. North Korea is also faced with the threat of South Korea and others. Unlike Deng Xiaoping, Kim Jong Eun cannot break away from the system created by his father and grandfather, and must continue on under the constraints of an unproductive political legacy. Even if North Korea moves toward a more open economic system, it will be difficult for the country’s leadership to allow political freedom to the extent that China has.

Following reform, North Korea will be forced to open its press and provide political freedoms. In other words, the extreme oppression occurring today must cease or else the country will risk huge outward migration. Another outcome of loosening control may well be regime collapse, or fatal backlash from ordinary citizens. Nonetheless, the possibility remains that a well-trained, experienced individual could provide balance and rise to lead the country in such a situation.

Yet expecting such leadership from the young Kim Jong Eun is a fool’s errand. While his advisors may support him, it will be difficult for Kim to maintain a good relationship with all those close to him over the long-term.

Under the current situation, where the regime faces several threats, Kim Jong Eun must maintain uniformity in his economic policies and make an effort to eliminate threats to his power without hindering development. Economic growth will not happen overnight, but will require continued patience and an “eye on the ball” approach. Even an amazing political strategist or economic wizard would face harships maintaining such a long-term stance. It is thus too much to expect that the inexperienced Kim Jong Eun will be able to pull it off.

Moreover, no matter how wide a net he casts, should economic development continue Kim Jong Eun will have difficulty reining in some domestic elements. Currently, two-thirds of those accused of political crimes pay bribes to prevent themselves from getting arrested in the first place. In the past, such “criminals” were merely in the wrong place at the wrong time, or said something unsavory about the regime. Yet if corruption continues the danger is that even big-league political criminals will be able to avoid punishment via a bribe.

Additionally, if North Korea’s foreign population grows and their contact with ordinary North Koreans increases, it will be difficult to maintain the current level of surveillance and oppression. As the regime’s net of control weakens, more and more people will be able to escape punishment.

It is this author’s opinion that regime stability will be difficult under these conditions. Ultimately, the leadership will either have to revert to past practices or decide to push through with the new policy. Either way, regime survival is tenuous at best.