Business, Finance & Economics

Analysis: Kim Jong Il, the reformer?

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ATLANTA — Now that food shortages reportedly have forced North Korea to reverse its crackdown on capitalist-style markets, more systematic reforms for its collapsed economy may not be far behind.

The markets policy reversal came May 26 in directives issued by the cabinet and the ruling Workers’ Party to subordinate organizations, according to a report by the Seoul-based newsletter North Korea Today, which gets its information from officials and ordinary citizens inside the North. “The government cannot take any immediate measures” to relieve a food shortage that is “worse than expected,” the newsletter quoted one of the directives as saying in explanation for the policy change.

The same authorities only late last year decreed a sudden currency revaluation that crippled the “anti-socialist” markets, where stallholders had been trading for individual profit, by confiscating the traders’ wealth. The new decrees bless and deregulate what’s left of the markets, which have shrunk and in some cases closed completely in the interim, in the hope that market trading will keep people from starving. And the directives instruct managers of state-run enterprises to pursue lucrative deals — especially in foreign trade — that could help feed their employees.

This could all turn out to be the big event that finally pushes the very reluctant leadership into a multi-year campaign of serious reforms of the sort that began decades ago in Vietnam and China, according to Felix Abt, a Swiss involved in North Korean joint ventures in pharmaceutical manufacturing and computer software.

“Given an industrial stock and an infrastructure beyond repair, and the impossible task of maintaining a huge army, economic reforms appear unavoidable in the very near future,” Abt, a former president of Pyongyang’s European Business Association, wrote in an email exchange.

“It looks intriguing and it reminds me of Vietnam’s history of reforms,” said Abt, who did business for years in Vietnam before going to Pyongyang and recently has moved back to Vietnam while maintaining his involvement in North Korea.

“The Vietnamese economic situation looked dire at the beginning of the 1980s,” he explained. “Nguyen Van Linh, party secretary in Ho Chi Minh City, favored moderate economic reforms. He tried too early, lost his job and left the political bureau in 1982.

“Le Duan, secretary general of the Communist Party, was categorically against any economic reforms. He died in 1986, the year of the five-year party congress which brought Nguyen Van Linh back and elected him as his successor. The new party secretary general immediately launched the Doi Moi policy — ‘reforms.’”

Abt ventured the lesson that triggering reforms “takes something big like the death of a leading politician” in Vietnam — or, in North Korea, a “ruinous” currency revaluation.

Not every foreigner who has had firsthand economic dealings with North Korea is convinced the recent events constitute that trigger. Some worry that U.S.-led sanctions could nip any flowering of capitalism in the bud.

“The problem is still U.S. Treasury’s attitude,” said one such foreigner, who asked not to be identified further. Treasury Department officials began working several years ago to take North Korea “out of the international banking system,” discouraging trade, he noted.

Some U.S.-sponsored sanctions subsequently were eased in an effort to persuade Kim Jong Il to negotiate away his nuclear weapons capability, but after those talks went nowhere — and especially after North Korea allegedly torpedoed a South Korean warship earlier this year — enthusiasm for compromise cooled. Recent reports say Washington is moving toward aggressively strangling cash flow into the country.

There is also the argument that Kim believes he cannot afford to reform the economy because it would let in information and influences that would undermine his family’s rule by letting his isolated subjects learn that the rival South Korean system works much better.

According to Abt, one answer to both concerns could be China, which “will provide all the support necessary to the DPRK party and government to enable economic reforms without regime change.” He used the abbreviation of Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the country’s official name. “The DPRK may expect support from other quarters, for example, the European Union, too,” he said.

“I think the dilemma of the leadership — economic upsurge versus the inflow of ‘subversive’ system-destabilizing information and ideas, particularly regarding the South — can be overcome with the necessary Chinese support,” Abt said. “Though the division of Korea can only be compared with that of Germany before 1990, China's division — capitalist Hong Kong, capitalist Taiwan — was a sort of challenge to Deng Xiaoping and successors, too, but they learnt to manage that quite well.”

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