venture a guess, people in the upper echelons of
the North Korean state are probably, at this very
moment, finally coming to terms with the full
consequences of the two decade-long devastation
that has wrecked the country to the core.
As Pyongyang begins implementing the
economic reforms that were entailed within the
June 28 Policy, its inability to influence a vast
portion of the population will become increasingly
evident. In fact, it is most likely that the
recent pronouncement by the Korean Central News
Agency, preparing the people for a "great war for
national reunification", was a last ditch attempt
to use nationalism to mobilize unwilling labor and
prompt implausible production. 
short, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea is
developmental crisis that will irreparably change
the nature of the country. What the state had
taken for granted in the Cold War era, its power
to mobilize labor, has now eroded. In addition,
Pyongyang's limited liberalization of the market
has failed to establish the basic conditions that
would prompt incentive-driven private production.
What remains is for the state to accept the new
constraints and create new realities.
There were whispers of doubt among
analysts when North Korea's legislature, the
Supreme People's Assembly, chose not to mention
anything on the economic reforms when it convened
at the end of September. Nonetheless, as Dr Andrei
Lankov noted in an article this month, it would
have been naive to assume that Pyongyang was going
to open the touchy topic of reform to public
debate by publishing the discussions in the press.
 This seems especially appropriate when one
considers how the North Korean state had profusely
denied the foreign media's label of "reform"
regarding the new policies.
At the same
time, the proposed reforms faced serious
logistical challenges from the very beginning. In
August, I noted some fundamental issues that
awaited the North Korean state and argued that the
reforms were sabotaged by the wide disparities in
investment between Pyongyang and the rest of the
country. (See Pyongyang
Asia Times Online, August 8, 2012.)
Similarly, Professor Aiden Foster-Carter
has rightly questioned how Pyongyang planned to
requisition enough food to feed the country's
majority urban population after the policies are
put in place. Foster-Carter noted that the key
difference between North Korea and Vietnam during
the latter's Doi Moi reforms or China
during Deng Xiaoping's reforms is that Kim
Jong-eun has to contend with a much larger urban
population with a rural workforce that is
This means that the logistics
of food acquisition and distribution are
fundamentally challenged; therefore, the reforms
prove particularly problematic for Pyongyang,
which had for years given priority to cities
(especially the capital) over rural regions.
Indeed, according to internal sources, the
price of rice throughout the country continues to
skyrocket unabated; in Pyongyang on September 29
rice cost 6,700 won per kilogram ($7.40), a 112.5%
increase since mid-June.  Under these
circumstances, the North Korean state had always
reserved the possibility of not implementing the
reforms nationwide based on unsuccessful results
or damaging consequences exhibited in small-scale
But what is it that the North
Korean state is fundamentally lacking that
prevents the reforms from being able to be pushed
through? It appears Pyongyang is no longer able to
mobilize the labor necessary to effectively
increase production, in either state-mandated or
semi-private incentive-driven enterprises.
Since this summer, the state has been
cracking down on farmers working on private plots,
attempting to force agrarian workers back to the
collective farms, where they were promised a 30%
share of the output. However, this massive push to
completely eliminate the people's safeguard
against the many state-induced food crises, which
has sustained many collectives during the the last
two decades, cannot succeed.
Pyongyang relied on its people to accept
shortfalls in welfare and increased hardships to
promote economic development. Under the classic
Stalinist economic growth model, rapid development
in the agriculture sector relied on increasing
output while diminishing state inputs for certain
investments, the cost of which involuntary labor
was absorbed via coercion or ideological drive.
Driven by historic experience of
colonization and war, Pyongyang could readily
mobilize its people under the call of defending
the country from foreign influences during the
Cold War. Although greatly assisted by foreign
aid, North Korea's rapid recovery from the Korean
War in its first Three Year-Plan is one example of
how effective the state had been in mobilizing a
labor force and how motivated the people had been
in the efforts to rebuild the country. In the
post-Cold War era, while the state still continues
to claim that North Korea is struggling against
malign foreign forces, the focus of the rhetoric
has increasingly turned towards domestic concerns;
that is, realistic challenges that obstruct better
living conditions for the people.
fact that private-plot farming, which Kim Il-sung
said was most destructive to the revolutionary
cause, tacitly continues to this day reveals one
of many areas where North Korea's national ethos
has run out of steam both in producing results and
in the face of reality.
As a consequence,
the economic character of the people outside the
privileged class has changed. Large portions of
the population had been left to entirely or mostly
fend for themselves during the famine years.
Today, the people actively hedge against the
state, ensuring that they have enough resources to
survive an economic shock caused by another
irresponsible government policy - a far cry from
the days of ideological puritanism. Naturally,
even the incentive-driven schemes cannot work in
North Korea because the people have lost too much
faith in the state's ability to create both sound
policy and keep its promises.
As a result,
Pyongyang may be devolving into what Robert Cox
termed a "protostate", defined as a power entity
that still has the ability to extract tribute from
the territory it controls but lacks the influence
to reshape society in any effective way.
Indeed, Pyongyang still maintains the
monopoly of violence and enforces its laws, albeit
often arbitrarily. However, it clearly lacks the
mobilizing power to call upon the non-urban
community to work towards a collective goal. In
desperation, perhaps, the state called on the
people to prepare for a grand war for unification
as a means of labor mobilization, but time for
that has long passed.
The June 28 Policy
is (or already was?) a valiant effort, most likely
imbued with honesty and a real sense of urgency.
Nonetheless, the reforms have come far too late.
This is not to suggest that the world's
last Stalinist state will finally collapse - the
characteristics of governance and model of
development will simply change to adapt to the new
constraints. But what that new country will look
like, only the future knows.