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Analysis: Is North Korea moving toward a post-totalitarian regime?

By Philippe Pons

LE MONDE/Worldcrunch

Beyond the eye-catching anecdotal – Kim Jong-un and his wife linking arms while attending a Walt Disney show at the opening ceremony of a theme park – one may seriously begin to ask if North Korea is quietly shifting toward a post-totalitarian regime.


The answer to that question won’t come from Pyongyang: the propaganda media have just swept away all speculations over the country initiating “reforms”, referring to them as “hallucinations” – a statement that is not to be taken literally as the politically loaded word “reform” is prohibited in Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Since everything in the DPRK is “perfect”, those can only be called “adjustments.” Yet, it is undeniable that the country is changing. But to what extent?

Since Kim Jong-un’s ascent to power after his father’s death last December, the DPRK has been trying hard to polish its image. That was the goal of the PR operation organized last April to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of the “eternal President” Kim Il-sung (1912-1994) and covered by hundreds of foreign journalists. But the regime is mostly concerned with internal affairs: economic recovery and social stability.

North Koreans were badly hit by the 1995-1997 famine (from 600,000 to one million deaths) and the economic collapse. The population is still experiencing shortages and the government can hardly push for any more sacrifices, especially since the new leader’s coming into office yields so much hope for Koreans.

Kim Jong-un’s obvious resemblance with his grand-father is no accident: for many North Koreans, the Kim-il Sung era, especially during the 1970s and 1980s, is still regarded as a Golden Age: people, including those who fled south of the border, still feel nostalgic about the modest yet decent life enjoyed by most at the time. In his first public speech last April, Kim Jong-un promised that North Koreans “will never have to tighten their belt again.”

According to the South Korean news website Daily NK, recent developments suggest that North Korea is changing: the country recently revised its law on foreign investment – as new projects like special economic zones with China are in progress – and announced “a new economic management system in our own style.”

Adjustments and reforms

This new management system, as it was with the July 2002 “adjustments” which granted more autonomy to state-run companies and initiated salary deregulations, claims to be neither based on the Chinese nor the Vietnamese model. It should have a big impact on agriculture and industry. In 2002, the DPRK ended up freezing “reforms” because of growing tensions with the United States, which only led to more isolation for North Korea and was marked by two nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009.

The current evolution seems to be confirmed by the rehabilitation of two of the main initiators of the 2002 measures – Roh Du-cheol, former vice prime minister and Pak Pong-ju, who served as director of the ministry of light industry. Economic affairs have been handed back to the cabinet, which had been replaced in its decision-making role by the army.

The recent sacking of Vice Marshal Ri Yong-ho as head of the Korean People’s Army illustrates the will the give more responsibilities to civilian institutions (the party and cabinet), a move he himself would have certainly opposed.

During Kim Jong-il’s era (1994-2001), the military enjoyed special treatment, as showed by the “Army First” slogan. With 1.2 million members, the army was seen as the legitimate heir of Kim il-Sung’s anti-Japanese guerrilla and maintained a considerable power. It has also been an economic stronghold. The army is financially independent and receives funding from factories, agricultural cooperatives and trade houses (which are in charge of arms and mining exports). The military benefited from the underground economy, which has developed this past ten years and now co-exists with the planned economy.

This de-facto “free-market” underground economy is difficult to measure but is believed to account for 50% of North Korea’s total supplies. It has led to deep and irreversible social changes. The rise in participants, the creation of a business class and the growth in corruption has made society more flexible and weakened the coercive system. As more Chinese goods enter North Korea, more information also flows in.

In 2002, the regime tried to get on top of this chaotic free market, created to meet the needs of the starving masses, by implementing reforms. Yet from 2005 onward, the government decided to fight the system but failed to eradicate the growing business activity. Even though the state has a very efficient repressive instrument (between 150,000 and 200,000 civilians are held captive in work camps), it cannot afford to tackle the underground economy without worsening the country’s situation.

A new economic system aimed at offering better living conditions and regulating the underground economy is likely to be implemented but North Korea has only just begun to improve its ties with the rest of the world.

Read the original story in French.

Photo- John Pavelka