DPRK after Kim Il Sung: Is a Second Republic Possible ?

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NAPSNet Policy Forum

Recommended Citation

Alexandre Y. Mansourov, "DPRK after Kim Il Sung: Is a Second Republic Possible ?", NAPSNet Policy Forum, September 27, 1994, http://nautilus.org/napsnet/napsnet-policy-forum/dprk-after-kim-il-sung-is-a-second-republic-possible/

DPRK after Kim Il Sung: Is a Second Republic Possible ?

Paper prepared by Alexandre Y. Mansourov, M.Phil., for

presentation at international conference on “North Korea

After Kim Il Sung” held in Melbourne, Australia, on September 26-
27, 1994

On July 8, 1994, the Great Leader Kim Il Sung passed away. This
was a momentous event in the history of the DPRK, which had not
known any other supreme leaders in its almost fifty-year
existence. The entire era of Juche-type socialist construction,
aggressive national liberation theology, boundless personality
cult, accompanied by decades of domestic stability and popular
acquiescence, seems to face an imminent and irreversible end.

Today, North Korea is in transition. Its society and polity are
undergoing often invisible but nevertheless very significant
changes. The days of the First Republic (the DPRK), founded on
September 9, 1948, appear to be numbered. But does it mean that a
Second Republic is possible and coming? This is a twofold
question. On the one hand, can the North Korean polity change its
political regime and governmental policy outputs substantially
enough to be able to adapt to dramatically changing international
and domestic socio-economic and military-political environments?
On the other hand, once such radical changes are initiated, can
North Korea survive as an independent state, and will the North
Korean leadership have enough will power to continue to exist and
function independently, despite the looming shadow of a South-led
absorption-style unification? What might be its policies? In this
paper, in my search for answers to these questions, I intend to
explore the issue of legitimacy of the new leadership in
Pyongyang, its likely direction of change in governmental
processes, and what impact these changes may have on the
evolution of the domestic and foreign policy of the DPRK after
Kim Il Sung’s death.

1. Legitimacy of a New Republic

The concept of legitimacy of a political order has multiple
meanings in the political science literature. It can be defined
either through individual attitudes toward political order,
regime, and its leaders, or as a structural property of a
political system.

In the behavioral tradition, Lipset (1960) defines legitimacy as
“ex ante commitment by elites and population to a certain
political process”, and Lamounier (1979) describes it as
“acquiescence motivated by subjective agreement with given norms
and values” (p13). Both derive it from Weberian notions of
legality (meaning ex ante acceptance) and justifiability of
dominant rules, norms, values. Habermas (1975) takes a step
further and defines legitimacy as “ex post evaluation of rules”
(which Lipset calls “effectiveness”). Although they all maintain
that ex post evaluations modify ex ante commitments, they stop
short of admitting that the very problem of compliance, the
essence of legitimacy in Schumpeter’s view, arises only because
the outcomes generated by rules are uncertain ex ante. As a
result, as Coleman (1989) put it, “consenting to a process is not
the same thing as consenting to the outcomes of the process”.
Under Kim Il Sung, these two types of consent were taken for
granted because of his personal charisma. After his death,
although top leaders in Pyongyang appear to be in consent for the
time being with the rules of the game they inherited from the
Great Leader, obviously, they are likely to challenge the
interpretation and evaluations of the outcomes of the process,
thereby undermining the legitimacy of Kim Jong Il’s rule and
eroding his grip on power. In other words, although Kim Jong Il
may initially enjoy procedural legitimacy, in the long run he
will have to work hard to gain substantive legitimacy in the eyes
of his peers and population at large.

From a structural point of view, legitimacy is defined negatively
as the lack of collectively organized alternatives (Przeworski,
1991). Hence, Przeworski argues that “what is threatening to
authoritarian regimes is not the breakdown of legitimacy but the
organization of counterhegemony: collective projects for an
alternative future. Only when collective alternatives are
available does political choice become available to isolated
individuals…As long as no collective alternatives are
available, individual attitudes toward the regime matter little
for its stability” (p54). This view fits Weber’s (1968)
conclusion that “people may submit from individual weakness and
helplessness because there is no acceptable alternative” (I,
p214). In the same vein, Stepan and Linz (1994) define legitimacy
simply as “the only game in town”, which tends to get eroded as a
civil society emerges and develops in authoritarian states. Under
Kim Il Sung, for decades his clan had been “the only game in
town”. After his death, with his clan being fractioned and
fragmented, the authority of his heir, Dear Leader, appears to be
challenged from within, and the emergence of individual
challengers is likely. However, the WPK’s grip on power is still
tight, and no “collective projects for an alternative future” are
likely to be allowed any time soon. Therefore, the Second
Republic may gain legitimacy and popular support to a degree
unexpected without any major challenge from within, unless its
claim is seriously challenged by the forceful imposition of the
South Korean way of life as a collective alternative for the
North Korean society and polity.

