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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

The New Year’s Editorial

by and Alex Melton | January 18th, 2012 | 06:40 am
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On January 1, KCNA published the annual joint editorial (appearing in the Rodong Sinmun, Joson Inmingun and Chongnyon Jonwi), and everyone has weighed in on it. Scott Snyder, for the Asia Foundation, is useful because he also outlines Lee Myung Bak’s parallel statement. We divide our analysis into three parts: politics and ideology; the economics, with a particular attention to the food issue; and foreign policy,

The Politics

This year’s editorial was naturally preoccupied with the transition. The central theme was the need for party, citizens and military to unite behind the leadership of Kim Jong Un. The editorial begins with a long paean to Kim Jong Il’s accomplishments and virtues. But its purpose is clearly to establish the continuity of the new regime with the old: to “demonstrate the steadfast continuity of the revolution in Korea, which stoutly carries forward one ideology and one bloodline.”  (On the familial and racialist components of North Korean ideology, the locus classicus is B.R. Myers The Cleanest Race. )

The editorial makes no fewer than nine reference to Mt. Paektu. Kim Jong Il was almost certainly born in Russia. But in the early 1980s the North Korean propaganda machine began to identify his birthplace as the secret military barracks on Mt. Paektu from which Kim Il Sung (and his wife Kim Chong-suk) directed anti-Japanese activities. Paektu thus invokes both the revolutionary lineage of Kim Il Sung—mentioned repeatedly in the editorial—and of Kim Jong Il.

In one of its stranger passages–reminiscent of the mystery of the trinity–the editorial notes that Kim Jong Un is not only the “eternal centre of [the country’s] unity”—Kim Jong Il was also initially identified as the “party center”–but that “the dear respected Kim Jong Un is precisely the great Kim Jong Il.” From the perspective of spectacle—and perhaps even of divine timing—the 100th and 75th anniversaries of the births of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il might just provide the perfect backdrop for Kim Jong Un’s assumption of leadership. If there is any shred of doubt about Kim Jong Un’s status, we could not find it: he is referenced as “supreme leader,” as “supreme leader of the party” and as “supreme commander of the armed forces.”

With respect to the overall policy direction, we reported in an earlier post on some debate about whether the military-first (songun) line would continue or whether greater weight would be given to the party. A simple count finds roughly equal references to both juche and songun, and to the juche and songun eras. During the transition at least, we would expect military-first references to persist, and the section of the editorial devoted to the KPA precedes the section on the Party. However, the following passage caught our eye because of its crisp statement of the interdependence between the leader, party and military:

“The entire army should place absolute trust in and follow Kim Jong Un and become human rifles and bombs to defend him unto death, holding high the slogan “Let us defend with our very lives the Party Central Committee headed by the dear respected Comrade Kim Jong Un!”

There is potentially something significant here. In most communist systems—the Soviet Union, China, Vietnam—the central committee matters, except during periods of extreme “leaderism”: high Stalinism and Maoism. Under Kim Jong Il, the Central Committee became moribund. Perhaps it will be revived, although there is only limited evidence of it to date.

A number of analysts, including the Chosun Ilbo, have seized on a subtle ideological issue: the diminution of expectations signaled by a modification of the “strong and prosperous nation” concept (kang song dae guk). According to the DailyNK, this change actually happened around the time of the fall harvest under Kim Jong Il. The strong and prosperous nation concept—dating ironically to Japan’s similar Meiji ideology of “prosperous country, strong army” (fukoku kyohei)—rested on three pillars: ideology, military and economy. The leadership has claimed that North Korea has already achieved “strong and prosperous” status with respect to ideology and military capabilities, no doubt in part because of nuclear weapons. The regime only needed to complete the trifecta by becoming prosperous; 2012 was going to “open the door” to this prospect.

But in the 2012 editorial, the concept has been downgraded to simply “thriving” nation or country (kang song guk ga or 강성국가). The difference between the two is the omission of the letter dae, literally meaning large or grand and coming ultimately from the Chinese character 大. Did the propaganda apparatus see costs in continuing to claim that North Korea would become a great power?

The Economics

Much attention is always given to how economic and foreign policy issues are played. The Chosun Ilbo analysis cited above notes an overall decline in the weight of the economic section of the editorial (from 29% last year to 16% this year), a typical of example of the misuse of statistics: any such count is naturally skewed by the attention given to the death of Kim Jong Il. More troubling is the decline in references to light industry (kyung gong op) from last year (from 21 times to five) and people’s standard of living (in min seng hwal; 19 times to only three).

