Slow progress for North Korea’s cautious reforms | East Asia Forum
What does the future hold for North Korea? Sometime ago, I had the relatively rare opportunity to have a free chat with a North Korean merchant. A woman in her forties, the wife of a mid-ranking official, is running an import business dealing in consumption goods. But, unlike the majority of people with the same background, she also has a keen interest in elite politics. When talking about the most desirable future for her country, she said: ‘we do not need reform and opening up like China, all we need is reform’.
t seems that the Supreme Leader, Marshall Kim Jong-un, shares this idea. Since 2012 North Korea has undergone cautious and slow reforms, without opening the country. The North Korean government is slowly changing how it manages the economy, shifting control away from the state to the market, but it is still maintaining (and, indeed, strengthening) its political control.
These trends began soon after the ascension of Kim Jong-un. 2015 has not been marked by any significant change in this regard.
The agricultural reforms initiated by the so-called ‘June 28th Instructions’ of 2012 have continued to yield very positive results. This is in spite of all the uncertainty and lack of uniformity surrounding these reforms as well as a severe drought. While the reforms vary from place to place, all the reform models have one thing in common: farmers no longer work for fixed rations but for a certain share of the harvest. This share is often said to be 30 per cent. The first estimates of agricultural output are quite optimistic — the harvest is likely to be only slightly lower than the record-breaking 2014 harvest.
News from industry is less encouraging. In 2014, the North Korean government passed a decision, the so-called ‘ May 30th Measures’, about the universal switch to an independent accounting system. In practice, this meant that North Korea’s state-owned industrial enterprises were given the right to choose suppliers for their inputs, sell their produce at market prices, hire and fire personnel at will and pay employees what they considered to be a realistic wage. But, for reasons unknown, the reforms were cancelled in early 2015. Despite this, some factories are still allowed to work according to the new model. The vast majority of these enterprises make money from exports to China and are quite profitable.
On the political front, economic changes have not been accompanied by liberalisation. This is understandable since it would be politically risky for the regime to be too permissive. Being a divided country with a far richer southern neighbour, the government would struggle to survive with similar levels of openness found in China today — Kim Jong-un seems to understand this situation well.
So, the year 2015 has been marked by further attempts to reverse the spontaneous political changes that have occurred in the last 20 years. Most policies have sought to counteract the government’s biggest worry: the continued flow of information from overseas into North Korea.
There has been a further increase in Sino–North Korean border security. Border crossings are now remarkably risky, unless one is willing to pay an increasingly steep bribe to guards.
There have also been campaigns against Chinese mobile phones that allow a small number of North Koreans — largely traders, smugglers and border-crossing brokers — to communicate with China and the outside world almost freely. Now, such mobile phones are considered to be spying equipment. People found in possession of them face the threat of five to seven years’ imprisonment. Attempts have also been made to crack down on the spread of foreign videos, with renewed inspections of homes.
At the same time, the world media was busy reporting the untimely deaths of top officials. The most notable was the death of defence minister Hyon Yong-chol in early May (allegedly by an anti-aircraft gun). Then in late September, Choe Ryong-hae, who until early 2015 was seen as North Korea’s second-in-command, disappeared. He has reportedly been sent to work at a farm as punishment for mismanagement. While reports remain unconfirmed, there is little doubt that Kim Jong-un continues to purge the elite and those that were once close to him are especially vulnerable.
These high-level purges have attracted much attention, but there does not seem to have been any corresponding increase in repression targeting the average person. So far Kim Jong-un’s wrath has been reserved for army generals and party dignitaries, not the common folk — most of whom probably do not feel much affinity for the elite. In this sense, oft-repeated reports of Kim Jong-un’s ‘reign by terror’ are exaggerations.
The year 2015 has been another year of stuttering reform without openness. Though, on balance, this seems to have been rather good news for the average North Korean.
Andrei Lankov is a Professor at Kookmin University, Seoul, and Adjunct Research Fellow at the Australian National University.
This article is part of an EAF special feature series on 2015 in review and the year ahead.