In order to address the question of whether the authority or
behaviorally-defined legitimacy of the North Korean authoritarian
state is eroding, it is useful to distinguish between the
different types of grounds on which political institutions can be
accepted, and compliance is granted. David Held (1987) elaborates
the following seven categories: 1) coercion, or following orders,
2) tradition, 3) apathy, 4) pragmatic acquiescence, 5)
instrumental acceptance, 6) normative agreement, and 7) ideal
normative agreement. He reserves the term legitimacy only for
categories 6 and 7, implying that people follow rules and laws
because they actually think them right and worthy of respect. “A
legitimate political order is one that is normatively sanctioned
by its population” (p238). I would extend legitimacy to
categories 4 and 5 which could be taken to imply a weak form of
legitimacy meaning that the existing state of affairs is
tolerated, and compliance is granted, in order to secure some
other desired goal. Thus, as long as these other ends appear
achievable the original situation will be agreeable. Categories
1, 2, and 3 constitute grounds for order but do not make it
legitimate. As far as the DPRK is concerned, political order is
partially voluntary and partially contrived; there are various
people in North Korea whose rationale for cooperative behavior
may fall in any of the above-mentioned categories. In the past, a
high degree of compliance and integration among all groups and
classes in the North Korean society could be explained by “shared
values” of juche. At present and in future, with the juche system
eroding and a degree of coerced compliance and apathy increasing,
the “ideological domination” of the ruling class is likely to
replace the eroding consensus on values among the population and
elites. However, in the current political order no collective
alternative appears to be possible: it was suppressed many times
in the past and it is unlikely to be allowed in the near future.
In this sense, I do not expect any erosion or radical change in
the nature of legitimacy during the transition from the First to
the Second Republic.

However, as time goes by the substantive sources of legitimacy
may vary. For instance, at different times the legitimacy of the
First Republic in North Korea has been derived from different
sources. Originally, it came from the national liberation
ideology and practice of the first Kim Il Sung governments –
their anticolonialist, nationalist and revolutionary credentials.
In the late 1950s-1960s, the legitimacy of the political regime
in Pyongyang was boosted by significant economic achievements in
the North in the rebuilding and modernization of the North Korean
industries and the dramatic improved living standards of the
general population. In the 1970s, it was the international
recognition granted to the DPRK due to its vigorous diplomacy. In
the 1980s-early 1990s, the personal charisma of the “Great
Leader” and the sanctity of the “revolutionary traditions of the
past” became the main source of the regime legitimacy.

In contrast, today a de-facto North Korean supreme leader Kim
Jong Il has very little to boast about that might reinforce his
legitimacy. I fully agree with Robert Scalapino, who argues that
in the DPRK “leaders and the party can no longer depend upon
intensive ideological indoctrination combined with a fairly high
degree of isolation of their people to preserve adherence.
Allegiance, increasingly, will be dependent upon performance, not
upon blind faith born out of ideological molding.” But it is the
Dear Leader’s performance that has been lacking for some time.
The DPRK’s economy is in deep depression characterized by
extremely low capacity utilization, historically high
unemployment, rising inflation, and shrinking disposable income.
Domestic ideology is in crisis. In the international arena, the
country is politically isolated and is being pressured hard to
give up its identity. Furthermore, Kim Jong Il does not appear to
enjoy the unconditional respect and loyalty from his associates
and some segments of the general public. Of course, he may
continue to base his claim to power on his being Kim Il Sung’s
son and, hence, the legitimate heir, but this argument is
unlikely to guarantee his future for long. To be sure, after Kim
Il Sung’s death, Kim Jong Il is being given the benefit of a
doubt by his peers, so he has some time to perform. But time is
running out, and unless he shows real leadership and delivers in
foreign policy and the economy in the next couple of years, he
may well be removed from power.

In the meantime, those who might dare to challenge Kim Jong Il
and lead the founding of the Second Republic may establish their
credentials either by incrementally denouncing the past or by
their performance only. Therefore, they either will have to
continue to “reinterpret and implement” the legacy and the last
will of the late Kim Il Sung. By definition, nobody is better fit
for this job than his son, hence this may be a losing option. Or
they may launch a de- kimilsungization of the North Korean
society and polity, which might be similar to the destalinization
and demaoization campaigns that took place in the USSR and PRC
respectively. However, this option is fraught with unpredictable
consequences, and could, therefore, be frightening.

In any case, whoever will be in charge, one can argue that the
erosion of legitimacy after the death of the Great Leader is
likely to lead to some decrease in the capacity of the North
Korean state to act effectively. From the point of view of the
overload theorists (Huntington, 1975; Brittan, 1975, 1977),
rising expectations and decline in deference are likely to lead
to excessive demands, which will strain the relationship between
the government and social groups, as well as to the growing
competition among the elites. From the standpoint of the
legitimation theorists (Habermas, 1976; Offe, 1984), the death of
God and the retreat of the state leave behind ideological and
political vacuum, undermine traditionally unquestioned Kim Il
Sung-sanctioned and state- oriented values and norms, and
politicize ever more issues, that is, open them up to political
debate and conflict. As a result, growing demands will erode
state power and shake political stability.

