The Economist puts it this way: With a decrepit economy, and now devastating floods, the closed regime of North Korea shows signs of greater openness—though not to everyone.
North Korea has been suffering flooding on a biblical scale. The official news agency this week reported that, after the heaviest rainfall in 39 years, 169 people had died and more than 200,000 had lost their homes. Some 65,000 hectares of farmland had been inundated, exacerbating the chronic food shortage the country has endured since famine killed as many as 1million people in the 1990s.
Both floods and hunger can be largely blamed on the government. Even without this year’s huge downpours, the policy failure that let goats and farmers desperate for arable land
Even without this year’s huge downpours, the policy failure that let goats and farmers desperate for arable land strip the country’s hillsides bare of trees has made flooding an almost annual event. Similarly, food shortages are the result of the economic mismanagement that saw GDP shrink almost by half in the 1990s, and never recover, leaving North Korea dependent on food aid from abroad.
Now the government has appealed to the United Nations for emergency aid, in a country where one in three children is chronically malnourished or stunted. Even before the floods, the World Food Programme expected life to be difficult through the annual “lean season”, until the harvest in October, with reduced rations from the public distribution system on which two-thirds of the population rely, and few ways of making up the shortfall.
Things would be a little less dire had Kim Jong Un, the young dictator and Great Successor to his father, Kim Jong Il, who died in December, not reneged on an agreement reached in February with America, which had offered food. After just a fortnight Mr Kim’s regime announced it would launch a satellite, in breach of United Nations sanctions.
If this made him look like his father’s son, he has since shown signs of becoming his own, rather different man. He has presented a jollier image, and people remember that, by local standards, he is cosmopolitan, having spent a couple of years at a school in Switzerland. On one recent outing, to a funfair, he enjoyed a ride with a young British diplomat and the Chinese ambassador. This seemed to be sending a message to a foreign as well as local audience. The British ambassador, Karen Wolstenholme, detects “more openness” in the regime under Kim Jong Un.
There is little to show for this yet in terms of closer economic or political contacts with Japan, South Korea and the West.
Signs of economic reform are even harder to detect. Three counties have been picked to test a new system of small farms, which will be allowed to keep 30% of their production quota, and any excess. Mr Kim has also complained about the way the country’s resources are being sold off on the cheap. He did not mention that the buyers are almost all Chinese, nor that many of the sellers are parts of the 1.2m-strong armed forces. Scholars in Beijing say he is trying hard to “recentralise” economic control, from the army as well as the largely illicit private sector.
That does indeed seem more likely than any radical reform. Economic relaxation is hampered by the fear of losing political control. As the official news agency puts it, “to expect…‘reform and opening’…is nothing but a foolish and silly dream, just like wanting the sun to rise in the west.”