In fact, the order of presentation in the economic section is arguably more hopeful: light industry leads, followed by a surprisingly frank discussion of food issues; followed by basic industries, but with an emphasis on power and coal, then steel, then rail, then chemicals, but with fertilizer mentioned explicitly; and closing with technological upgrading and science and technology. This order is about right, and we were heartened that the arms industry was not explicitly mentioned as a leading sector, as it has been in the past.

Given our interest in food, we were naturally heartened to see the blunt assessment that “the food problem is a burning issue in building a thriving country.” The section is worth quoting in full:

“At present, the food problem is a burning issue in building a thriving country. Today Party organizations’ militant efficiency and officials’ loyalty to the revolution will be verified in solving this problem. They should implement to the letter the Party’s policy of agricultural revolution so as to radically increase the per-unit area yield of grain both in lowlands and highlands. It is important to achieve cyclic production between farming and stockbreeding, introduce the organic farming method of our style in a proactive manner and take timely measures to satisfy the demand for farming materials and machinery needed to hit the target for agricultural production. They should ensure that the modern bases for stockbreeding and poultry farming and large-size fruit and fish farms, all having an important share in the improvement of people’s living standards, run at full capacity.”

But this raised the question of whether this language was out-of-the ordinary and whether there was any relationship between what the regime said in the New Year’s editorial and estimates of the food shortfalls. Below is a graph of our estimates of the food balances.  As can be seen, North Korea is a chronically food insecure, but with some periods worse than others.

As we’ve discussed at length in previous posts, our estimate of the North Korean food balance is not always in line with the FAO/WFP estimates.  Taking the UN system estimate at its word, North Korea would have been in famine in all but two years of our graph.  The differences have been less drastic in more recent years.  Beginning in 2005, both estimates show North Korea in a slight surplus that lasts into the beginning of 2007.  The estimates diverge in 2008, but then both show North Korea returning to a deficit between 2009 and the present.

How does this line up with what the regime has said in its New Year’s editorials? Below we extract some of the segments of the New Year’s editorials from the last seven years dealing with food. But first, we take a quick look back to the end of the famine period (bold added):

1997 New Year Editorial:

The central task of socialist economic construction this year is to tap and utilize the economic potentials to the maximum, decisively solve the food problem, radically improve the people’s standard of living, promote land administration and lay a solid foundation for the prosperity of the country under the slogan of self-reliance.”

Next, we look at 2005-2006, which closely corresponds to the period where both UN and Haggard-Noland estimates showed a small surplus in the food balance. No mention of a “food problem”:

2005 New Year Editorial:  “Agriculture is the main front of socialist economic construction this year. It is necessary for the agricultural field to continue implementing the policy of bringing about a signal turn in seed improvement, the policy of cultivating two crops a year, the policy of bringing about a signal turn in potato farming, the policy of successfully growing bean and other Party policies of making the agricultural revolution, the validity of which has been proved in practice. To this end, it is required to widely sow high-yield varieties, supply a sufficient quantity of fertilizers and agricultural chemicals to the countryside, actively introduce modern farming methods and raise the rate of mechanization of farm work.”

2006 New Year Editorial:  Agriculture should be put forward as the main front of the economic construction this year, too and all the forces be mobilized and concentrated on farming once again. The whole country must turn out as one in the agricultural front true to the vital instructions of President Kim Il Sung who said that “Rice means socialism”. Labour forces, equipment and materials needed in the agricultural sector should be provided preferentially without any reservation. It is important to buckle down to a job in a revolutionary way as the People’s Army does so as to make fresh progress in implementing the Party’s policies of bringing about innovations in seed production, potato and soya bean cultivation and two-crop-a-year farming. The officials and other working people in the field of agriculture should do the farm work tenaciously as befitting the master responsible for the nation’s rice supply while all helpers should sincerely assist the countryside just as they did last year.”

Lastly, we look at some editorials from 2008-2011, which corresponds with a steady deterioration in the food balance.

2008 New Year Editorial: “At present there is no more urgent and important task than solving the problem of food. The agricultural sector should radically increase grain output by planting high-yielding varieties on a wide scale and introducing advanced farming technology and methods as required by the Party’s policy of bringing about a drastic change in agriculture. It should consolidate the achievements made over the past decade in implementing the Party’s policy of improving potato farming and cultivate beans well as the KPA does. Agricultural officials and working people should make great efforts to do farming by themselves with the attitude of being masters.”

