26 August 2020

What my travels in North Korea taught me about Kim’s new strategy

By Harry Clynch

To drive through the North Korean countryside is a strangely moving experience – beautiful and disturbing in equal measure. The permanence of the charming terrain, mountainous and green, contrasts with the fragility of the people who crouch on the side of empty motorways, staring vacantly, ground down by the monotony and harshness of life under Kim Jong-un’s regime. The country’s stunning natural beauty, surrounded everywhere by disaster, seems to embody a tragic national story of lost potential; that of a warm and spirited people frittered away by the delusions and lunacies of their leaders.

The observation that North Korea is an economic basket case is hardly groundbreaking, but what is interesting is Kim Jong-un’s new-found openness regarding his country’s plight. In an address to the Workers’ Party Politburo last Wednesday, the Supreme Leader made the unprecedented step of openly admitting the grave economic problems his regime faces. Kim spoke directly of “unexpected and inevitable challenges” and acknowledged his economic development goals had been “seriously delayed”. In a departure from the usual proclamations of triumph and jubilation, Kim offered a candidly bleak assessment of the triple danger posed by UN sanctions, harsh seasonal flooding, and the global pandemic.

As North Korea hurtles towards its worst economic contraction for over two decades, many commentators have read this uncharacteristic (relative) frankness as implying that a full-blown crisis is taking place in Pyongyang. With the South Korean intelligence service, the NIS, declaring that Kim has apparently delegated authority over foreign affairs to his sister Kim Yo-jong, some of the more hysterical analysts have even suggested that the Supreme Leader is struggling to retain his authority. In reality, last week’s Politburo address is the latest step towards Kim’s long-term strategic goal of redefining the nature of the North Korean economy and its relationship with the global markets, as he tries to avert complete economic collapse. 

On a trip to North Korea last August, I witnessed one of the North Korean regime’s annual ‘Mass Games’ in Pyongyang’s Workers’ Stadium. With thousands of heavily drilled schoolchildren in minutely choreographed spectacles, participants come together in huge numbers to display images exhibiting the leadership’s teachings. In turn, this propaganda projects the ideas and policies that the regime wishes to display to its citizens and the world.

The games clearly emphasised Kim’s desire to see North Korea integrated into the global diplomatic and, more pressingly, economic order. The regime declared with one spectacle the need for ‘multilateral foreign relations’. Another offered comradeship to the foreign countries that North Korea has historically shunned: ‘solidarity, cooperation, good neighbourliness, friendship’. 

Whilst it may be tempting to dismiss these statements as political clichés, they actually imply a radical reinterpretation of the juche idea, the principle of self-sufficiency which has defined the country since its birth.

This shift is a deliberate response to near-complete economic failure. Even when dining in Pyongyang’s finest restaurants, one cannot escape the sheer decrepitude of the North Korean economy. My lunch at the prestigious Okryu-gwan was punctuated by constant power cuts, as I sat surrounded by members of the military elite slurping, jackets off, on their cold noodles. The (relative) decadence of the food, the grandiosity of the building, and the ignorant swagger of the regime’s top brass seemed to be almost obscene given the realities lurking outside, and seeping through, the restaurant’s walls.

As you move out of Pyongyang, by far the country’s richest city, the situation gets even worse. Hotels in the ancient city of Kaesong are unable to provide hot water. In Majon, on the country’s east coast, you can’t get running water at all. And bear in mind these are the places carefully selected by the regime to represent the country to foreign tourists in the best possible light.

North Korea was doing badly enough before the 2017 UN sanctions passed in response to intercontinental ballistic missile tests. Most forms of commerce, apart from some trade across the Chinese border and illegal maritime trade, are impossible. The sanctions are so extensive that even the importing of nail-clippers is prohibited on the grounds of potential dual usage of the stainless steel they are made of. Heavy restrictions on crude oil imports mean the country cannot sustain manufacturing or generate sufficient electricity. To add to the chaos, torrential rain this August has devastated rice fields, jeopardising already precarious food supply-chain. Add to that the many problems stemming from the Covid pandemic and it’s clear that the regime is in serious trouble.

Kim’s reinterpretation of juche, and open discussion of his country’s economic turmoil, is therefore driven by a practical need to prevent the economic breakdown which would echo the famines of the late 1990s. That disaster left both an indelible mark on the North Korean people and an unspoken question mark over the regime’s legitimacy. Whilst for now no opposition to the Kim dynasty can exist – so ruthlessly effective has the family been in dismantling all public and private sources of independent thought over the last six decades – a repeat of the famine years could conceivably create the conditions in which viable challenges to the Supreme Leader’s authority finally emerge.

On the foreign policy front, Kim’s top priority is to thrash out a comprehensive treaty with the United States, as he tried to do unsuccessfully at the Singapore and Hanoi summits of late 2018 and early 2019. In exchange for denuclearisation, this would (at least partially) lift sanctions and begin the process of integrating North Korea into the global economic order. Kim’s words last week are yet another sign this is a price he is more than willing to pay.

But even if Kim can come to an agreement in words, the more fundamental task of re-orientating North Korea towards the global marketplace, an essential precondition of economic recovery, will be far more difficult. North Korea has few of the trappings of an advanced economy. As I saw for myself in rural areas, the country’s agriculture still depends largely on mules. There were few sightings of machinery and many more of peasants enduring back-breaking work on tiny collectivised farms. In Hamhung, North Korea’s second largest city, a farm-owner I met had never even heard of the Chinese renminbi or US dollar – hard foreign currency coveted in Pyongyang – and instead insisted on payment in ‘our money’, the Korean won, which is so weak as to be almost worthless.

What does this farm-owner have in common with her counterpart in Seoul, let alone the world beyond? Decades of a Stalinist command-and-control economy mean North Korea is simply neither ready nor able to join the complex, ‘multilateral’ order it so desperately needs to embrace.

Even modest modernisation projects designed to jolt the country into the 21st century have been met with quiet discontentment by locals. When I visited the city of Wonsan, recently kitted out with a new airport and tourist facilities, there was clear resentment towards the minor influx of (mainly Chinese) foreigners which had followed. Enduring parochialism and xenophobia will make integration into the world markets arduous: a nation whose economy and identity are based on rejecting the outside world will inevitably struggle to join it.

Likewise, even if he can mitigate some of his country’s endless domestic problems, Kim is unlikely to find an outside world waiting for him with open arms. China, in particular, will resist any changes to North Korea’s international status that would threaten Beijing’s control over the regime. Washington and Seoul are unlikely to be charitable disposed towards Kim, whoever the next US president is.

The stakes are clearly high. As Kim now openly admits, his country is on the precipice of economic collapse. It is out of necessity and an instinct for self-preservation that he is prepared to drop many of the principles that have defined the regime for the last seven decades. But whether the North Korean public accepts this could be another matter. 

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Harry Clynch is a former chairman of the Cambridge University Conservative Association. He now works in the City of London.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.