North Korea: Is there reason to hope?


NA'ALEHU, Hawaii — Externally, it’s clear enough that Kim Jong Un intends this season’s extreme saber-rattling performance to establish North Korea as a recognized nuclear weapons and long-range missiles power, not to be messed with.

Internally, it’s equally clear he wants his subjects to see him not as a 30-year-old kid who’s inheriting power from his dead daddy but as a clever and fearless general able to save them from the machinations of ferocious enemies.

What comes next in Kim’s planning, the regime has signaled, is a push to “proudly build a thriving socialist nation” — which means to rebuild an economy that took such a savage beating following the collapse of global communism that it’s never gotten out of intensive care.

Some foreign analysts say his theory is that the nuclear deterrent gives him sufficient job security that he can economize on the conventional military and plow the resulting peace dividend into improvement of the civilian economy.

Truly shifting the focus would be great for all concerned. Current enemies would love to see North Korea behaving like a normal, reasonably peaceable member of the global economy. And ordinary North Koreans, civilians and soldiers alike, would be delighted not to have to hark back decades to remember a time when they could be sure of three square meals a day.

Alas, any hopes that we’re about to see a Deng Xiaoping-style transformation of the North Korean economy are almost certainly misplaced. To see why, consider a small sampling of recent news stories.

First, the military slice of the budget pie is expanding, not decreasing, so for now the money for a big economic push would have to come from elsewhere.

From where? There are few large external pools of investment money that could be quickly deployed in the North and one of those belongs to South Koreans like those who invested in joint-venture manufacturing businesses employing North Korean labor in the Kaesong Industrial Complex, just north of the South Korean border. If major help from the South were going to be sought, why did Kim take this moment to block access of South Korean workers to the complex and threaten to close it down?

Another source of funding could be the organized international community as represented by financial institutions such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. Instead of talking nice to the international community, though, by insisting on a third nuclear test Kim has brought down upon his country new United Nations and individual country sanctions that are expected to bite hard.

As White House press spokesman Jay Carney put it in response to a question Wednesday, the country’s “refusal to abide by its international obligations [along with its] threats and provocative rhetoric and behavior only serves to isolate North Korea further, to make it more and more difficult for the North Korean economy to develop, and imposes more and more hardships on the North Korean people.”

There is North Korean capital — billions of US dollars’ worth, banked abroad — that could make a serious difference in the economy if invested well at home. But as the South Korean daily newspaper Chosun Ilbo observed, “Intelligence agencies believe most of the money belongs to Kim Jong Un and is used to buy luxury goods either for himself or to buy the loyalty of high-ranking officials.”

Even China — itself North Korea’s last hope for major financial aid and investment — has shown its disapproval by voting in the UN for censure over the nuclear test. Even if we assume Beijing’s bark is worse than its bite and it will continue wanting to encourage its neighbor to make Chinese-style reforms, there’s little if any evidence that Pyongyang intends to make the major changes in its practices that such reforms require.

Significant economic reforms would require, for a start, embracing monetary incentives. The previous two generations of rulers assumed that the way to incentivize people for better performance was not to offer money bonuses but to harangue them and entertain them with propaganda.

Remaining key players in the youngest Kim’s inner circle are people like Choi Ryong Hae, a childhood friend of Kim’s father who — before taking over direction of the military recently — spent most of his career supervising the country’s civilian youth groups, making sure they were subject to incessant agitation and did not succumb to capitalist thinking.

More from GlobalPost: Today in North Korea blog

Optimists do point to one positive note: the return to the prime ministership of Pak Pong Ju, who presided over some noteworthy — but, by world standards, small — changes while he held office from 2003 to 2007.

However, cabinet ministers including prime ministers are highly disposable in North Korea. Pak was canned when conservatives complained of a “capitalist yellow wind” sweeping through the country. He may well be fired again, or worse, as soon as he proposes anything ambitious enough to be perceived as a threat to the stewards of the old ways. Opening the country up to globalization the way the Chinese have done has always been seen as such a threat.

Unless powerful elements inside North Korea decided to move beyond the Kim era — extremely difficult in the system of totalitarian control — the country’s next phase could leave us contemplating a still-failed state wielding more and deadlier nuclear weapons. Not a pretty thought.

Veteran Asia correspondent Bradley K. Martin is the author of "Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty."

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