Is Kim Jong Un Preparing to Become North Korea’s Economic Reformer?

When young Kim Jong Un stood before the assembled throngs in Pyongyang on April 15, insisting that come hell or high water he would persist with his father’s “military first” policies — even in the wake of a humiliating failed missile launch — the young dictator uttered one sentence that was mostly ignored in the speech’s aftermath: “It is the party’s steadfast determination to ensure that the people will never have to tighten their belt again, and make sure they enjoy the riches and affluence of socialism to their heart’s content.”
Talking about “the affluence of socialism” in today’s North Korea is, of course, ludicrous. The economy “Lil’ Kim” inherited from his father is a disaster. Marcus Noland, the deputy director of the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, D.C., and a close North Korea watcher, estimates that per capita income today is “lower than it was 20 years ago and by some reckonings is only now attaining the level it achieved in the 1970s.” He further notes that since a disastrous currency reform three years ago, inflation for basic goods like rice and coal has been running at about 100%, and on the black market, the North Korean currency has fallen by about the same amount. Aping his father’s economic policies, in other words, would be about the stupidest thing Kim could do.

The line in the recent speech telling people they’d “never have to tighten their belts again” might have been one signal that Kim at some level understands this. And now there may be more evidence that he knows something’s got to give in his poor, benighted country. Earlier this week, the Mainichi Shimbun, a Tokyo-based daily, reported that its Beijing correspondent had received documents that purport to be an account of a Jan. 28 meeting Kim had with unidentified Korean Workers’ Party officials in Pyongyang. In the written account of the meeting, Kim complains that policymakers who may disagree with the grim economic autarky that has prevailed for decades in Pyongyang rarely speak up, because doing so will subject them to criticism that they are “trying to introduce capitalist ways.” He ordered the attendees, according to the paper, to “find reconstruction measures suiting the nation through discussion without taboos.” The newspaper then quotes what it identifies as a source within the Korean Workers’ Party as saying, “Recently Comrade Kim Jong Un gave the order: ‘If there are any excellent methods that we can use, whether they are Chinese methods or from Russia or Japan, implement them.”’
If this story is accurate — TIME has been unable to verify the authenticity of the documents the Mainichi Shimbun obtained — the implications are important for obvious reasons. It may mean that the young Kim, who spent a few years as a teenager going to school in Switzerland, may be willing to acknowledge the blindingly obvious: that what North Korea has been doing for decades economically doesn’t work, and that there are plenty of examples right in the neighborhood — South Korea and China most obviously — that over the same period have gotten a lot of things right economically.
Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, visited China numerous times during his life, and each time journalists would write stories about how the visit surely meant that North Korea would now embark on China-style economic reform. But policy analysts in the region as well as former diplomats and intelligence officials say that the late Kim never trusted the Chinese and did not want to implement policies that would effectively allow North Korea to become an economic appendage to Beijing. If the sentiment and frustration expressed in the Mainichi Shimbun report are real, it may well be that Kim Jong Un is willing to accede to reality: China is the world’s second largest economy and it sits right across the border; increased trade with it as a result of reform policies in Pyongyang would likely enhance living standards in North Korea.

Even in Kim Jong Il’s last years, North Korea had taken baby steps toward setting up the sort of special economic zones that kicked off China’s growth more than 30 years ago. Pyongyang has been involved in negotiations with Chinese investors on three separate locations, including building a new container port in Rason, in North Korea’s northeastern corner. China earlier this year had rejected a draft law to be applied to the other two special economic zones in which it is interested in investing, apparently worried about, among other things, the remittance of profits. Analysts believe Kim Jong Un could send a signal that he’s not nearly as paranoid as his father about China by getting these deals done.
There have been hints here and there that the younger Kim may be much more willing to experiment economically — hints that suggest that the sentiments expressed in the Mainichi Shimbun documents could be authentic. In an interview in Pyongyang with the Associated Press on Jan. 16, Yang Hyong Sop, vice president of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, said, “Kim Jong Un is focusing on building a knowledge-based economy and looking into cases of other countries’ economic reform, including China’s.”
North Korea watcher Cheong Seong-chang, senior fellow at Seoul’s Sejong Institute, says that remark was notable because senior officials in North Korea tend not to speak speculatively about possible policy changes; they only speak publicly, and in particular to the outside world, about things that are already decided. That, if true, would be a hopeful sign that, however much he’s following his father’s footsteps on military and foreign policy, the young Kim may understand that he’s got to break with the past in order to make good on his no-more-belt-tightening pledge to the abjectly poor North Korean people.