[OUTLOOK]North Korea 'reforms?' Not likely

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[OUTLOOK]North Korea 'reforms?' Not likely

"In all honesty, the East European socialist countries and the Soviet Union collapsed when they tried to carry out reforms. We are not going to carry out any reforms."

A North Korean diplomat I met at an international conference about 10 years ago said those words to me. He also said, "From the beginning, we have been carrying out reforms every day under the leadership of Kim Il Sung. There is no need for us to talk about reforms now."

The recent changes being reported in North Korea made me recall the words of this North Korean diplomat.

The question is, are these changes the kinds of reforms that East European countries had tried in the past, or are the "reforms" the kinds that North Korea does "every day."

In other words, it is difficult to tell whether North Korea is truly opting for a change in the regime and structure or is merely shifting around external factors in a strategic bid for short-term gains, such as economic cooperation with Japan.

Many seem to believe -- or rather, many hope -- that this time North Korea is on its way to reforms in earnest.

Some believe, for example, that because Pyeongyang has decided to set free prices and exchange rates, it would mean that North Korea is changing not only the management of its economy but the economic system itself.

There are those more skeptical. According to an individual who has visited North Korea on several occasions and met with the various classes of people there, North Korea will never open itself. That is because North Korea believes that opening itself would be a threat to the authority of Kim Jong-il.

Indeed, it is such a mentality that has made North Korea unwilling to give up its state-governed economy and hereditary rule.

Nevertheless, the leaders in North Korea must have inevitably felt that they needed to try something new under the present circumstances.

The North Korean society has reached a point where it has had enough of "the march of tribulations" that it had borne so patiently until now.

But the situation in North Korea does not allow North Koreans to call for reform in the name of Kim Jong-il. This is a society that has been denouncing reform and the opening of the country in the name of its supreme leader.

It would be an awkward shift of direction to turn around and call for precisely that. That is why, even when he is trying to reform the economy, Kim Jong-il is not calling it "reform" but an "improvement in the management of the economy."

We must also consider the role of the military in these recent changes. North Korean diplomats have often claimed that the military showed unwillingness to accept changes.

Has Kim Jong-il persuaded the military to accept these recent changes, or has he simply ignored the military in his pursuit of reform? Or has this "hard-line military" factor been nothing but a diplomatic ploy that the country had been using all this time? With North Korea, anything is possible.

Yet the theory that the military was persuaded to accept change goes against logic. On the other hand, if the military is still opposed to the changes, what are the limits that this opposition poses on these changes? And had all this been a lie, the North Korean regime is even more unpredictable and unreliable than we'd ever thought it was.

It seems to have been logically impossible for the North Korean military to accept the fact that the regime needed changes and that it needed to be "corrected."

It seems more plausible that the military has accepted these changes as strategic readjustments to maximize North Korea's interests in the present international political situation.

This, in other words, would mean that North Korea is not pursuing any heartfelt reforms but rather implementing strategic readjustments.

The second theory that Kim Jong-il is pursuing reforms despite facing stern opposition from the military, means that the stability of the North Korean regime could be seriously at risk if something is not done soon.

In conclusion, we still don't know for sure whether North Korea is willing to change and walk the path of reform or -- as it has always done before -- going through strategic gestures for short-term profits.

The only thing for sure is that either way North Korea is not going to face an easy future. Those of us in the South must maintain a levelheaded and prudent stance until the current situation on the Korean Peninsula assumes a normal and rationally comprehensible form.


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The writer is the president of the Social Sciences Institute.


by Kim Kyung-won

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