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Restoring balance to the peninsula

There are encouraging signs of stability in the North

Restoring balance to the peninsula
Yang Moo-jin, Seoul

September 21, 2012

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In some respects the leadership transition in North Korea has provided a measure of stability to the country. Kim Jong-un has, after much initial speculation, has firmly gripped the reins of power. He has also proven to be a much more visible leader than his father and predecessor in the family dynasty, Kim Jong-il. Moreover, he appears to be securing the loyalty of Communist Party leaders and the military, thought his approach to the so-called “son-gun” politics differs from his father. Under the previous regimes of Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung, the military enjoyed a more favored status within the pariah state than the Communist Party and heavily influenced social and political policy. The military was also involved in a wide array of business ventures to bolster foreign currency reserves. However, Kim Jong-un has taken steps to curtail this influence while positioning the government and party leaders to reacquire these powers. In economic matters, the government also appears to be treading new ground with the tentative exploration of slightly more liberal policies. The Worker’s Party’s message these days is that it aims to bolster economic development so that the people can enjoy a better culture and a happier life. In other words, the “son-gun” policy has been replaced by one of prosperity for all, though in a very early stage. This may be nothing more than an opening for change. But that alone constitutes a change. The principal indicators of reformation in a socialist country include any power shift in the leadership of the Communist Party, a change of ownership of the means of production (privatization) or any alteration to the centralized planned economy. Moreover, any policy of “opening up” would further see a liberalization of foreign trade, expansion of exports and an increase in foreign investment. Among recent changes under Kim Jong-un are the restoration of land rights to farmers, a growing autonomy for individual farmers and business owners, and more control over how they dispose of their surplus products. North Korea is currently exploring the establishment of a handful of new special economic zones. In 2010 it announced the ambitious hope of attracting foreign investment of up to US$60 billion through these zones, according to its 10-year strategy plan for economic development. It is important for the international community to support these polices and help them grow into actual reforms and help normalize relationships with foreign leaders. North Korea has taken steps to repair relations with China, which were dented by the North’s test launch of a long-range missile earlier this year. Wang Jiarui, minister of the International Department of the Chinese Communist Party paid a visit recently to Kim Jong-un. In a reciprocal move, Jang Song-thaek, vice-chairman of the National Defense Commission of North Korea traveled to China to meet Chinese President Hu Jintao. This warming trend is expected to continue, with key state visits next year by Kim Jong-un and Xi Jinping, the presumptive next president of China. Relations are warming as well with Russia, which recently forgave 90 percent of North Korea’s outstanding debt. Meanwhile, unofficial contact with the United States continues, as each side jockeys for position amid ongoing talks about economic support and the North’s nuclear program. One sticking point remains. Relations with South Korea remain deadlocked. There exists no framework for dialogue and few official exchanges. Both sides continue to reproach each other, and no leaders on either side have shown a willingness to restore normal relations. A mutual distrust and fear casts a long shadow over any potential change in this status. The South will hold presidential elections in December. Perhaps a change of leadership in South Korea could bring some movement toward rapprochement. Until that time, observers will be left speculating on intriguing but somewhat ambiguous internal shifts in the North. Yang Moo-jin is a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul
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