Pyongyang again disappointed those predicting it was about to change its ways. For months, experts and major media organizations have proclaimed imminent economic reform, even declaring that “North Korea has virtually abandoned the planned economy.” A rare second Supreme People’s Assembly this year could only mean codification of free-market principles, or so it was argued.
Yet the legislative assembly came and went in late September with nary a whisper of economic reform. What went wrong? There is a long history of grasping at North Korean straws. After the death of North Korean leader Kim Il Sung in 1994, many experts, including in the U.S. government, predicted that his successor Kim Jong Il was actually a bold reformer on the cusp of implementing massive economic reform. Well, we’re still waiting.
After Kim Jong Il failed to materialize as a reformer, a new theory arose that Pyongyang was riven with factions competing for influence over the malleable North Korea dictator. A faction of North Korean soft-liners was reportedly hiding within the regime bureaucracy, furtively sending signals to the outside world for help. If only the United States or South Korea would provide concessions, it was said, that would strengthen the nascent reform movement and thus move North Korea onto the path to righteousness.
But in reality the regime was using a classic “good cop, bad cop” strategy. As a Korean adage warns, “The same animal has soft fur and sharp claws.”
When numerous concessions didn’t bring about the desired outcome, failure was blamed on insufficient U.S. and South Korean largesse or on evil neoconservative influences in Washington and Seoul.
The death of Kim Jong Il in December and the ascent of the Western-educated Kim Jong Un resurrected the “hope springs eternal” forces. Visions of Kim fils enjoying Disney characters cavorting onstage and watching excerpts from “Rocky IV,” accompanied by his stylish wife, triggered suggestions of a new dawn in Pyongyang.
The evidence for economic reform to date is scant and based on purported private statements rather than government pronouncements. Pyongyang even responded to the speculation by denying any intent to reform. Kim Jong Un declared in April that North Korea should maintain “socialist economic principles.” In July, Pyongyang denounced suggestions of reform as “hallucinations” and said that expecting reform in North Korea was “nothing but a foolish and silly dream.”
North Korea may yet implement some economic reform, as it has in the past, only to subsequently retreat from its brushes with capitalism. But the leadership elites remain deathly afraid of relinquishing control lest it precipitate regime instability or even collapse.
More important, even widespread economic reform would not make North Korea any less repressive to its citizens or less dangerous to its neighbors.
Since Kim Jong Un’s ascent, North Korea has purged hundreds of officials, called for the assassination of the South Korean president, threatened to annihilate South Korean media and violated United Nations resolutions. In September, the Foreign Ministry vowed to expand the regime’s nuclear weapons arsenal “beyond imagination.” And Kim Jong Un has been credited by Pyongyang with masterminding North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests in 2009 and its two acts of war in 2010 that left 50 South Koreans dead.
The young leader has shown a change in style but not in policies from his predecessors. It would be naive to think that Kim Jong Un’s embrace of some Western cultural icons or even economic reforms supersedes long-standing North Korean resistance to capitalism, democracy and a nonthreatening foreign policy.
As such, the United States and its allies should be wary of growing calls to retread the same tired path of offering concessions without gaining reciprocal actions by Pyongyang. Otherwise, the latest North Korean three-card monte dealer would have found a patsy willing to ante up for another game.
Bruce Klingner is a senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation (heritage.org). He served 20 years in the U.S. intelligence community, including as deputy for the CIA’s analysis of North Korea from 1996 to 2001.