[Viewpoint] Is Pyongyang ‘Gonna Fly Now?’Seven months after Kim Jong-un assumed power in North Korea, the army’s chief, Ri Yong-ho, was purged by Kim’s uncle Jang Song-thaek. As a consequence, the young North Korean leader is expected to abandon the “military-first” policy, a political and economic principle adopted by Kim Jong-il, sooner or later and will adopt a pragmatic line of economic reconstruction. It is time for South Korea to watch the developments in the North and cope with the wind of change.
North Korea experts predicted that Kim Jong-un would abandon the “military-first” policy. They reasoned that it is difficult to maintain a “military-first” policy under collective leadership, in which a royal family headed by Kim’s aunt Kim Kyong-hui and uncle Jang Song-thaek and the leaders of the party and the military help rule the country. For a leader like Kim Jong-un who does not have adequate charisma to rein in the Army, there is no other means but purging the military chief when the Army disobeys.
According to a North Korean source close to the Solidarity of NK Intellectuals, an organization of intellectuals who fled from the North, Ri Yong-ho objected to the adoption of the “New Economy Reconstruction Plan” presented by a group under Jang Song-thaek at a meeting of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party held in the presence of Kim Jong-un on July 15. He said, “Jang Song-thaek recently studied the plan for the transfer of profitable businesses under the General Staff Department, including the Army’s trading arm Kangsong General Trading Company and others, to the cabinet. It is a ploy to lay his hands on them.”
At last, Kim Jung-un jumped up from his chair and said, “Those who do not follow me or respect my orders cannot participate in a revolution with me.” Then, he declared, “Ri Yong-ho, who uttered thoughtless words at today’s meeting, is relieved of all his posts and rank.”
The struggle originated from Kim’s decision to give priority to the food shortage. To do that, it is necessary to restructure North Korea’s ailing economy. However, the economic sector under the control of the state council is in tatters as the cabinet was a secondary priority during 14 years of “military-first” policy. In order to make up for the food shortage and reconstruct the economy, therefore, it is urgently needed to transfer the economic projects monopolized by the Army to the cabinet. But the Army strongly resisted the plan to transfer them together with profit-bearing trading arms of the General Staff Department to the state council.
There are also signs of change in the lives of North Korean people. According to Feng Zhu, a professor of international relations at Peking University, free markets in which Chinese merchants can participate are opening in North Korean cities along the border. The People’s Daily of China reported on July 28, “The number of leisure and entertainment facilities in Pyongyang has increased greatly. A housing project has been launched in the Mansudae area, and a dolphin show hall and a mini-golf course are open at Rungna People’s Pleasure Ground.”
It is noteworthy that Kim Jung-un is at the forefront of change. North Korean media has started to carry reports, photos and video footage of Kim accompanying his wife at official functions. During a performance by the Moranbong Troupe held in honor of Kim Jung-un and his wife on July 7, the theme song from “Rocky,” “Gonna Fly Now,” was played; the scene where Rocky knocks out the Soviet boxer Ivan Drago was shown; the Frank Sinatra hit “My Way” was played; and performers dressed as Disney characters were featured.
At a performance staged in honor of the supreme leader of the country that cries out “Down With American Imperialism!” the theme song from a film that symbolizes the American Dream was played, the scene of an American hero knocking down a Soviet hero was shown, and Disney characters, an embodiment of cultural imperialism, were featured!
Even more surprising is that North Korean Central TV broadcast the entire program five days later, highlighting the scene of Kim applauding and giving the thumbs-up. The remark he made right after the performance - “We should boldly accept good things in other countries and make them our own,” - is interpreted as a sign that the North will open up toward the United States.
However, it is premature to predict that Kim’s westernized taste will lead to genuine reform. North Korea still insists on the goals set out by the “military-first” policy. On July 20, Pyongyang claimed that the United States was involved in the plot to demolish statues of North Korean leaders and declared, “The situation compels North Korea to totally re-examine the nuclear issue.” The People’s Daily interpreted the statement as proof that “North Korea concentrates its efforts on the development of the ‘military-first’ policy along with the efforts to build up the economy.”
We have looked forward to the day of stability of the situation on the Korean Peninsula, when the North discards its “military-first” policy and adopts a pragmatic line. It is time for us to watch North Korea’s efforts for economic reconstruction and check options that we can use when it is fit for us to provide support to the North.
*The author is a visiting professor of communications at Sejong University.
By Park Sung-soo