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     Sep 22, 2012

Kim Jong-eun prepares balancing act
By Chris Green and Sokeel Park

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

Change, the world keeps hearing, is afoot in North Korea. There has been a great deal of discussion of the significance of Kim Jong-eun's new PR style, quite a lot about how seriously the

regime takes economic liberalization, plenty on the meaning of signs that the Chosun People's Army's role in the economy is being curtailed, and extraordinary amounts about how long change might be allowed to proceed before it inspires a hard-line backlash.

Yet despite the apparent diversity of views on offer, the one assumption running through practically all the analysis has been that any attempt at economic reform will ultimately mean North Korea bringing collapse on itself, and that therefore signs of change must mean the regime is either insincere or making a huge mistake. Or possibly both.

But what about the notion that reform under Kim Jong-eun might actually succeed?

It is time to move on from the debate about whether the regime is preparing for change or not. Information received by these authors has revealed time and time again that change is coming. The first signs of North Korea's "new economic management system" were received by the Seoul-based Daily NK back on July 11, and since then, in-country sources have cited elements of the policy on a daily basis in calls received from places as distant as Chongjin, Hyesan, Musan and Shinuiju, not to mention the corridors of power in Pyongyang.

Of course, North Korea watchers are right to be cynical. After all, we've been here before, and the mere news of a policy's existence is by no means news of its success. Not only that; when North Korea actually implements the policy on October 1 it will be taking just the first small step along a very long tightrope. Nevertheless, a close reading of the country's domestic environment still gives us reason to doubt the reflex assumption that Kim's balancing act is doomed to fail.

First and foremost, there is the fact that members of the North Korean elite don't defect. Why would they? Despite the riches and infinitely preferable business environment on offer in the South, on arrival such people would still have to start absolutely from scratch in a completely foreign environment. In that sense defection is the ultimate leveler, and for the North Korean nomenklatura the notion of arriving in South Korea with neither the capital nor networks they spent a lifetime building is very unattractive.

We are not just talking about the top elite. Everyone who is mid-level and up, about 10% of the population, rationally assumes that they would suffer greatly in the chaos of collapse and absorption by the Seoul government. Thus, literally anybody who is anybody will unstintingly work to maintain the system. These people usually do want reform within the system for the sake of their individual benefit, but they don't want to change the system itself.

Partly this is a result of North Korea's highly discriminatory system of political apartheid, known as songbun, which ascribes life opportunities based on ancestral political loyalty to Kim Il-sung. Songbun means that all ganbu - senior officials - tend to come from whole extended families of regime apparatchiks. Naturally, this raises the costs of collapse for all concerned, for it will not just be you that loses status and privilege, faces prosecution or even meets a violent end.

Sure, there is the other 90% to worry about, but for years now the Chinese authorities have been falling over themselves to provide practical blueprints on how to co-opt the massed ranks using gradual economic improvement without conferring political liberties. Naturally, the tiny number who might consider challenging the established order can be coerced by force of arms, something the North Korean regime is more than willing to do.

As if to prove that economic liberalization does not require all forms of opening to come at once, our interviews with recent defectors confirm that security measures in regions bordering China have been ramped up significantly under Kim Jong-eun.

As implausible as it might seem at the time of writing, if the regime continues to balance economic liberalization and maintaining political control in this manner, the expanding North Korean middle-class may even start to believe in the idea of reunification on better terms than they would obtain from system collapse.

Then, Kim Il-sung-era propaganda themes of reunification from a position of strength would become useful, since the inevitable lack of progress on such a negotiated reunification could be blamed on South Korean obstinacy, meaning that popular frustration would be directed at Seoul rather than Pyongyang.

Elsewhere, even the regional environment is favorable. Kim Jong-il took over from his father in precarious circumstances characterized by former president Jimmy Carter's last-minute intervention to defuse nuclear tensions, the aftermath of the collapse of world communism and the normalization of relations between China and South Korea in 1992. He responded with the military-first policy and nuclear weapons development.

Conversely, Kim Jong-eun has come to power in a relatively placid environment, and surely recognizes that longer-term threats are going to come from within. Potential efforts at economic reform would be unstintingly supported by the Russian and Chinese governments, both of whom are willing to offer investment without a whiff of political reform or progress on human rights.

Beijing would like nothing more than for North Korea to emerge from modest reforms as a more stable, less petulant bulwark against US regional ambitions, and is increasingly willing to gently point it out.

It is true that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made clear at the APEC Summit in Vladivostok this month that the US won't embrace a reforming Pyongyang without movement on denuclearization. But so what? The North Korean leadership is rather reticent to become even more dependent on China, but relations with Russia are getting better, and next year's occupant of the Blue House in Seoul is bound to be more friendly than the incumbent Lee Myung-bak.

Park Geun-hye, the conservative presidential candidate, has pledged to talk to Pyongyang, while her progressive opponent, Moon Jae-in, has vowed to turn back on the tap of unconditional aid that flowed northward during the Sunshine Policy era (1998-2007). In short, aid from Washington is now an option for Kim Jong-eun to exploit, rather than a necessity.

Of course it won't be easy. Even though the North Korean leadership is aiming at the low-hanging fruits of authoritarian state capitalism, there are myriad obstacles in the way. Kim Jong-il bequeathed his son a rotten hand of cards: a population disillusioned by any form of government intervention in the economy, a state and party apparatus riven with corruption, and a bloated military that represents a million-man barrier to meaningful change. And that is without getting started on the industrial, legal, financial and communications infrastructure in North Korea, all of which will be highly inadequate for years to come no matter what policy is unveiled on October 1.

However, Kim Jong-eun is not yet 30 years old. What is his alternative? He clearly recognizes that grassroots marketization, increasingly uncontrollable information flows and the steadily declining power of the North Korean state mean that it would be futile to carry on with his father's politics for another half century in the implausible hope that he might get to pass on power to his own favored son.

Economic liberalization is a proactive way to break out of this doomed spiral, and even if the regime falls off the tightrope, collapse following an honest attempt at change will likely earn him and his handbag-toting young wife a softer landing than yet more full-blooded repression.

In other words, Kim Jong-eun already knows that even if you can't be a Deng Xiaoping, it's better to be a Mikhail Gorbachev than a Muammar Gaddafi.

Chris Green is the Manager of International Affairs for Daily NK, an online publication covering internal North Korean affairs based in Seoul. Sokeel Park is Research and Strategy Analyst for Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), a US-based NGO working for the North Korean people.

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.

(Copyright 2012 Chris Green and Sokeel Park.) 

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