Academic journal article North Korean Review

Singapore as Aspiration: Making Further Use of the City- State to Engage North Korea

Academic journal article North Korean Review

Singapore as Aspiration: Making Further Use of the City- State to Engage North Korea

Article excerpt


Kim Jong Un declared a "new strategic line" at an April 20, 2018, Plenary Meeting. The parallel development of nuclear weapons and the economy-his Byongjin Line-was concluded, he announced, and replaced by a new line that focuses on economic and scientific development. Meanwhile, preparations for a summit between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in were concluding, while the contours of a summit between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump were just emerging.

Over a number of options, apparently including Stockholm and Ulaan Bataar, Singapore was chosen to host the U.S.-DPRK summit on June 12, 2018. Some of the reasons were no doubt logistical, related to security and infrastructure. But some were political. Singapore is a country friendly to both the United States and North Korea. Perhaps more importantly, once Kim's visit and reportage of it back in North Korea were underway, it was clear that the Chairman of the Korean Worker's Party was sending a message about economic growth and his new priorities to both a domestic and international audience.

This paper will explore the prospects for further economic and political engagement of North Korea using Singapore as a platform. This will require evaluating prospects for North Korea prioritizing the economy, while attempting to sketch aspects of the Singapore model that make it uniquely positioned as a platform from which to engage North Korea. Finally, it will highlight how aspects of that model are recognizable and aspirational to North Koreans while also looking at Singapore's history as a regional champion and exporter of its model and national narrative. It assumes that South Korea, the United States and Japan will remain sensitive venues for economy-related discussions, negotiations and trainings.

"Platform" will be taken to mean a venue from which to source and share local and international expertise in economic policy, business and public administration. It may also be a location for continued political dialogue between the DPRK and other stakeholders in a process of economic integration and strategic détente.

Kim the Reformer?

Kim Jong Un stepped into the limelight following his father's 2011 death by famously proclaiming in his first major address that the people "will never have to tighten their belts again." The next year, following a Plenary Meeting of Worker's Party of Korea Central Committee, the Byongjin, or parallel development line was announced, under which nuclear weapons and economic growth were to be equally weighted.1 This was criticized in some quarters in the west as Kim wanting to have his cake and eat it too.2 The Obama Administration began using the term "sharpening the choice" between nuclear weapons and the economy as a key talking point on North Korea.3 Still, Byongjin was the most pro-economy policy line in two decades and "a military-first state cannot be expected to transition suddenly or absolutely towards an economy-first state."4

This shift had material impact on the ground in North Korea. Under Kim, technocrats were in charge of the Cabinet and its economic plans, which importantly, included less planning than ever before. Under "New Economic Management Measures" passed in 2012 and 2013, more and more state-owned enterprises were pushed off of a state plan and made to depend on market forces to source both inputs and customers.

Amendments to the Enterprise Act in 2014 allowed "managers broad rights to engage in foreign trade and joint ventures and accept investment from domestic private investors.5" Perhaps most importantly, any official institution was allowed to set up a company, allowing a pathway for private wealth to find official cover under which to engage in market activity.

A raft of Special Economic Zones was created in 2013 and 2014, also, as was a mechanism for local actors to apply for and create SEZs. Despite Kaesong's problems in 2013, Pyongyang has begun to see Special Economic Zones as a way to experiment with and yet control economic growth and engage with foreign investors, even if success has been limited for a variety of reasons, including sanctions, unrealistic expectations in North Korea and poor infrastructure. …

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