But it is not that North Korea is approaching the end of its
authoritarian world, or that the authority of the state is
suddenly in decline, or that legitimacy is now undermined;
rather, it is that the uncertainty, apathy, cynicism, and
scepticism of many people today lead to growing detachment and
political departicipation. At the same time, the elites find it
increasingly difficult to mobilize the population for the pursuit
of their ends and often fail to offset these sentiments by
sufficient comforts or credible promise of future benefits as the
economy runs into seemingly ever worse problems. This is the
phychological background the Second Republic will have to face.

2. New Governmental Processes:

The Great Leader Kim Il Sung passed away four months ago. All
this time the DPRK has not had an official head of state nor has
its central policy-making institution, the WPK, had its
Secretary-General. Does this mean that the country has been
unruled, and that nobody is in charge ? Or does it mean the
emergence of a new conservative regime where formal institutions
of power are disregarded, charisma and rationality as the bases
for authority give way to tradition, and supreme authority is
exercised via informal interpersonal channels? Or does this
simply mean that there are difficulties in transition and
institutional change, following such a momentuous event as the
death of Kim Il Sung, that consolidation of power by Kim Jong Il
in Pyongyang is slowing down, and that in order to disguise these
realities, North Korean propaganda works hard to finesse the
mourning period argument, which seems to be a very fluid concept
and prone to be extended endlessly?

There is no evidence to suggest that the authoritarian state is
losing even an inch of control over the society in the DPRK. Nor
is there any evidence to maintain that the bureaucratic apparati
of the state, including the KPA and the Ministry of National
Security, and of the Workers’ Party of Korea themselves doubt or
challenge the supreme leadership of Kim Jong Il in any meaningful
way today. The fact that the DPRK representative referred to Kim
Jong Il as the “supreme leader of our country” in his UN speech
in September 1994 attests to the point. Nevertheless, some
Russian sources close to a number of key WPK Politburo members
maintain that the North Korean regime is about to undergo
profound changes in the composition, functions, and roles of its
supreme political institutions, which may even amount to
constitutional changes in the form of government in Pyongyang.
What are the driving motives behind this?

First of all, observers of the North Korean politics know that
during the late period of the Kim Il Sung era there existed a
dualistic power structure, a duopoly of sorts. There were two
semi-independent hierarchies of authority, two self- sustaining
chains of command – one leading to the father and another leading
to the son with little interaction and communication in between.
While, officially, all party and state bodies were subordinated
to the President of the Republic, the General Secretary of the
WPK, and the Supreme Commander-In-Chief Kim Il Sung, the primary
institutional vehicle for maintaining Kim Jong Il’s personal
authority in all party and state organizations were the so-called
Three Revolution Small Teams (samdae hyongmyong sojo), which
amounted to the junior Kim’s personal surveillance network
planted everywhere. For instance, they are said to be operating
in the KPA down to the company level and in the Ministry of
Public Security down to the section level, not to mention
economic and political entities, where they are omnipresent. They
are believed to bypass the regular chain of command, reporting to
their own chain of command, which leads ultimately to Kim Jong
Il. Paralleling this development has been a significant increase
in the power of political commissars in the KPA and MPS. All
orders issued by military commanders and security officials
needed to be countersigned by “political deputy commanders”
(chongch’i pujihwigwan) who reported directly to Kim Jong Il’s
staff. Anyway, the death of Kim Il Sung has resulted in a
dramatic shift to a monistic (Kim Jong Il-centered) power
structure. This change brings about growing consolidation of the
previously bifurcated bureaucratic apparatus, and is reflected in
rapid promotions, early retirements and demotions, as well as
considerable rejuvenilation of the state officialdom.

Secondly, some of the current institutions, like the Presidency
and the Central People’s Committee, were originally set up
personally and specifically for the Great Leader Kim Il Sung.
With his passing, these institutions cannot function properly and
fulfil the tasks they used to, and therefore have to be
reorganized.

Until 1972, the DPRK had been a “parliamentary republic” of sorts
headed by the Chairman of the Cabinet of Ministers, relying on
unchallenged formal WPK majorities in the Supreme National
Assembly for the mandate to govern. As a result of the
constitutional changes in April 1972, the “parliamentary game”
was over and the DPRK became a “presidential republic”, with the
institution of the Presidency (chusok) with unlimited powers
having been set up specifically for Kim Il Sung. Now that Kim
Senior is dead, one of the most likely scenarios is that nobody,
including his son, will be able or allowed to exercise such
unlimited and arbitrary authority over the North Korean elites
and society at large, as Kim Il Sung did. Therefore, it is likely
that the institution of the chusok (President) will be abolished.
Instead, the institution of the taet’ongnyong, President with
representative functions only (to receive foreign delegations, to
award medals, etc.), may be created. There is a rumor that Kim Il
Sung intended to see that his younger brother Kim Yong-ju would
be appointed to such a post after his death, while Kim Jong Il
should assume the position of the Secretary-General of the CC
WPK. However, alleged strains in personal relations between Kim
Jong Il and Kim Yong-ju, as well as the fact that Kim Yong-ju is
perceived by the Pyongyang political establishment with a degree
of resentment as an outsider who spent nineteen years in oblivion
but now stakes out his claim to the pie as an equal, give
credence to an alternative scenario: perhaps the current Foreign
Minister of the DPRK Kim Yong-nam will be appointed President
(taet’ongnyong) just as the former Foreign Minister of the USSR
A.A. Gromyko was appointed Chairman of the Presidium of the
Supreme Soviet of the USSR (the title for President of the then
USSR), while Kim Jong Il assumes the party leadership post.

