Academic journal article North Korean Review

The Political Logic of Economic Backwardness in North Korea

Academic journal article North Korean Review

The Political Logic of Economic Backwardness in North Korea

Article excerpt

(ProQuest: ... denotes non-USASCII text omitted.)


In a region shaped by unprecedented dynamics of economic growth and modernization in the latter half of the twentieth century, North Korea remains a developmental anomaly. "Why has North Korea proved unable or unwilling to embrace comprehensive and sustained economic reform?" remains a generally underresearched question in the field of North Korean studies.1

Fueled by ideological rigidity and the cultivation of an oppressive personality cult, the North Korean regime has relied on "authoritarian means of control"2 to ensure the political resilience and unchallenged authority of the Kim dynasty. These means of control grew more pervasive and intrusive in the lead-up to, and certainly following, the dynastic transfers of power in 1994 and 2011 with the deaths of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, respectively. Rather than exuding a commitment to performance legitimacy, the Kim dynasty has been consumed by an unrelenting drive for political power and regime consolidation, seemingly oblivious or indifferent to the broader implications for social, economic and human development. In that, it serves as a perfect illustration that "Communist and other regimes can consciously or unconsciously decide to maintain certain political arrangements and practices even if they are dysfunctional from an economic point of view and even if they entail growing economic costs."3 In effect, the North Korean regime's misguided focus on state-building through juche (..., self-reliance) and songun (..., military-first) policies actively paved the way for development of underdevelopment and "systemic dissonance."4

The paradox of North Korean economic backwardness is all the more striking when viewed against the backdrop of successful and sustained reform and capitalist development processes of Communist economies.5 By the early 1990s, North Korean and Chinese development began to chart a dramatically divergent course. Meanwhile, North Korea's nuclear ambitions have put subtle, but noticeable strains on the China-North Korea relationship. This emerging reality, in turn, has drawn renewed attention to Pyongyang's highly asymmetric trade dependence on Beijing, while simultaneously raising the prospects of inherent systemic vulnerabilities, exacerbated by decades of widespread economic mismanagement. Against the backdrop of a stubborn persistence of economic backwardness into the 21st century, a comprehensive reappraisal of economic reform process has become a matter of extreme urgency. This is all the more so considering that most previous economic reform measures adopted by the regime in the 1990s and early 2000s had routinely failed to go beyond short-term, symptomatic treatments and ideology-influenced coping mechanisms, or were curtailed by the regime in the face of emerging concerns about their potential effect on its power position.

Given its demonstrated ability to "muddle through"6 in spite of consequential geopolitical changes in the early 1990s following not only the collapse of the USSR, but also, more recently, the weakening alliance with China, Pyongyang may have succeeded in putting paid to predictions of imminent collapse for the foreseeable future. Consequently, this essay does not so much add to widespread speculation about North Korea's inevitable collapse as it aims to put the nature and persistence of economic backwardness in political perspective. What are the constraints on ideological, political, economic and institutional change that appear to hamper the prospects of comprehensive economic reform? Will a concerted and sustained economic reform push eventually materialize?

The next section offers a general comparative overview of North Korea's developmental dilemma, while also highlighting the urgent need for measurable and sustainable progress in economic reform. Despite its failure-or perhaps more accurately, political reticence-to commit to gradual yet real and sustained economic reform, North Korea has confounded predictions of collapse and has continued to "muddle through. …

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