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Change in North Korea?

Yan Jun / sb
September 25, 2012

A special North Korean parliamentary session had prompted speculation about a liberalization of the isolated country based on the Chinese model. But the session ended with no sign of reform.

Kim Jong Un, right, visits Kumsusan Memorial Palace in Pyongyang, North Korea, to pay respect to his father. Photo: Korean Central News Agency via Korea News Service/AP/dapd
Image: dapd

Looking at a night-time satellite photograph of East Asia, one sees the industrial countries Japan and South Korea shining brightly. China's east coast also shines into the night. But between China and South Korea all that can be seen is a dark speck - North Korea. It is one of the poorest countries in the world. It lacks infrastructure and electricity. According to UN figures, nearly one fourth of North Koreans, around six million people, were at risk of dying from starvation in 2011.

It seems the North Korean government has recognized that the country cannot go on like this. News agency Reuters, based on insider information, reported that North Korea was set to see the most extensive economic reforms in decades. The country's farmers, according to the report, were to receive economic incentives for their products based on the Chinese model.

For the second time since the transition of power to the young Kim Jong Un, the North Korean Supreme People's Assembly held a special session on September 25. Normally there is only one parliament session per year - called to approve decisions made among party leaders.

But the session ended on Tuesday with no mention of long-awaited economic reforms. According to the state Korean Central News Agency, policy makers in the session agreed to extend compulsory schooling from 11 to 12 years and to reshuffle the parliament's standing committee.

Much is possible

Experts had hoped the country's young leader would use the special session to address more issues and even bring about fundamental changes. North Korea expert Frank Rüdiger of the University of Vienna travelled to the country a few days before the special parliamentary session. He had been hopeful that the session would be used to announce important changes.

"They could use the session to make changes in personnel or constitutional revisions. Of course, the session might also be used to usher in changes in the country's economic structure."

China's President Hu Jintao (R) shakes hands with Jang song-thaek; Photo: REUTERS/China Daily
Jang Song Thaek (l) met with Hu Jintao in AugustImage: RETUERS

New propaganda

Rüdiger told DW the atmosphere in North Korea was considerably more relaxed than when he went in April. He described a modest spirit of optimism and said that economic activity was rising considerably.

"The number of vendors in the cities - even on almost every intersection in the country side - has increased dramatically. I also looked at the slogans on the banners adorning the streets. Aside from the typical praise for the leader, increasingly, the well-being of the people as an attainable goal is also being preached."

Even if it is propaganda, such slogans could be seen as an indication to a certain extent, of the direction the country is going, according to Rüdiger.

Chinese model

Increased Chinese investment in the poor country and the conditions needed for investment - i.e. elements of a market economy - were the focal point of talks held between the influential uncle of Kim Jong Un, Jang Song Thaek, and Chinese leadership mid August in Beijing. It only seems natural that North Korea would look to its only friendly neighbor in the region for ideas.

"Looking at the Chinese model, Pyongyang believes it is possible to have a functioning economy and a dictatorship that will at least preserve the party's power for a longer amount of time. Beijing is also interested because Pyongyang could take an example and set up certain tools - for example the creation of special economic zones."

Party and military elites

But even if Kim Jong Un was planning on basing his country's development on the Chinese model, there would be great obstacles, according to Roland Hiemann of the Institute for Democracy Research in Göttingen, Germany. Elites in the party and military were evidently against the introduction of wide-reaching reforms. Kim Jong Un would thus have to have to stand up to his ally Beijing, "because he still has quite powerful people - military and party elites who would not approve of North Korea getting all too cozy with China."

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, center, accompanied by his wife Ri Sol Ju, right, waves to the crowd as they inspect the Rungna People's Pleasure Ground in Pyongyang. Photo:Korean Central News Agency via Korea News Service/AP/dapd
Observers hope the young leader will usher in reformImage: dapd

Even while the late Kim Jung Il was in power 20 years ago, discussion over the Chinese model took place - talks about economic reform without political reform - in North Korean leadership. Nothing came of the talks, according to Hiemann. Maybe a few "small cautious reforms," if anything.

"But setting up trade zones, an industrial zone with South Korea is not the same thing as making political decisions or implementing fundamental reforms."

Outsiders had hoped for reforms as early as the 1990s, when the Kim Jong Il took over from his father, state founder Kim Il Sung. Kim Jong Il had been considered to be pragmatic and flexible. Some people even described him as a "cosmopolitan leader," Hiemann recounted. But over the years, North Koreans have hardly seen an improvement in their standard of living. And after this week's special parliamentary meeting, it is still difficult to tell whether or not the dark speck in East Asia will start to shine any time soon.

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