Guidance on weeds
Weeds are hated everywhere. Weeds are not only an annoyance, but they represent laziness and lack of control. They can illustrate economic decay as they slowly tear through untended concrete; they can also more metaphorically represent social evils. There is a reason we say, ``root out corruption.”
Last week, Kim Jong-un got North Koreans thinking about weeds.
International media ran with Kim's on-the-spot inspection of an amusement park because, well, it's a fun fair. It is more easily conceptualized by readers than, say, a vinalon factory or seafood processing center. But while it may have drawn international attention for that reason alone, it was actually a more significant visit than most.
The young general used the occasion to publicly chastise the management of the facility, in a manner uncommon during his father’s and grandfather’s guidance tours. He stated the park failed in ``serving the people," saying ``officials should draw a serious lesson from the tour of Mangyongdae Funfair.” He even plucked weeds himself to illustrate not only his annoyance but also how little effort it took.
Going to a ramshackle, poorly-funded amusement park was clearly carefully premeditated ― after all, there’s the Kaeson Youth Park across town, where the rides are new, Italian-made and to be frank ― really good. One rollercoaster has you lying prone with your arms outstretched, zooming through the sky like a socialist superman.
The intent was two-fold. First, he is warning mid-level officials that they need to be seen to be making efforts to run their respective organizations well. Corruption and sloth may be punished from the top. Indeed, the most serious of the lessons the young man at the top is demonstrating to officials is that he is firmly in control and can swoop in and take their little fiefdoms.
This may cause consternation for some managers who are trying to take care of their responsibilities despite a lack of adequate resources. Moreover, a few more visits like this could seriously discourage or at least alter some forms of corruption. It is probably already tightening the lips of officials who have dared to express reservations about Kim the younger.
He is also demonstrating to his citizens that their new leader knows there are problems, recognizing that things are not as they should be. He is not out of touch, sees things as they are and will be punishing those responsible, perhaps in a public way that Kim Jong-il didn’t. Kim Jong-il’s on-the-spot guidance tended to consist of exhortations and tips. Kim Jong-un is indirectly addressing corruption and mismanagement with this visit, problems that affect the daily lives of North Koreans. This is a powerful message when combined with the approachable, hands-on public image he has been cultivating.
Weeds also tied in nicely for Kim Jong-un’s major policy event of the week: land management. North Korean news outlets this week reported another significant event, Kim Jong-un’s second major public speech (given on April 27), in which he said: ``All land except cultivated land should be covered with trees, grass, flower plants and other plants so that there should be no waste or weedy land.”
He talked about a variety of issues, including urban renewal, road-construction and forest management, but for watchers of the DPRK economy a short passage stands out. For under the weed strewn land lies the leadership’s best hope of earning foreign currency without altering its social system: natural resources.
Kim mentioned that ``underground resources must be conserved and protected,” but that some people were selling the country’s precious resources abroad ``for a few pennies.” Such people are ``shortsighted” and ``express no patriotism” through their actions.
Again, he is confronting a problem that North Koreans can recognize in their everyday lives: people using their access to resources that ostensibly belong to the nation, for personal enrichment. He also stated that underground resources mustn’t be developed ``chaotically,” implying the authorities wish to reassert central control.
In his first major speech, delivered during Kim Il-sung’s birthday bash, Kim Jong-un reiterated many of the things we’d expect Kim Jong-il to say: It was as if he was reading from his father’s script. For his second speech he chose something new. It seems he is slowly finding his own voice. Whether he will be able to do anything about the weeds in his country is another thing.
The writer is the executive director of Choson Exchange, a nonprofit focused on knowledge exchange in economics, business and law in North Korea. His email address is email@example.com.