If the President’s powers are curbed in the DPRK, the role of the
Central People’s Committee is likely to change as well. In
reality, the CPC was Kim Il Sung’s decision-making apparatus, his
own National Security Council. It had few members, most of them
comrades-in-arms and close associates of the Great Leader, who
helped him formulate key domestic and foreign policies and put
his decisions in the form of decrees and instructions. If the
institution of the Presidency becomes purely representative and
symbolic in nature, the role of the CPC is likely to diminish
increasingly, its meetings will become spotty and lacking in
substance because the locus of crucial decision-making will shift
elsewhere.

Thirdly, one cannot help but notice an emerging shift from the
regime of absolute personal power exercised by the late Kim Il
Sung to a system of collective leadership. Reportedly, the North
Korean leaders ardently seek for a venue to institutionalize the
emerging “collective leadership of the party centered around Kim
Jong Il”. Why does such a shift to collective leadership appear
to be inevitable? The immediate history of all post-totalitarian
societies, including both mentors of North Korea – the USSR and
the PRC, suggests that such a direction for the evolution of
authority in the DPRK is probable. Recent statements by leading
North Korean politicians such as the WPK Politburo members Kim
Yong-nam, Kang Song-san, Kye Ung-tae, and Party Secretary Kim Ki-
nam allude to the desirability of establishing collective
leadership. Indeed, people around Kim Jong Il fear his lack of
experience, especially in economic matters, which are crucial to
their own survival. Nor does the son have the personal charisma
of his father. His words are not seen as sacred by some of them.
In turn, from Kim Jong Il’s point of view, he may accept shared
leadership because he wants to tie up leaders around him with
collective responsibility for recurrent failures in the economy
and domestic policy, thereby relieving himself of the burden of
sole responsibility. He does not want to become a sole scapegoat
for his opponents.

Fourthly, Kim Jong Il is faced with two hard questions today:
what to do with the existing institutions inherited from a
different era but increasingly incapable of coping with mounting
new challenges and how to bring new people to power? If he wanted
just to protect the status-quo, he could simply leave these old
institutions intact in terms of allocation of authority and
reduce the membership in institutions like the WPK’s Politburo
and Central Committee, the Administrative Council, etc. to their
current members. If he is not satisfied with the status-quo, he
may resort to institutional reorganization aimed at reducing the
number and curtailing the powers of existing members. The
institution of the Vice- Presidency is one of the obvious targets
here: four vice- presidents are not sustainable, and only one is
likely to be left. If the institution of the president is
stripped off its absolute authority and retains only
representative functions, the institution of the VP may be
abolished altogether. The five-member Presidium of the Politburo
is another probable object for reorganization, if not abolition.
But if for the same purpose of changing the status-quo, he brings
in new people to fill in vacancies, this may upset the existing
balance of forces and personal influences, which in turn may lead
to renewed attempts by the other leaders to promote their own
proteges and expand their own power bases, as well as new
intrainstitutional turf battles.

On the other hand, attitudes to Kim Jong Il and his leadership
bid seem to vary along the generational lines. Paradoxically, the
old guard (Defense Minister O Jin-u, 77, Vice-Presidents Park
Sung-chol, 81, and Lee Jong-ok, 78, Politburo member Kye Ung-tae,
69) seem to accept that Kim Jong Il is the supreme leader. They
fear any change. Therefore, they eagerly hide behind his back.
They are content with the status-quo: being in their late
seventies – early eighties, they hope they will sit it out. At
the same time, they are afraid that Kim Jong Il may be won over
by the proponents of reforms and may launch “radical changes”.
Therefore, they incessantly attempt to influence Kim Jong Il in a
containing and discouraging way: “Be loyal to the traditions and
will of your father”, “Do not touch the inheritance built by
generations of the revolutionaries”, “The slower you go, the
further you will get”, etc.

However, the days of the octogenerians are numbered, and the time
of the pragmatic technocrats is coming. Although it will also be
very important for them to maintain control over the society and
prevent the emergence of organized opposition, they are unlikely
to “look into Kim Jong Il’s mouth for every word”, as they did in
case of Kim Il Sung. They may not fully understand him, and even
may not accept him as their supreme leader. For instance,
reportedly, even today Premier Kang Song-san and Foreign Minister
Kim Yong-nam can say to Kim Jong Il: “This is not so; I have a
different opinion”, something which was unimaginable in the era
of Kim Il Sung.

With the growing number of vacancies in the major political and
economic policy-making bodies as a result of the “natural
attrition of the guerrilla generation” (as B.C. Koh puts it) and
seemingly natural deaths of some younger leaders, bureaucratic
reshuffles, early retirements, purges and rapid promotions, the
inflow of new people becomes inevitable. Kim Jong Il needs new
people, personally loyal to him but espousing unorthodox ideas,
so that he could at last feed, clothe and warm up the population:
otherwise, his power may slip away from him. He seems to
understand that he cannot launch and implement economic reforms
of any kind with old cadres only.