2009 New Year Editorial:  “A radical turn should be brought about in the efforts to improve the people’s living standard. To relieve scarcity of food is a pressing problem. We should concentrate all efforts on hitting this year’s target of grain production with the extraordinary determination to solve food problem by our own efforts in any circumstances. We should give fuller play to the vitality of the Party’s policies of improving the seed, doing double cropping and boosting potato and soya bean output and promote material and technological assistance to the rural community. The fishery sector should develop the production of aquatic products, the seafood cultivation and fish farming to contribute to improving the people’s diet.”

2011 New Year Editorial:  “The agricultural front is the lifeline for solving the problem of people’s living. We should take bringing about an innovation in agricultural production as the key to giving full play to the advantages of our style of socialism and opening the gates of a thriving country. The agricultural sector should thoroughly implement the Party’s policies of seed revolution, double cropping, revolution in potato farming and soybean farming, and actively introduce advanced farming methods and techniques including organic farming. Competition should be vigorously pressed on to drastically boost unit-area grain yield by learning after the model units that are realizing with credit the Party’s far-reaching plan of rural construction. Today, our Party appeals for a revolution in aiding the countryside. Upholding the intention of the Party to solve the food problem without fail, state investment in the agricultural sector should be radically increased. All sectors and all units should give priority to the provision of materials necessary for farming in advance of farming processes.”

In short, the language of the editorials does appear to reflect trends in food balances.  The 2005-2007 editorials paint a rosier picture with most language focusing on increasing efficiency and crop yields.  There is even a hint of optimism as the 2005 editorial states the party’s policies toward an agricultural revolution have “been proved in practice.”

Things get much gloomier beginning in 2008 and continuing with the 2012 editorial.  The language reverts back to what we see in the 1997 editorial where the regime openly recognizes scarcity or “the food problem.” Of course, such signals are designed to show an openness to aid, but we are inclined to believe that the need for aid reflects the underlying reality.

As always, however, the question is not simply how issues are prioritized but what the regime plans to do about it. As in the past, the policy measures in the food sector are the kind of top-down measures that have gotten the country into trouble in the first place: exhortations to increase domestic yields by following instructions more diligently.  There is no hint that the food problem might best be solved by reforming the cooperative system or earning foreign exchange and importing it.

Similarly, a focus on light industry is welcome; in debates in communist systems, “light industry” has historically been a euphemism for greater attention to consumer welfare and even the market. But the editorial also makes numerous references to the “flames of Hamnam” or South Hamgyung. The reference is to some on-the-spot guidance visits that Kim Jong il took to the region to praise workers in the coal and chemical industries. A report by KBS (in Korean) notes that the term is used in 5-minute TV campaigns.  These exhortations could be read as regional or sectoral appearls to heavy industry. Unfortunately, we are more inclined to read them as Stakhanovite exhortations akin to the recurrent Cholima campaigns.

North Korea Today also reports that the economic policy news may not be so good, and that the government’s short-run economic priorities are—not surprisingly—control-oriented. Goodfriends 434 (available at present through Reliefweb) reports that since October—when Kim Jong Un was retroactively invested with power—his economic team has been pursuing the following priorities, inter alia:

  • While next year’s food supply must be ensured, priority should be given to Pyongyang, Hoeryong, government officials, legal institutions and the army bases.
  • “Border crossing must be eliminated by any means,” and illegal cellphones confiscated, primarily because of heightened concerns about any links to defectors and the North Korean community in China and South Korea;
  • Imports must be reduced, and foreign currency must be saved to be invested in important industries, including the defense industry.
  • The presence of foreign goods in the domestic market should be reduced by half, Chinese goods in particular. According to Goodfriends, “gradually, foreign goods must be eliminated from the domestic market, and all markets other than the farmers’ market should be reduced or eliminated by ensuring the satisfactory supply of goods domestically.”

Again, such measures may only be transitional as the regime emphasizes social control. But nothing on this list of policy measures constitutes a positive signal.

Foreign Policy

Finally, the foreign policy section of the editorial is striking in its overwhelming preoccupation with North-South relations. Passing reference is made to Kim Jong Il’s trips to China and Russia, and an explicit reference is made to the fact that American forces should be withdrawn. But the most noteworthy feature of the editorial is its focus on the October 4 Declaration—the outcome of the Roh Moo Hyun-Kim Jong Il summit of 2007—as the “action program” of the June 15 Joint Declaration, the  much more terse outcome of the 2000 Kim Dae Jung-Kim Jong Il summit. We read this as another bid to get North-South relations on track for pressing economic reasons, despite the strong anti-LMB rhetoric. But those signals may be aimed at LMB’s successor. If past experience is any guide, North Korea is probably going to wait out the elections in the South.