An acute observer described the current situation in North Korea to the author: “For a couple of years, the North Korean economy resembled a car climbing a steep slope at a good speed. But a few months ago, they switched off the engine, and the car has just begun to slide down the slope.”
Given the highly secretive nature of the North Korean government, one can only guess what made Kim Jong Un and his advisers change their minds. The decision to stop reforms might reflect some internal governmental turmoil, but also may be a result of a sudden change of Kim’s mind-set – indeed, the North Korean dictator is remarkably moody at times, and reforms are wrought with political risk.
It is even possible that the reforms were slowed down in order to better prepare the wider economic landscape for their full-scale implementation: This full switch to the new system could potentially trigger severe inflation, so some kind of preparatory “groundwork” is advisable and possibly even necessary.
Whatever the reason, the reforms appear to have been stopped, albeit not rolled back. The farmers still receive their share of produce, and some factories work according to the new system, often paying exorbitant salaries to the employees. A miner at the Musan iron mine, where the “experimental enterprise” system is functional, can now easily earn $70 a month, almost 100 times the average nationwide salary of less than a dollar a month.
This gives us reason to hope that sooner or later the reforms will be resumed, and that the current halt is merely provisional. After all, the introduction of household-based agriculture a few years ago followed a similar pattern: The new policies were first announced in June 2012, then shelved, but began to be fully implemented during the spring of 2013.
Nevertheless, the news remains disturbing. If North Korea rejects reforms, it will slide back into a state of stagnation. This will mean life will become even more difficult for North Koreans and will create a great deal of trouble for North Korea’s neighbors. A reforming North Korea has the possibility of survival, while a stagnant and stunted North Korea is inevitably bound to collapse.
[Excerpts from Al Jazeera article by Andrei Lankov, professor of Korean Studies at Kookmin University, Seoul]