Historically, Kim Il Sung preferred to co-opt (not elect) the new
people in the Central Committee of the WPK first, and then to
promote them in the state bodies. For instance, since the Sixth
Congress of the WPK a whole “new breed” of members has been co-
opted into the WPK CC. They are mostly middle- aged “red
directors” of large industrial complexes and combines; later,
some of them were appointed ministers at the Administrative
Council. Similarly, dozens of the second generation of generals
were first co-opted into the WPK CC during those 14 years; later,
some of them were promoted to the Central Military Committee and
within the Ministry of People’s Defense. Reportedly, Kim Il Sung
used to resort to co-optation of new people so often because he
was obsessed with inexplicable fear of the party congress. He
believed (as Stalin did) that unexpected things could happen only
at party congresses. All the rest of domestic politics, he
thought, was under his firm control. (By the way, the history of
any marxist-leninist party has a number of examples of this
sort.) Probably, Kim Jong il inherited this phychological fear.
Therefore, he is likely to postpone by any means the convening of
the Seventh Congress of the WPK and will prefer to make all the
key personnel decisions in the narrow circle of his confidents.

Fifthly, one could argue that some North Korean politicians seem
to have started already to position themselves for the post-Kim
Jong Il succession. They want “to stay close to the Sun” (so as
to be part of the game effectively), but “not too close” (so as
not to get burned or in case of Kim Jong Il’s forced departure to
be seen as too closely associated with him). And they all ask
themselves who will sooner or later succeed Kim Jong Il?

The paradox of North Korean politics is that the so- called
succession question was resolved smoothly immediately after Kim
Il Sung passed away. As one North Korean official said, “it was
already settled twenty years ago”. But this created a new
unresolved succession question: who will succeed Kim Jong Il ?
This question becomes even more urgent given recurrent rumors,
true or false, of the dear leader’s deteriorating health
condition. Kim Il Sung gave no answer to it. That’s where all the
trouble begins. In the North Korean political tradition
“grooming” of a successor ought to start very early and the
successor should: 1) espouse “the supreme leader” Kim Jong Il’s
ideas and be close to him; 2) belong to a younger generation to
be able to continue Kim Jong Il’s work into the future; 3)
undergo a lengthy period of “practical training”. From a dynastic
point of view, this should be either one of Kim Jong Il’s two
sons (who are still too young to rule) or his son-in-law Chang
Song-myung. But such a traditional practice appears to be
unacceptable to the rising generation of political leaders in
Pyongyang at this time. That’s why, some of them demand
institutional changes, which will open possibilities for their
accession to power, while the latent struggle for the second,
third, fourth, and so on positions around Kim Jong Il appears to
be intensifying.

In general, according to a high-ranking source in Pyongyang that
asked not to be identified, the DPRK leadership does understand
that some kind of restructuring of the supreme political bodies
and the institutions of the state power is inevitable, and the
sooner these crucial decisions are made the less likely there
will be much elite resistance thereto as long as the shock of Kim
Il Sung’s death keeps the lid on the potential dissent.

3. Domestic Policy Outputs.

Nowadays, in times of severe economic crisis, the two main tasks
of the government in Pyongyang, with or without Kim Jong Il, are
to reignite economic growth and to secure the acquiescence and
support of those collectivities that are crucial for the
continuity of the existing order (the military, the security
forces, the party functionaries and the rank-and-file, the “red
directorate”, the youth). If it succeeds in these, the “public
order” can be sustained and is likely to break down only on
certain “marginal” sites. What is crucial here is the selection
of politically sustainable strategy of economic adjustment and
socially palatable “strategy of displacement” (Offe, 1984). That
is, strategies that restructure the economy in a more market-
oriented fashion and disperse the worst effects of economic and
political problems onto vulnerable groups while appeasing those
able to mobilize claims most effectively. As everywhere else, the
most vulnerable and weakest social groups (women, the elderly,
the labor, children, students) are likely to suffer the most in
North Korea. Whereas the most entrenched and powerful interests
are likely to benefit the most. As long as the government has the
political will and institutional mechanisms to sustain these
strategies, political future of the Second Republic will be
secured.

Nonetheless, it is still premature to talk about radical new
departures in the domestic economic policy in the DPRK. Most of
the processes that are under way now were launched in the early
1990s and in a way blessed by the late Great Leader. First, the
Three-Year Structural Adjustment Plan for 1994- 1996, adopted in
December 1993, indicated a shift in structural priorities in the
development of the North Korean economy – from developing heavy
industries and transportation network to emphasis on reforming
agriculture, reorganizing the light industry, and boosting
commerce, especially foreign trade. Obviously, not only did this
plan reflect the government’s failure to achieve the development
targets set forth in the Third Seven-Year Economic Development
Plan (1987- 1993) but also it was a recognition of the
catastrophic state of the North Korean economy as a whole and of
the fact that the population is hungry and underclothed.

