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     Sep 21, 2012

Nothing new under North Korean son
By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Is North Korea reforming under Kim Jong-eun? Many believe so, and the stream of news articles on the topic seems endless. We have, however, to some extent seen it all before.

Similar to today's situation, Kim Jong-Il's early days in power were surrounded by hopes of the new leader being a reformer. South Korea elected Kim Dae-Jung president only months after Kim Jong-il formally took power in 1997, and the era of sunshine-policy began. South Korea was obviously the driving force. In addition, as it later turned out, the North was given extensive bribes in exchange for its cooperation. But the sun kept shining for years after the bribes, and the overall North Korean attitude was far from the dogmatic "Hermit Kingdom" the world had previously known.

For a few years, an unprecedented amount of Inter-Korean events


and agreements occurred, culminating in the June 2000 summit. Not unlike Kim Jong-un's Moranbong Band concert where Disney characters and lightly dressed violin-playing women appeared, typically Western-style K-pop groups such as Shinhwa and Baby V.O.X were invited to perform in Pyongyang. During these years North Korea established diplomatic relations with several western countries. North Korea seemed to be coming out of its shell, and Kim Jong-il was spearheading the journey.

Kim Jong-il 's visit to China in 2001 made many believe in a Chinese-style development. During a visit to Shanghai, Kim allegedly exclaimed: "Let's build skyscrapers. China has succeeded in economic reforms. Why have we failed?" Kim Jong-Un certainly isn't the first leader to recognize the dire state of North Korea's economy. The same year as Kim Jong-il 's China visit, one Rodong Sinmun editorial stated that "... the socialist economic management method is still immature and not perfect ... If we stick to this hackneyed and outdated method, which is not applicable to the realities of today, then we will be unable to develop our economy." [1]

This echoes similar to Kim Jong-eun's rumored criticism of the country's economists for dogmatic thinking. Keep in mind, for comparison, that Kim Jong-eun has been deemed a realist for having talked about the North's food problem, admitting that the people's living standards need to be improved, and for pointing out the "pitiful" state of a theme park.

The next big step came in July 2002, when the North announced major economic reforms. Prices and wages were raised to match the black market level. Enterprises were given greater autonomy and incentives, and "profits [were] to be distributed based on individual efforts, thereby stimulating the labor force to work harder." [2] The North adopted legislation formally paving the way for the special economic zones in Kaesong and Sinuiju, and the Mount Kumgang tourist zone also got its judicial grounding. [3] The 2002 reforms finally legalized widespread black market activities.

Interestingly, even in the mid-1990s, North Korea experimented with agricultural policies similar to Kim Jong-eun's "6.28 Policy". According to information trickling out from North Korea, the "6.28" reforms will reduce the sizes of farming units to three to four members and allow farmers to keep 30% of their crops. In the reforms of the mid-1990s, farming unit sizes decreased to 5-7 members, and according to one researcher, "squads were allowed to keep or dispose of any surplus". In 2002, North Korea again tried to reform the agricultural sector by raising the prices of grains to a level more comparable with the black market, and loosened central planning. The reforms were partially reversed in 2005, but nonetheless, they had at least been attempted.

Overall, these developments seemed rather dramatic. In 2000, one writer stated that North Korea was showing "tentative signs of opening to the West". Kim Dae-jung claimed that the 2002 reforms showed that Kim Jong-il had an "intellectual ability and discernment [as] a reform-minded and the type of man we can talk with in a common-sense fashion". [4] In the words of Victor D Cha, "many argued that the unprecedented and far-reaching nature of the July 2002 measures demonstrated North Korea intentions to seek integration into the international community [...]". [5]

In the early 2000s, visitors to North Korea observed many signs of sprouting entrepreneurship, and the increased commercial activity was signified by spots such as Pyongyang's Tongil ("Unification") Market. And don't forget the appearance of billboards advertising the North Korean-made cars model Huiparam ("whistle") in 2003.

According to the Asian Times Online contributor Bertil Lintner, who visited Pyongyang in 2004, the view of Kim Jong-il as reform-minded was common among the city's foreign community. [6] Despite his many statements assuring that North Korea would stick to its ideological line, Kim Jong-il was acutely aware that the country's model was not working. He even admitted this the US state secretary Madeleine Albright in 2000, while claiming to have been eyeing the social model of my home country, Sweden, who has successfully combined free markets with a welfare state.

This comparison between father and son does not suggest that North Korea cannot change. On the contrary, North Korea has always been changing and reforming. The image of a never-changing system, one that is making today's rumors about change seem more radical, simply isn't true. The problem is that reforms have never gone far enough. Is this time any different? Maybe the Supreme People's Assembly plenum suddenly scheduled for September 25 will be the occasion for us to finally find out.

1. Quoted in Cha, Victor D. (2012), The Impossible State. New York: Harper Collins, p 142.
2. Quoted in Hong, Ihk-pyo (2002), A Shift Toward Capitalism? Recent Economic Reforms in North Korea. East Asian Review, vol. 14, no. 4, Winter 2002, pp 93 - 106.
3. Yoon, Dae-kyu (2009), "Economic reform and Institutional Transformation: A Legal Perspective", in Park, Philip H. (ed), (2009), The Dynamics of Change in North Korea: An Institutionalist Perspective. Seoul: Institute for Far Eastern Studies, Kyungnam University.
4. Quoted in Cha 2012, p143.
5. Ibid, p147.
6. Lintner, Bertil (2005), Great Leader, Dear Leader. Chiang Mai, Thailand: Silkworm Books.

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein is an editorial writer at the Swedish daily newspaper Svenska Dagbladet, a formerly Seoul-based freelance writer focusing on North Korea and co-author of the book Images from North Korea (Atlas 2010).

(Copyright 2012 Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein.)

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