[Seri Column]Aiming forward, stepping backward

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[Seri Column]Aiming forward, stepping backward

North Korea’s annual New Year’s Day joint editorial is like a giant sign flashing directions in the desert. It gives an unobstructed view of where the North’s policies, domestic and foreign, will be headed in the coming year. As such, institutions and ordinary citizens could spend a month poring over its content, nearly memorizing the North’s intent.

But the editorial for 2009 actually contains no ground-breaking agenda, compared to previous years. Its message may be summed up in the keywords “return” and “observation.”

Internally, the Pyongyang regime will return to past policies while externally, it will adopt a wait-and-see attitude.

With respect to “return,” there are two points. First, the regime is trying to show that Kim Jong-il is guiding all practical matters of state. This is unprecedented, given his “supreme” status and an indirect indication that the top echelons in Pyongyang are agitated about Kim’s health, which has been seriously in question since August last year. Also, it is a sign that there will be stricter controls to find stability of political thought.

Second, although the North aims to become an economic power, it is actually going back to the past, advocating self-reliance for survival and strengthening control. It is even promoting slogans of the Chollima Movement of the late 1950s and the subsequent revolutionary upsurge in Kangson - the birthplace of the movement, which promoted rapid economic development.

This strongly suggests that the regime will bolster control over its people. Indeed, it launched a somewhat excessive movement to eradicate non-socialist sentiment in 2008, and starting this year, it is trying to further strengthen its political and ideological offensive.

Dishearteningly, this will drive North Korean people into more dire conditions. In fact, it is virtually impossible for the North to survive on its own. Its market is dominated by goods from China. It cannot even provide basic necessities for itself. Calling for survival by self-reliance against this backdrop contradicts the reality. To fill shortages, the North needs to actively engage in international economic exchange.

During the country’s “Arduous March” in the mid-1990s, North Koreans had no choice but to help each other to survive because the regime was helpless. Now, the slogan “Survive on your own” is a signal that the regime will put its pride ahead of opening to the outside world; and therefore, ordinary citizens should find their own way to survive.

Worse yet, calling for “mobilizing labor,” which hearkens back to the Chollima Movement, means that the regime will control markets that its people have formed spontaneously and render state-owned enterprises meaningless.

This is a repeat of the mid-1970s when the North misallocated labor.

At that time, by heavily injecting labor only in a limited number of industries without development or expansion of new ones, the North saw its productivity weaken.

With respect to the keyword “observation,” the North is expected to take a wait-and-see stance. In the past, it used to trumpet even a small achievement. But even though it was removed from the United States Trading with the Enemy Act and dropped from its terrorism blacklist, the New Year message did not even mention it.

This suggests that with the inauguration of the Obama administration, the North remains observant in relations with Washington.

Meanwhile, united front tactics are emerging in its relations with the South. While calling for “no intervention in internal affairs,” the regime never hesitates to deliver statements that provoke distrust in the South.

Indeed, Pyongyang seems adept at manipulating the South by sowing confusion. Most recently, the North made provocative remarks through the Korean People’s Army. It was seen as an attempt to put its New Year’s joint editorial into practice. Naturally, security forces in the South should not dismiss saber rattling statements totally but at the same time, should not go overboard and raise a sense of crisis. Particularly, the North may take various steps to push the U.S. to prioritize North Korea in its foreign diplomacy. However, that will not resolve the North Korean nuclear issue.

In conclusion, the Pyongyang regime’s New Year joint editorial shows the North taking steps even further backward, instead of forward. That bodes ill for timely responses to domestic needs as well as to dealing with a changing world. And it creates worrisome concerns that the North may cast a dark cloud over the Korean Peninsula in 2009.

The writer is a senior fellow, Global Studies Department, Samsung Economic Research Institute. For more SERI reports, please visit www.seriworld.org.

by Dong Yong-Sueng

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