I’m in Seoul, South Korea, the perfect place to reflect on the goings-on across the border, in Pyongyang. In the wake of Kim Jong Il’s death, North Korea is proceeding with business as usual – or at least that seems to be the case, based on what little scraps of information leak out of the hermit nation. Another Kim, Kim Jong Un, has been named the Great Successor. The strange imperial Communist dynasty has managed to defy the tide of history and persist in its isolated, belligerent, misguided ways.
Nothing could be more depressing to anyone who cares at all about the Korean people. Sitting here in Seoul, amid the tremendous new wealth generated by an education-minded, outward-looking people, it becomes horrifyingly clear how the Kims have deprived more than 20 million Koreans from tapping into their true potential. Seeing what marvels the South Koreans have proven capable of, you can only wonder at how successful their northern brethren could have been as well. If. If the Kims weren’t around.
Is there any hope that North Korea will change, pursue economic reform, and follow in the footsteps of the South? My colleague Bill Powell wrote about some experts who make the case for hope. As Bill reported the other day, Kim Jong Il’s passing could present an opportunity for the regime to alter course. Kim Jong Un, after all, was educated in Europe. Less insular than many other Pyongyang cadres, he might be more willing to reform the economy and start playing catch-up with the South. I do sincerely hope they may be right on this one. But after watching North Korea for 16 years, I have my doubts.
I first arrived in Seoul in 1996, as the correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, and one of the more bewildering questions I started to struggle with was why Pyongyang refused to learn from South Korea and match the pro-growth policies implemented in Seoul. South Korea’s development story, as I’ve written in this space before, is one of the world’s truly amazing, arguably the most miraculous in a region that specializes in economic miracles. South Korea, more than any other country, proves that a small nation with few natural resources or competitive advantages can lift itself into the ranks of the advanced economies, with lofty income levels, world-class industries and high-tech savvy, through smart policymaking, trade and globalization. Most of all for our purposes here, South Korea offers a made-to-order model for Pyongyang to copy to achieve its own economic miracle.
Yet North Korea never has. It has remained wedded to its ideology of juche, or self-reliance, even though the policy has achieved the very opposite: Rather than building North Korea into a strong, independent nation, it has turned the country into an international beggar, dependent on handouts from China and elsewhere to feed its people and sustain its government. Pyongyang would rather sell drugs and engage in other illegal businesses than pursue legitimate trade; it prefers to live off U.N. food aid and funnel what few resources it has into a destabilizing nuclear weapons program. I have to admit that for a long time I couldn’t understand Pyongyang’s behavior. If North Korea really wished to match the South and its American ally militarily, the only way was to develop a stronger economy. But the regime seemed intent on pursuing a self-defeating strategy that made it more vulnerable to outside influence and foreign threats.
My confusion only grew once I visited North Korea. I have been there twice, in 2000 and 2002, and it is the most depressing place I have ever been. Pyongyang is clearly a city that reached its prime 50 years ago. The wide streets, impressive monuments and sturdy buildings look frozen in time, back to the 1950s and 1960s, when the North, backed by the rest of the Communist world, was richer than the South. North Korea’s development stopped decades ago, and it has been in a slow decline ever since, to the point now that it can longer feed its own people. But what I found most surprising is that some of the North Koreans I met seemed to know full well just how badly their nation had fallen behind, or at least had a good idea. One of the officials who escorted me during my 2002 visit had lived a chunk of his life in Singapore, spoke fluent English and was obviously knowledgeable about what was happening in South Korea and elsewhere. He talked of the technological prowess of Samsung, and how he read TIME magazine. What this indicated to me was that the North Korean leadership isn’t in a self-induced haze, so isolated that it has no clue how badly off the country had become. I discovered that the North Korean leadership knew North Korea was trailing its Southern rival, and by miles, but still did nothing about it. What this also told me is that the self-destructive economic policies pursued by North Korea weren’t just the perverted ravings of a megalomaniacal Kim Jong Il. The North’s economic agenda has to have received some degree of support from the elite of the nation overall. The educated and informed of North Korea were for some reason participating in their own impoverishment.
Why would that be? Why would the leadership of a nation actively engage in a policy to weaken itself? North Korea may be an extreme case, but the pattern of its economic behavior can be seen again and again among the world’s petty dictatorships. My feeling is that there is a group of North Koreans in Pyongyang, perhaps only a fraction of the population, who are close to the regime and feed off the system, and don’t want to see it changed. This clique probably includes the leadership of the military, senior members of the Communist Party and top officials of government bureaucracy. Would they be even better off by reforming the economy and creating more wealth for themselves and rest of the North Korean people? Of course. But they’re not necessarily willing to take the risk. I believe they are afraid that reform means they would have to compete to maintain the advantages they possess, and thus they could potentially lose them. They’d rather pick off the remaining scraps from the rotting North Korean corpse than revive it and provide more meat for all. It’s a sick way of thinking, but it’s the only explanation I’ve come up with to understand North Korea’s economic policies.
That’s why Pyongyang has studiously avoided following not only South Korea’s example, but China’s as well. Beijing offers, in many ways, a more attractive model, since the Communist Party there has managed to bring about economic development while maintaining its grip on power. You’d think that’s something the Kim regime would find very appealing. But despite numerous trips to China, Kim Jong Il returned home and ignored whatever he had learned in the Middle Kingdom. Perhaps, in this situation, Kim was looking south, where economic progress led to a political opening and the emergence of a vibrant democracy. Whatever the influence might be, Kim and the people around him continued to see economic reform as a route that would undermine their privileges, and possibly the regime itself, and they would rather preserve those privileges than improve the welfare of the North Korean people or the performance of the economy overall.
Now Kim Jong Il is gone, and his son is taking his place. Will Kim Jong Un take a different course? I am skeptical. The Great Successor would have to convince the North Korean elite that economic progress would be in their interests. There is no indication that he believes such a thing himself, nor is it clear that even if he does, he commands the influence and respect within the government to undertake a dramatic shift in long-standing economic policy. Yes, it is the early days of the new leader, and we’ll have to wait and see what direction he eventually chooses to take. Hopefully that direction will lead south, to Seoul, where the government would be eager to provide advice, assistance and support to any economic reform agenda. But I fear that, like his father, this new Kim will look across the border, at the bright lights, soaring skyscrapers, and contented people and turn his back.