By the way, already in 1987 Kim Il Sung publicly recognized that
“the solution of the problem of feeding, clothing, and housing
the people remains a top priority of the WPK”. Five years later
he reportedly went even further and in private conversations
admitted that his people was “dragging out a miserable
existence”, and, therefore, he was tormented with the question
“how to lift up the living standards of the people” but at the
same time “to keep it obedient and well disciplined” and not to
dismantle the socialist economic management system altogether.
That’s why, he was willing to sanction various economic
experiments around the country, especially in its remote Northern
provinces. Apparently, Kim Jong Il inherited this approach from
his father.

Secondly, it is a process of gradual and tightly controlled
economic liberalization and opening in specially designated
economic zones, in particular in the Rajin-Songbon area. It was
launched in 1984, when the Standing Committee of the SPA
promulgated the Joint Venture Act, gained a little bit of
momentum in 1989-1992, when the number of joint ventures
increased to over 100, but then stumbled due to the international
stalemate over the North Korean nuclear issue. However, recently
with the assistance from the UNDP and experts from the PRC the
North Korean government has adopted a bunch of new progressive
regulations radically liberalizing the foreign investment regime
in the Tumen River Area Development SEZ. Moreover, literally on
the eve of his fatal stroke, Kim Il Sung is reported to have
convened an emergency meeting of his economic aides, including
the PM and other key Administrative Council members, and blessed
further rapid development of special economic zones, by saying
that “they constitute the main road to the successful completion
of socialist construction in our country”. If this is a hard
fact, then Kim Jong Il has a blessing from his father to
accelerate economic reforms at least in the SEZs. Moreover, Kim
Jong Il also secretly visited the PRC and travelled around the
special economic zones in Southern China, as his father did. They
say he liked it there; therefore, he is likely to be receptive to
similar ideas at home. However, if this story is something less
than a fact, then it indicates an unfolding struggle for the
“right interpretation” of the will of the late Great Leader, and
that there are forces in Pyongyang that are so interested in
promoting economic liberalization that they risk using the name
of Kim Il Sung without ground in order to attract political
support for their own program.

Evidently, some North Korean leaders favor adopting the Chinese
approach to the strategy of reforms. In private conversations,
they express their belief in the possibility that “the economy
could be separated from politics by the Chinese wall” (a very
nonmarxist proposition !). They cautiously add that “any
practical economic question can be resolved if it does not
interfere with politics and military affairs”, meaning that they
have political will to continue to liberalize the economy
gradually as long as these reforms do not spill over into the
realm of politics and do not threaten the regime’s survival.

At the same time, against the backdrop of a more benign political
climate, bureaucratic turf battles are under way on the ground
between different ministries for policy-making authority in
special economic zones and for budget appropriations to be spent
there. Time and again in closed- door discussions in the capital
the issue is raised on the need to establish a special combined
authority to be fully in charge of all the activities within and
related to the SEZs. However, this proposal is said to be facing
serious opposition from some central ministries in Pyongyang,
that do not want to have a hen that may one day lay golden eggs
taken away from them. Also, there are, reportedly, serious
tensions between the Ministry of Finance and the Central Bank of
the DPRK regarding the taxation regime in the SEZ. The former
considers the SEZs as a source of raising additional revenues for
the budget, and therefore urges raising tax rates on foreign
investments and businesses there, whereas the latter sees them as
a way to attract foreign investors to North Korea, and therefore
favors longer grace periods and lower tax rates. Also, the
Ministry of Railroads is said to be deadlocked in a dispute with
the Ministry of the Naval Fleet over the infrastructure
development priorities in the Rajin-Songbon SEZ. They cannot
agree on what transportation facility should be developed first –
the central railway station or the port. When the budgetary
resources allocated in Pyongyang for the insfrastructure
development in the SEZ are scarce, they have to compete against
each other for a piece of a shrinking budgetary pie from day one.
For the ministry that succeeds in getting the start-up funds from
the central budget first will have an advantage in obtaining the
expansion funds later. Interestingly enough, in order to boost
their respective cases at home, they have attempted to find some
foreign investors who would express tentative interest in
priority development of railroads vis-a-vis the port facilities
in the SEZ and vice versa. Moreover, in the heat of their
interbureaucratic battles they tend to propose mutually exclusive
terms and projects for cooperation to foreigners. Lastly, there
appears to be a general tension between economic ministries as a
whole, supporting the openness of SEZs to foreigners, and hence
visa-free travel in and out of the SEZ, and the security-related
ministries and agencies that do not want to lose control over the
movement of foreigners on the territory of the country, and
therefore are vigorously opposed to such a measure.

In addition, one more process is worth mentioning. It is a
relatively new phenomenon and somewhat hard to trace, but foreign
diplomats in Pyongyang keep bringing it up in conversations with
their friends. They say that after Kim Il Sung’s death the WPK
appears to have begun to get increasingly engaged in the type of
activities which the Communist Party of the Soviet Union failed
to do before it was outlawed and its assets confiscated in
August 1991, but which the Communist Party of China has already
been actively and successfully involved in for several years
already.

