North Korea and the Exit From Totalitarianism



by Mark P. Barry


Will Kim Jong Un’s North Korea be reminiscent of the Soviet Union’s early perestroika of 1986? Is there impending economic restructuring in the North that is comparable to what China undertook in 1979? It’s possible that a process may have recently begun whereby North Korea could eventually shift from totalitarianism (or total control of public and private life) to authoritarianism (with minimal pluralism and autonomy in private life), drawing from the recent experiences of China. But in North Korea, structural reforms will not be the only requisite of change. Behind the scenes, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) will also need to negotiate its exit from totalitarianism and seek the support of its neighbors, especially South Korea, Japan, and the United States.


Many Asian affairs analysts are taking the measures adopted by North Korea under its new leader in the past two months seriously. One of the most significant appraisals has been from Andrei Lankov, a noted Russian-born Korea specialist teaching in Seoul. Lankov is a long-time skeptic that North Korea would ever be capable of lasting reforms. However, earlier this month, he surprised his readers by admitting that “[r]ecent news from Pyongyang seemingly indicates that for the first time the start of a reform process is a real possibility.” He outlines minor changes that seem trivial at first but really reveal substantive reforms.


Lankov cites the July public endorsement by Kim Jong Un himself of the first American popular music concert in Pyongyang (featuring unlicensed costumed Disney characters and music from the Rocky theme and Sinatra’s “My Way”). Equally important was his decision to give public prominence to his wife, Ri Sol-ju, who was unveiled only weeks ago. In contrast, no female companion ever publicly appeared with his father, Kim Jong Il, and Kim Il Sung’s second wife, Kim Song Ae, was seldom seen. Lankov observes: “The open endorsement of Americana is 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.”


Among substantive changes, a major restructuring of the management and incentives system in agriculture termed the “June 28 Economic Measures Decreed by Kim Jong Un to Launch an Economic Management System in Our Own Style,” echoing the early stages of Chinese reforms, has been launched. Taking over the reins of power in December 1978, Deng Xiaoping initiated China’s opening by calling on party members to be “pathbreakers who dare to think, explore new ways and generate new ideas.” Lankov also notes speculation of “pending reforms in industry as well … that Kim has begun to limit the power of the military in foreign trade and the economy in general.” This refers to Kim Jong Un’s removal last month of  Vice Marshal Ri Yong Ho, chief of the general staff, and one of the pallbearers at Kim Jong Il’s funeral last December. A possible interpretation, says Korea analyst Ken Gause, is that Kim’s government is “finally distancing itself from the regime’s most powerful institution: its military.”


John Delury, a China specialist, observes of these changes, “It’s not glasnost yet, but Kim has talked openly about North Korea’s food problem, consumer goods problem, and the importance of ‘fully solving the problems arising in developing the economy and improving the people’s living standards.’” He notes the DPRK’s new economic policies indicate increasing pragmatism, experimentalism, and transparency—“hallmarks of China’s epic shift from Mao to Deng.”


Lankov points to the ramifications of these changes. While Kim Jong Un is likely striving for a developmental dictatorship, along the models of China and Vietnam, two serious obstacles must be overcome. First, Kim and his supporters “must suppress resistance from conservatives and hardliners in the leadership who believe that reform may be potentially destabilizing and dangerous. This group sees reform as an act of collective suicide and they will do all they can to reverse or hamper change.”


A far more serious challenge, which Lankov believes Kim’s regime may under-appreciate, is the “growing radicalization of the North Korean public.” Reform could indeed become destabilizing and would, in his words:


“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.”


Soviet President Gorbachev faced this dilemma in the late 1980s. In the process of revitalizing the country’s economy, he discovered he had unleashed forces beyond his control. This could easily happen to potential North Korean reformers as well and is presumably why Kim Jong Il chose not to emulate China. If the North Korean public began to feel less threatened by its government and were to learn more about the outside world (e.g., from the steady supply of black market South Korean movies and TV shows on DVDs and USB drives flowing in from China), they would likely be dissatisfied with moderate concessions and demand more.


The communist parties of China and Vietnam have remained in full control while at the same time restructuring their economies, which requires sufficient economic freedom to succeed without loss of the regime's political power. In the end, each may have to yield more political power to public demands. Both societal and economic independence will eventually require political freedom to protect the fruits of the new economy for individuals and the country as a whole. The elites themselves may seek a change in the political and legal structure of the country in order to secure their wealth for future generations.


But beyond internal structural change, China and Vietnam surely negotiated their exits from totalitarian systems with those countries that could otherwise destabilize them: their neighbors, especially Japan, and the United States. These discussions were likely not formal but conducted through discreet diplomatic conversations. The United States supported Vietnam’s efforts at economic reform in 1986 (finally establishing diplomatic relations with Vietnam in 1995), as did Japan and other international financial institutions.


That the United States and other major powers supported the aspiration for economic reform by totalitarian regimes has less to do with democratic ideals and human rights, and much more with economics. Isolated totalitarian regimes, like North Korea, can inflict considerable damage upon regional and world economies. Not surprisingly, last November, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote about the Pacific century that “[o]ne of the most important tasks of American statecraft over the next decade will … be to lock in a substantially increased investment—diplomatic, economic, strategic, and otherwise—in the Asia-Pacific region.” China continues to prop up North Korea because an unstable DPRK will adversely affect its own and the rest of East Asia’s economies. Moreover, China encourages the North’s economic opening, albeit one managed by the Korean Workers Party, to create greater stability on its periphery.


To avoid potential Finlandization by China, North Korea, like Vietnam, will find it necessary and useful to quietly negotiate its eventual exit from totalitarianism with its most economically important neighbors: South Korea, Japan, China and even the United States.


Kim Jong Un may indeed be trying to experiment with viable avenues of economic and societal change without reducing the state’s political power. If over time North Korea were to move toward authoritarianism, it would make reunification that much easier, politically and economically. The DPRK would be meeting the South at a halfway point. Moreover, an exit from totalitarianism would give Kim Jong Un and his supporters the pride that, as Sinatra sang, they did it their way.




Mark P. Barry, Ph.D., is an independent Asian affairs analyst who has followed Northeast Asian affairs for 22 years. He met the late President Kim Il Sung in 1994.


[Photo courtesy of Vacclav]

Asia, China, Kim Jong Un, North Korea, South Korea, Vietnam