Although North Korea's supreme leader enjoys almost continual world press due to his promiscuous missile launches, Kim Jong-un has been reshaping his country in ways not heretofore seen. It's making the Hermit Kingdom, long the gadfly of the international community, more resilient than ever.
Unlike his more incremental but equally unbalanced father, Jong-il, Jong-un has launched some 76 missiles since taking power in 2011. Readers should not take comfort in the occasional flaming, dramatic missile failures. North Korea's track record of success far exceeds either the U.S. or Russia during their development stages. Kim has the benefit of using already proven technology — with help from his Iranian and Chinese friends.
It’s not only in the missile realm where Jong-un is rewriting the script;. Following 5 years of consolidating power, the pudgy man-child is running the (Democratic People's Republic of Korea) DPRK differently than his father. Although the world saw the familiar Stalin-like bloody purges of the Kim dynasty’s inner circle (all of whom can trace their ancestry to the partisan families that Kim Il Sung brought to North Korea from Manchuria in 1949), Jong-un has proven more adept at cultivating and exploiting a growing technocrat class.
Making pale blue coveralls his fashion statement, Kim Jong-il ran things through his obsequious military — Jong-un, in a throwback to his grandfather (the great founder) has a more personal style of leadership — all power passing unfiltered to him directly — the sole decision maker. He has made the Strategic Rocket Forces a separate branch of the armed forces; directly answerable to him. Jong-un has additionally purged many military/intelligence officials, partly due to his coup paranoia, but also to establish firmly in the eyes of his people that there is only one supreme leader. Here's a career tip: don’t fall asleep during meetings with him.
While his dad seemed to pursue missile tests as a means to attain diplomatic advances, Jong-un seems to pursue them more for public spectacle and power consolidation — and perhaps business expansion. More pragmatic, less political than dad — Jong-un's personnel appointments reflect elevation due to achievement/expertise, rather than just political hackery. The pudgy leader has invested heavily in his rocket infrastructure — and the personnel who keep it humming.
North Korea has computer assisted design (CAD) facilities, modern (embargoed) machinery, and is now able to build missiles on an industrial basis — much different than the scattered programs of a decade ago. Every metal missile component can be manufactured in his country. What this means for his burgeoning nuclear program is anybody’s guess.
There has been significant market liberalization under Jong-un. This is not touted as reform but instead on lurid propaganda posters as "Economics in our own style." Entrepreneurs have become a protected class. Eight percent of consumer goods in North Korea are Chinese, and Kim wants to see increased independence from China, hence broader entrepreneurism.
North Korea has increased tax revenues due to its management of these formal markets, so it won’t be backsliding soon. Renting North Koreans out as virtual slave labor, as Putin is willing to do to construct his World Cup complex, also fattens the supreme leader’s coffers.
Pak Pong-ju, a former prime minister under Kim Jong-il, who trailblazed market policies, and was also out of favor for some time, has been rehabilitated. He is now Kim’s economics minister, and is at his side at all celebrations.
Even the great collective farms (kolhoz) — the centerpiece of Kim’s Stalinist State — are being portioned off to their members to farm smaller parcels; much as was done in China in early 1980s.
The North Korean economy still greatly suffers from limited foreign investment, electricity shortages and the like, yet a trend of slow growth is there.
Kim, despite his poor taste in fashion, seems to intuitively understand the need to build up some flexibility in his own economy, should more sanctions be imposed. Perhaps his view is due to his Swiss school experiences, where he attended under an alias?
With each passing year, his country becomes a little less vulnerable to economic sanctions.
These gradual but inexorable reforms demonstrate Jong-un is an able CEO who can work to maximize his country’s relative economic advantage — weaponry.
Anecdotal evidence of recent economic growth in Pyongyang is evident. Rather than Potemkin village markets for foreigners only (as portrayed in the comedy "The Interview") there are more urban markets which are being utilized by the new technocratic class. These feature a wide variety of mostly Chinese goods, such as 10 brands of toothpaste — a luxury heretofore unknown. Even Coca Cola, once dubbed "the cesspool water of capitalism" is being served.
How much of this economic development is attributable to a rise in North Korea’s key cash crop — missiles and their components — can only be estimated. Certainly his frequent missile launches serve as an effective advertisement of North Korea's products.
As North Korea, Inc. private expands, Kim must be careful not to lose the strength of the narrative that his Korea is inherently superior, due to its classless, communist nature, to the "running dog capitalist" South Korea. The fact that China in the 1980s navigated these same shoals of modernization shows it can be done while maintaining control.
North Korean ideology — originally based on the "Juche" (self-reliance) concept and now dubbed "Jagang" (self-empowerment) — is essentially a xenophobic "paranoid nationalism,” I think North Korea will be able to negotiate this incongruity as well and emerge unscathed.
My concern is that much as China has increased its shrill nationalism once it unshackled from didactic communism — so will North Korea increase its bellicosity. This has already been happening. Jong-un's newfound position as evil CEO may make him more amenable to a bargain; but his weapons development, combined with his slow economic rise, means that time may be running out.
Scott Uehlinger is a retired CIA Station Chief and Naval Officer. A Russian speaker, he spent 12 years of his career abroad in the former Soviet Union. In addition to teaching at NYU, he is a frequent Newsmax TV and Fox Business TV commentator, and has a weekly podcast, "the Station Chief," that can be found on iTunes or at www.thestationchief.com. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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