Is "reform" talk too late and too muddled?

We have been mentioning since early last year that North Korea has a renewed focus on economic development which marks a break from its rhetoric of belt-tightening and self-sacrifice for the good part of the decade. We said that and still say it because it was mentioned consistently in government rhetoric and triangulated well with the policies, which we knew from our programs, that were being debated and considered. Hence, all the recent talk about “reform” seems rather belated. . That said, I dislike the word “reform” as it conflates too many issues. At the broadest level, it conflates changes in the political with those in the economic sphere. While there are issues with disentangling changes in both areas, it seems that talking heads tend to use changes or the status quo in one area to argue that similar things are happening in the other area. Some refer to the “status quo” political system or a tightening of border security as a sign that economic “reform” does not exist. Or some would link economic “reforms” with North Korea “opening up”, which carries connotations of a sort of rapid political change which may not happen at the same rate as the economic changes.

But at least people are starting to pay attention to the idea that top-down change can happen in North Korea. CE advisor Andrei Lankov, long a vociferous opponent to the idea that the North Korea’s elite will institute any form of economic “reform”, might actually be the canary in the coal mine. We like his work because he is close to the action in the North, willing to look at evidence and make a call even if it goes against everything he has said before.

The term “reform” is also conflated with a linear process. Critics of the idea of North Korea instituting economic “reform” point to contradictory policies or to non-performance as signs of non-reform. There is a tendency to conceptually link all market liberalizing actions as “reform” and to see greater state involvement in some areas as a sign of “non-reform”. Each policy on its own does not indicate a direction – there can be simultaneous moves to increase the role of the markets in some areas, while strengthening state supervision in others and policy mix matters.

Also, “reforms” can fail. Intention does not imply capacity. But that does not mean an attempt was not made. Both China and Vietnam had to feel their way through in their transitions (or as the Chinese described it “feeling one’s way across the river by touching the stones”). And just because they have done it does not mean that North Korea policymakers are fully aware of how it was done, or that the experiences of those countries are fully transferrable to North Korea.

From a practitioner point of view, if there is an intention in place to focus on economic development, there is a need to increase Choson Exchange efforts to reap a higher return from our education programs (yes! we do believe passionately in our mission). This month, we are making two trips to North Korea specifically to track workshop and global internship programs we have in place this year, to discuss expanded programs in business and economics training next year, and most importantly, to prepare our partners for the increased frequency of programs that will come as we convert our part-time Beijing office into a full-time office next year.