North Korea has experienced extreme isolation from the world since Kim Il-Sung proclaimed himself as the Prime Minister in 1948, the same year South Korea declared statehood. Labeled by the international community as a totalitarian regime that oppresses its citizens, North Korea has long flouted international rules and norms, including human rights and nonproliferation under the Kim Jong-Il regime, the son of Kim Il-sung. But when Kim Jong-Il died in December 2011, his twenty-something son, Kim Jong-Un, took the reins. Since then, North Korea watchers have pointed to interesting changes in the country, though the significance and implications of these changes are difficult to discern.
According to Dr. Andrei Lankov, “It seems almost certain that Kim Jong Un (and some people around him) really want to change things. There are too many signals, coming from too many directions to deny the fact that North Korea has begun to change, and as a matter of fact, with almost alarming speed. None of these signals in isolation are conclusive, but when taken together they [leave] little room for doubt.” Lankov argues that when considering all these occurrences together, Kim Jong-Un may have designs on a “Chinese-style ‘developmental dictatorship.’”
For starters, Kim Jong-Un has enacted agricultural reforms that allow farmers to keep a percentage of their crops; a move that Lankov muses might hint at a potential liberalization of the market. Though dubious of “successful” change (meaning an actual move toward a developmental dictatorship), Lankov remains hopeful.
Writing in the New York Times, Charles Armstrong notes that “under its new ruler, ‘Respected Leader’ Kim Jong-un, North Korea is clearly on the move.” But he is pessimistic about these developments saying, “the reality is less momentous: a change in the face of the leadership and of the capital city, but not of policy. The status quo remains and is unlikely to change any time soon.”
Observers such as Lankov and Armstrong have identified other examples of intriguing change. For example, Kim Jung-Un is rumored to have discharged one of his father’s closest lieutenants. Armstrong speculates that “it is possible that by reducing the influence of the military he is preparing the way for major economic reform, something the military has long resisted.”
While still a repressively autocratic state, one can hope these small occurrences result in more serious change that benefits the North Korean people.
On that note, the potential impact of these changes on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is less clear. Scott Snyder at the Council on Foreign Relations argues that despite “speculation about both leadership and potential economic reforms” the North’s “nuclear program continues unchecked.”
Further reform could also lead to greater volatility, according to Lankov. His reasoning is that citizens of North Korea are drastically more impoverished than their counterparts in prosperous South Korea, but aren’t fully aware of the difference. If reform brings greater access of the outside world to North Koreans, it’s possible that instability could overwhelm the nation as the population demands change from their government.
But North Korea is not a typical state and the ability of its citizens to assemble is highly limited. Regardless, any instability in a rouge state with nuclear weapons is cause for concern.
It’s clear that there is disagreement among experts about the future of North Korea. The country continues to be a black box through which it is difficult to peer. It’s hard to ascertain which direction North Korea will turn in the next few years, or if the status quo will continue.
In regard to North Korea’s nuclear program, there is an overall preference among the U.S. public favoring continued diplomatic efforts in place of military action. A Chicago Council survey indicates that 80% of Americans are against sending ground troops to North Korea, in addition to opposing air strikes against their nuclear sites. So is there potential for normalized relations with a reformed North Korea in the future?
The implications for change in North Korea are vast, but uncertain; and no matter what it definitely won’t be easy.