[VIEWPOINT]Some signs of change in NorthRecently there have been several reports of unusual movements taking place in North Korea, but an actual major change has yet to be confirmed.
Evaluating the country with unconfirmed rumors makes it hard to objectively understand North Korea. On the other hand, believing obstinately that there is no change in the North Korean system is a factor that does not allow us to see the signs of change that may be taking place.
In this respect, the recently confirmed restructuring of the North Korean Workers’ Party and reform of its criminal law shows us that some useful reforms are taking place in the North.
First of all, the first restructuring of the party since the start of Kim Jong-il’s administration is an important measure that will allow us to estimate the direction of North Korea’s political change. The direction can be summarized as the strengthening of politics led by the military and expansion of the role of the cabinet.
“Politics led by the military” is not only a ruling style, but is stepped up to the level of an ideology of “putting the military ahead of everything,” which dominates the whole system. Therefore, we can see that politics led by the military is taking its place in full in the North Korean political system through the restructuring of the party power structure.
The abolition of the party’s Military Bureau that controlled the army is the result of the implementation of a political system that is led by the military. This, together with moving the Ministry of People’s Armed Forces under direct command of the National Defense Commission and strengthening the commission’s power, has brought the conclusion that the North’s political system is led by the military.
The dissolution of the Economic Policy Inspection Bureau and the Agricultural Policy Inspection Bureau have to do with the recent speedy expansion of the role of the cabinet. North Korea was already exhibiting a “cabinet system and cabinet-centered system” since the revision of the constitution in 1998 and pursuing an expansion of the cabinet’s authority on administrative and economic projects. The decision made last August at the cabinet meeting to officially stop the Siniuju special area project showed us that Prime Minister Park Bong-ju plays a powerful role and that the cabinet is true to its name, “the economic control tower.”
Now that the party’s bureau in charge of overall control over government economic policy is dissolved, the cabinet’s power over the economy is greater than ever. The shift is prompted by the will to reform the chronic problem of “politization of the economy” in party projects and to pursue economic efficiency and practical interests under the responsibility of the cabinet.
There also seems to be a consideration to turn the political responsibility arising from financial difficulties over to the cabinet, leaving Chairman Kim Jong-il, who is commanding the party, free of pressure. In the end, the party restructuring can be seen as a measure to leave the party in charge of politics and ideology, while the cabinet and the National Defense Commission share responsibility over economic and military affairs. Thus, role-sharing among the party, government and the military that fits in the era of a political system led by the military is achieved.
This sense of internal change was visible in April when the criminal law was revised. Stipulating the principle of legality in the criminal code, strengthening personal property rights, making efforts for human rights protection and easing the punishment for those who flee the country were positive countermeasures that accommodated the changes taking place in North Korean society.
The fact that North Korea has been tolerating, not stopping, the quickly changing social atmosphere since the economic reforms of June 1, 2002, and including future-oriented clauses taking into account the human rights offensive from the international community, suggests the North is going in the direction of reform and openness.
Meanwhile, strengthening the punishment for treason and making new laws to punish any social side effects of opening the country can be viewed as measures to stop threats caused by the opening of the country. Similarly, strengthening the provisions on military discipline by specifically defining activities harmful to national defense can be seen as measure to emphasize the political system led by the military and to use criminal law to the expanded role of the military. Ultimately North Korea’s restructuring of the Workers’ Party and its criminal law change show us that an active response from the top to maintain the system has started.
North Korea is acknowledging that reform and openness are unavoidable. This shows us that the theory of North Korea remains unchanged, and that theories of North Korea collapsing do not take into account the actual changes taking place.
* The writer is a research professor at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies, Kyungnam University.
by Kim Keun-sik