We have emphasized the underlying contradictions in the so-called byungjin line: the policy announced following the Central Committee Plenum and Supreme People’s Assembly meeting in the spring that North Korea would simultaneously pursue economic reform and its nuclear weapons program. Our argument– outlined in detail for a piece in Foreign Policy—rested on the premise that a small economy such as North Korea’s could ultimately only grow through infusions of investment and development assistance and a more export-oriented growth strategy. But the country’s nuclear strategy places limits on all components of such a policy, deterring private investors, limiting multilateral and bilateral aid and inviting sanctions that limit trade.
However, there is a way that this circle might be squared, at least in the heads of the North Korean leadership: that the maintenance of nuclear weapons is both militarily and politically necessary if the regime wants to reduce its conventional forces and redeploy them to economic activities. Assuming that the country’s policy is coherent—which it currently does not appear to be—this strategy might offer one explanation for what Pyongyang is doing.
This is not the first time the regime has sought to square the nuclear weapons-economic reform circle. In an op-ed for the Financial Times in 2002, my colleague Marcus Noland discussed the possibility that the reforms of that year marked a wider strategic re-orientation. Recall that intelligence had revealed that Pyongyang was pursuing the nuclear option through an HEU program while continuing to develop their missile capabilities as well. But rumors also surfaced of a possible draw down of conventional forces. The reforms announced that summer would generate jobs for demobilized troops, perhaps underpinned by funding unlocked by the normalization of relations with Japan. If such a strategy was considered, it blew up as a result of Pakistani intelligence on the HEU program and the abductee issue.
We now have a report from the Tokyo Shinbun—reproduced in full in English below—that suggests something similar might be going on now. The report relies on claims by An Chan-il, a professor at Chung-ang University in South Korea, and informants he claims to have in North Korea. He asserts that the Central Military Commission (CMC) had claimed that forces would be drawn down if the February nuclear test was successful. He also cites a development we have been remarking on for some time: the increasing use of soldiers in economic activity, from agriculture and fishing to construction and the building and maintenance of infrastructure; the June announcement of a Masik Pass campaign, in which soldiers were put to work building ski runs, is exemplary.
The usual caveats apply: we have not seen Professor An’s evidence about the CMC. Troops have long been used for economic purposes, and it is hard to know whether this activity has increased. Above all, we may be attributing coherence to a regime that seems to be directionless at the moment. But while we see the nuclear and missile programs as a great expense, they may provide a minimal deterrent much more cheaply than the maintenance of a large conventional force. If demobilized, these troops would need to be employed doing something.
“Numbers of Soldiers Put To Work Full-Time in Agriculture and Fisheries To Cut North Korean Military and Defense Costs”
Some Korean People’s Army (KPA) soldiers are being put to work full-time in agriculture and fisheries as part of a restructuring reform, An Chan-il, a professor at Chung-ang University in South Korea,told the Tokyo Shimbun on 22 October. An said that the move is a transition stage measure in the plan to reduce the size of the current KPA from 1.1 million soldiers to 800,000, with the aims of cutting defense costs and improving the KPA’s food self-sufficiency.
An, a defector from North Korea and now also director of the Seoul-based World Institute for North Korean Studies, which analyzes North Korean affairs, said that he had confirmed the information with several sources in North Korea.
Up to now the KPA has secured rice for its troops from cooperative farms worked by farmers. It also has fishermen operate its fishing vessels by leasing or selling them to them, and collects fishing fees or obtains marine products from the fishermen. However, at an expanded meeting of the Central Military Commission of the Workers’ Party of Korea held just before North Korea’s nuclear test in February this year, Pyongyang announced, “If the nuclear test is successful, we will begin troop reductions numbering around 300,000 soldiers.”
Since then, some soldiers attached to rear guard logistical units not in close proximity to South Korea have been made exempt from combat exercises and instead are put to work in agriculture or fisheries. A state order has been issued to transfer some parts of the cooperative farms near military facilities to the KPA. Since the conditions for agricultural and fisheries industries differ according to the military unit, the move will be tested for one to two years. An said it is a transitional measure to encourage the KPA’s self-sufficiency and to find work for soldiers since there are no workplaces to absorb discharged soldiers.
North Korean media reported that in May and September First Secretary Kim Jong Un presented fishing vessels and fish finding equipment to military units, and inspected military-related fisheries facilities. It is possible that Kim was indicating to the military his intention to have them become more self-sufficient in food.
Chang Se-ryul, a leader of the North Korea People’s Liberation Front, a defector organization made up of former KPA soldiers, also said that he has obtained information that it was decided at the expanded meeting of the WPK Central Military Commission in August to strengthen North Korea’s nuclear and missile development and to reduce the number of KPA soldiers and the amount of old equipment.