In the center, allegations grow that some very high- ranking
party officials are involved in laundering party funds and
transferring some funds abroad and secretly depositing them in
the banks of Switzerland, the US, Japan, Hong Kong, in the names
of figure-head corporations. In general, as I understand it, the
state budgeting process in the DPRK is very complex and fuzzy.
During the era of Kim Il Sung there existed at least two budgets
in Pyongyang – an official one, once a year in April presented by
the Finance Minister before the SPA for approval and partially
made public via the printed media, and an unofficial one, the so-
called “the Great Leader’s Budget”. The latter was financed by
revenues derived from some general exports, as well as from the
arms trade, joint ventures, profits made by the North Korean-
sponsored dummy investment firms in the international financial
markets, perhaps even such illicit deals as drug trafficking and
dollar counterfeit, and so on. Technically, all the revenues had
to go to the Ministry of Finance where “funds for special needs”
were separated from the “general account funds” and allocated to
the department of special currency operations at the DPRK
Ministry of Finance whose chief must have reported directly to
Kim Il Sung how much money was available for “discrete spending”.
The latter included some “pet projects” of the Great Leader,
entertainment expense, expenses incurred in maintaining the
luxurious lifestyle of the ruling elite in Pyongyang, etc. It is
obvious that Kim Jong Il and his associates have inherited this
two-layer budget system. Moreover, they are alleged to have
started to transfer some funds abroad in order to build up some
tangible assets overseas which they can count on in case of
emergency at home in the future.

In the provinces, the dynamic is different. Local party bosses
are alleged to use party funds for personal enrichment on the
spot (a “privatization of party funds” of sorts). Also they use
their personal positions to obtain illicit income: that is,
corruption is said to be wide-spread at the provincial level. In
particular, foreign businesses are badly affected. One foreign
enterpreneur who tried to set up a joint venture in one of the
SEZ bitterly complained to me that “the Chinese from the Jilin
and Heiluizyan provinces have bought out all the local party and
economic officials in the port city of Chongjin”. He went on to
say that if the Western investors do not hurry up, the Chinese
party businessmen will buy out party and state officials in the
rest of the cities and provinces on the Eastern seaboard of North
Korea, not to mention the Western seaboard too.

In sum, for four months after Kim Il Sung’s death no one has yet
got any statement on domestic policy from the new leaders in
charge. In the meantime, economic processes, initiated under the
Great Leader, slowly continue to unfold. Efforts aimed at
structural adjustment of the economy, promoting backward
agriculture in a highly industrialized North Korean society,
modernizing the light industries employing mostly women when
heavily militarized heavy industries manned mostly with men are
in deep depression, and expanding foreign trade in an
internationally isolated country, linger on, despite their
contradictory nature, paucity of resources to back them up and
frequent lack of political will to follow through. Special
economic zones become the object of political football in
Pyongyang. Hardline conservatives define them as a Trojan horse
and depict Doomsday scenarios for the Republic if the SEZs are
allowed to exist; whereas pragmatic reformers advocate their
expansion and define them as the last hope for saving the
decrepit North Korean economy by opening it to the outside world.
And, foremost, both sides use the name of the late Great Leader
to make their respective arguments look more convincing and
sanctified. Lastly, in this time of economic distress and
political uncertainty those who have access to party funds or
lucrative positions in the state bureaucracy do not hesitate to
appropriate them for private use. They do it either on orders
from their superiors or at their own risk. Corruption is
commonplace, and privatization of party funds is creeping upward.
By and large, if ever a Second Republic is established, on the
economic front its government will have to start almost from
scratch.

4. Foreign Policy Outputs.

In no other policy area are changes so noticeable as in the
DPRK’s foreign policy. Indeed, the changing international
environment, in particular the crambling alliance system and
nuclear stalemate, forced the North Korean leadership to begin to
reconsider the tenets of their foreign policy in the early 1990s.
By the time of his death the Great Leader had endorsed radical
changes in some principles and directions of North Korean foreign
policymaking. They are so unorthodox that they warrant being
labelled as “new thinking” or at least as a “new departure” in
the DPRK’s foreign policy. Briefly, these changes include the
following.

In fundamental principles guiding the Pyongyang foreign
policymakers, one can notice a shift from the revolutionary
diplomacy based on ideological preoccupations with worldwide
national liberation and internationalist communist agenda to a
more pragmatic diplomacy of realism aimed at promoting the
national interests of the DPRK, in particular the survival of the
North Korean state and the ruling regime.

At the level of general strategy, one can observe a radical shift
from conventional deterrence to nuclear bargaining. Originally,
it was outright nuclear blackmail and brinkmanship. After the
Gevena accords were signed in October 1994, Pyongyang seems to be
moving toward the nuclear freeze and eventual nuclear
disarmament.

At the level of regional strategy, North Korea was literally
forced by its allies to abandon its decades-old “One Korea
Policy”, including the maniac idea of “communizing the South”,
and to apply for separate UN membership. Nowadays, the DPRK
recognizes the undesirability and unlikeliness of military
confrontation with South Korea, thereby gradually downgrading the
use of naked force in its reunification policy, and instead it
has begun to promote the idea of peaceful co-existence between
two Korean nations. The strategy of revolution, that is,
fostering revolutionary forces in North and South Korea, is being
eclipsed by the strategy of confederation, in which the absolute
equality of both sides would be guaranteed. Pyongyang actively
seeks cross- recognition by the United States and Japan, and,
instead of tight alliance politics of the past, seems to be
inclined for all practical purposes to pursue a policy of
equidistance from all four great powers in the region. It is in
this light that one should see its proposal to change the
Armistice agreement into a Peace Treaty, with possible talks on
confidence- building measures, arms control, and even gradual
conventional disarmament at later stages of the peace process.

