By Andrei Lankov
The present author has to start with an admission: for the last two decades I have been highly sceptical every time the international media talks of imminent reform within North Korea. I was not merely sceptical ― in many cases I enjoyed mocking those who prophesied that in the near future North Korea would finally do the right thing and become a mini-version of economically thriving China.
There has been no shortage of such predictions over the past 25 years but my scepticism has yet to let me down so far. However, this time I am not so sure whether I should stick to this well-tested approach. Recent news from Pyongyang seemingly indicates that for the first time the start of a reform process is a real possibility.
Many of the changes appear purely symbolic at first glance ― like, for instance, the explicit endorsement of the first American popular music concert in Pyongyang by Kim Jong-un himself. On the same level is his truly unprecedented decision to grant real public prominence to his wife Ri Sol-ju who has been seen next to him quite a few times.
These minor changes are by no means trivial. The open endorsement of Americana is a highly unusual for a country where the United States is (and has been for 60 years) a byword for evil. The appearance of the first lady of the “Supreme Leader” is also very unusual, since North Koreans have known for decades that they risk being sent to a prison camp should they discuss the personal lives of their leaders.
There are signs of substantive change as well. In agriculture, a major restructuring of the management and incentives system has begun and this echoes the early stages of the Chinese reforms undertaken in the late 1970s. There is talk of pending reforms in industry as well ― according to some rumours (admittedly not coming for particularly reliable sources) ― that Kim Jong-un has begun to limit the power of the military in foreign trade and the economy in general.
Reforms have clearly not begun in earnest as yet, nonetheless early signs are relatively unambiguous: the young leader certainly wants to change ― if not reform ― his country. Perhaps his ideal is a developmental dictatorship more or less similar to present day China or Vietnam (or for that matter, South Korea of the 1970s). But what are the chances of him being successful?
There are two obstacles to be overcome by the North’s would-be reformers. First, they must suppress resistance from conservatives and hardliners in the leadership who believe that reform may be potentially destabilising and dangerous. This group sees reform as an act of collective suicide and they will do all they can to reverse or hamper change.
If Kim and his supporters are able to overcome the resistance of this group they will face another, far more serious challenge, which they may still under-appreciate ― the growing radicalization of the North Korean public.
Hardliners are not necessarily paranoid in their wholesale rejection of reform. Like it or not, in the North’s unique position, reform could indeed become destabilizing.
The major issue is the existence of a successful and free South Korea. Reforms will necessitate a certain relaxation of social controls and information flowing inside the North. Very soon, North Koreans will be exposed to stark images of the South’s prosperity which still remains beyond many of their imaginations.
This exposure will make many North Koreans think that all economic difficulties that they currently face can be overcome by immediate reunification with the rich South ― on South Korean terms, if necessary. If such ideas begin to spread, the transforming North Korean government will soon discover that its public cannot be satisfied with partial change but will rather demand much more than what the elite reformists are prepared to give them.
This is a dilemma which was once experienced by Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union of the late 1980s. He wanted to improve the state socialist project and revitalise the country’s economy but soon discovered that in the process of doing so he had unleashed forces which were completely beyond his control. This might well happen to North Korean reformers as well.
For us outsiders, the attempted changes in North Korea may create a win-win situation. If Kim Jong-un succeeds in making his country in a Chinese style developmental dictatorship, it will bring dramatic improvement in the lives of North Koreans and, concurrently, a significant reduction of tension in the region. But if the regime collapses in the process, unification with the peaceful, prosperous South is likely to happen. Both outcomes are seemingly preferable to the perpetuation of the current state of affairs.
Therefore, irrespective of whether Kim Jong-un is successful or not, his efforts should be welcomed and supported by the outside world.
Professor Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.