Author/poet Jang Jin-Sung has been splashed across the media this past week as his new book, "Dear Leader", has just come out in English. Meanwhile, over at New Focus International, he has a post from a couple weeks ago about government appropriation, distribution and...well, a whole bunch of things - it kind of meanders around like an off-the-cuff lecture from an aging professor. But near the bottom of the ironically unfocused post is an interesting nugget:
"But above all, in the wake of Jang Song-thaek’s execution, the mood has remained savage; and cadres consequently have not had the stability and confidence to extort bribes the way they have done before."
This at first seems like a good thing. Less corruption is good, right? Well, not necessarily. You will have heard this case made already if you're a fan of Ha Joon Chang, an overseas compatriot (to use a very North Korean phrase) and Cambridge reader in Economics (to use a very British phrase). In his 2007 book, Bad Samaritans, he argues that corruption is not inherently bad for economic growth, unless the money taken in bribes is not invested productively in the economy. Bribery can also sometimes "enhance the efficiency of an over-regulated economy by reintroducing market forces" (p.150), allowing productive businesses to get moving when otherwise they would bog down in red tape. The related question Chang brings up is, "what would have been done with the money had there been no corruption"?
The DPRK has, officially, no private sector at all and is perhaps the definitive over-regulated economy. In reality, an increasingly vibrant grey market exists because reports indicate that officials can be convinced to look the other way or actively facilitate market activities if they benefit from the actions. This greasing of the wheels is what allows North Korean businesses to run and has driven tremendous social change in the last decade.
If post-Jang officials are scared and there has been a disruption in established patronage channels, this temporary paralysis could cut both ways. It could either turn into:
a) an opportunity for Kim Jong Un to consolidate influence over key enterprises and make sure they invest profits into areas that go towards the national good, as he sees it. This would be not dissimilar to what Park Chung-hee, his Granddad's rival and pops of the current ROK President, did in the South. Key officials would still get enriched, but would be on notice that their wealth is subordinate to the concerns of the state.
b) some of the efficiencies created by patronage channels being reduced, stalling economic growth. Businesses will find it more difficult to get permission to produce products, move goods or make other decisions. Eventually over time, pathways of patronage will probably re-emerge and look the same as they once did, though profits may end up with different patrons along the way.
It's not yet clear how disrupted the DPRK's economic sphere has become since the ouster of Jang. Like businesspeople everywhere, the emergent business classes in North Korea will be seeking predictability and stability in their environment. They'll have to wait to see if things will go back to 'normal' or if some new modus operandi will be forged.