Obviously, a greater emphasis is placed on economic diplomacy
today. The DPRK government is likely to accelerate the colonial
reparation talks with Japan in order to obtain new massive
injections of the Japanese capital for the starving North Korean
economy. “Special economic zones” are being vigorously promoted
by the officials of all ranks travelling abroad. A lot of effort
has been put into bringing to the negotiations table the issue of
economic aid for conversion of the DPRK nuclear program and
making it a significant part of the Geneva nuclear accords with
the US. And of course, North Korean arms salesmen do continue to
wander around the globe in search of hot arms dollars.

Lastly, the current Pyongyang government is more likely to get
engaged in international discussions of its human rights record.
Because now that the nuclear deal has been signed, and they are
back in the NPT regime, naturally, they would like to improve
their international image. If this requires opening the human
rights dialogue, they will do it, even if in a very obnoxious way
at the beginning. Also they are anxious to see the nuclear
accords implemented, therefore, they are likely to try to appease
the US in its minor demands such as the human rights issue. Also
some unresolved issues with Japan include the condition of the
abducted Japanese women in North Korea and compensation for the
sexual abuse of the Korean women during the Second World War. In
order to move ahead in the normalization talks with Tokyo,
Pyongyang will have to deal with the human rights issues as well.
Moreover, the Chinese set the example that any engagement in the
human rights discussions with the West is not fatal for the
authoritarian regime but may be even beneficial for its ruling
class in some regard.

In sum, all the above-mentioned changes may constitute a “new
thinking” in the North Korean foreign policy. Evidently, they
were blessed by the Great Leader before his death. But it is his
son and his associates that are expected to benefit if and when
these new departures bear fruits.
C O N C L U S I O N

In this paper, I have explored some aspects of continuity and
change in the evolution of the DPRK in the first four months
after the death of Kim Il Sung. By and large, despite a
continuous process of generational change in the strategic
sectors of North Korean society, with rare exceptions one still
has to deal with “the same old faces”. However, this fact in
itself does not preclude the initiation of radically new
policies. For instance, revolutionary reforms in the former USSR
and the PRC were in fact launched by the very people who were the
“finest products” of the now defunct or rapidly modernizing
communist political systems, Mikhail Gorbachev and Deng Xiao-
ping. However, what will matter for the generation of new policy
outputs is how these same old politicians will try to justify
their claim to power and share authority and interact with each
other after the Great Leader’s death. In this sense, I have
referred to the growing legitimation crisis and attempts at
institutional changes in the present governmental process in
Pyongyang.

Where is the DPRK heading now ? Definitely, it is going to stay
with us for some time. So far the North Korean regime has
survived the disastrous domino effect of the socio- economic and
political transformations that swept the communist countries of
Eastern and Central Europe. Although big changes in the former
communist world, once its major and only ally, put it on the
verge of economic collapse, they failed to undermine its
vitality. Tremendous international pressure brought to bear on
Pyongyang as a result of the nuclear confrontation on the Korean
peninsula also failed to break its neck or erode its credibility.
Quite to the contrary, it revealed the DPRK’s resilience and
tenacity, as well as its ability to forge domestic consensus
among elites at critical junctures. Obviously, there is strong
determination and enough will power in Pyongyang to fight for the
regime survival to the end against any potential calamity or
adversary. Paradoxically, big changes around could not force
Pyongyang under the iron grip of Kim Il Sung to change even a
bit. This conservationist inertia is still there. But how long is
it likely to last ?

Could small dripping changes when “the father of the nation” is
gone suffice in turning the bowl upside down ? Some totalitarian
aspects of the North Korean authoritarianism are already being
eased out slowly. In general, the regime is gradually opening up.
It becomes more pragmatic and modernization-oriented in the
economic matters, and it loses its idealist and internationalist
appeals and becomes more realist and nationalist in its foreign
policy. As a result of growing overload on the political system,
policy conflicts between ideologues and pragmaticists within the
government seem to be intensifying. With policy options available
in the past being no longer there, the North Korean leaders will
have to look for new opportunities and have to make hard choices
previously unthinkable. These disagreements on personalities and
policy matters are likely to cause cracks within the leadership,
eroding the unity of the WPK. Will these little institutional and
policy adjustments and personal changes result into some
insiders’ bolting out and seeking for a political alternative,
which might lead to the emergence of the Second Republic ? I
think it is possible, and if a cross- national history of
political development is any guide at all I believe that’s what
is likely to happen.

Alexandre Mansourov is an associate of the Nautilus Institute who
is a former Soviet diplomat based in Pyongyang and graduate of
Kim Il Song University.


nautilus-logo-smallThe NAPSNet Policy Forum provides expert analysis of contemporary peace and security issues in Northeast Asia. As always, we invite your responses to this report and hope you will take the opportunity to participate in discussion of the analysis.


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