Ending isolation is key

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Ending isolation is key

In a New Year’s address, Kim Jong-un, first chairman of the National Defence Commission of North Korea, reiterated the importance of enhancing people’s lives after decades of economic plight. His father, Kim Jong-il, didn’t like giving New Year speeches, although his grandfather Kim Il Sung did.

So this one was worth listening to.

Kim’s speech was studded with frequent references to economic affairs. Kim underscored that the reclusive country must constantly hone its economic management methods to bring them to perfection and make some conclusions from the good results that occur in the process. Given several reports in the first half of last year on Pyongyang’s potential reform drive to resuscitate a moribund socialist economy, we take special note of Kim’s address yesterday. Whether Pyongyang will expand its pilot reform programs nationwide, in particular, captures our interest and attention.

A year ago, a considerable number of experts on North Korea forecast that the winds of change would blow through the most isolated nation on earth after Kim Jong-un, a 20-something leader with the education background of studying in Europe, succeeded his father’s throne.

However, the way the young Kim behaved afterwards - reckless test-firings of long-range missiles despite vehement opposition from the international community, for instance - was far from proof of any great expectations. The missile launch could have been an inevitability considering that the young Kim’s most urgent task was stabilizing a hereditary power succession after his father’s death in December 2011. As it turned out, Kim was also busy with the process of purging many major figures in the military, Workers’ Party and the cabinet and replacing them with more loyal people. His attempts to curry favor with ordinary citizens through a series of unconventional stunts were another part of an effort to consolidate his power base. Against such a backdrop, Kim has again raised expectations for reform by accentuating a need to improve people’s livelihoods in the New Year’s address.

We would welcome it if North Korea genuinely launches a reform drive as without it we can hardly expect a full-fledged promotion of inter-Korean relations. Kim also made a reference suggesting he anticipates a better relationship between Seoul and Pyongyang in the future. He probably has in mind President-elect Park Geun-hye’s campaign pledges to improve inter-Korean ties. It would be more than desirable if Pyongyang’s reform drive goes together with an improvement in South-North relations.

To achieve that, the North must do two things. It should regain the international community’s trust by stopping its plans to develop nuclear weapons and long-range missiles and therefore escape from its decades of isolation. Without such efforts, Pyongyang cannot rescue its failing economy as the last two decades inarguably prove.

   김정은 북한 국방위원회 제1위원장은 1일 신년사에서 ‘인민생활 향상’을 되풀이 강조했다. 수십 년 지속된 경제난 탓에 매번 강조돼온 일이지만 올해는 특히 신년사 전체 내용 중 경제분야에 대한 언급이 가장 많았다. 김정은은 또 “경제관리방법을 끊임없이 개선하고 완성해나가며 여러 단위에서 창조된 좋은 경험을 널리 일반화해야 한다”고 강조했다. 지난해 상반기 북한이 사회주의 경제체제의 개혁을 시도한다는 보도가 여러 차례 있었기에 주목되는 내용이다. 그간 시범적으로 실시해온 개혁조치들을 전국적으로 확대할 것인지 관심을 끈다.   1년여 전 김정은 제1위원장의 권력승계와 함께 북한에 개혁바람이 불 것이라는 기대가 북한 내외에 있었다. 그러나 김정은의 행보는 국제사회의 반대를 무릅쓰고 두 차례 장거리 미사일 시험발사를 강행하는 등 개혁과는 거리가 멀었다. 발등의 불인 ‘세습 권력의 안정화’가 1차적 과제였기에 불가피한 측면이 있었을 지 모른다. 실제로 김정은은 지난 한해 군부와 당, 내각의 주요 포스트에 대한 세대 교체에 몰두했다. 파격적인 행보를 이어가면서 북한 주민들의 관심을 끌고 환심을 사기 위해 노력한 것도 권력기반 다지기의 일환이었다. 그랬던 김정은 제1위원장이 새해 벽두에 경제와 ‘인민생활 향상’을 크게 강조함으로써 새삼 개혁에 대한 기대를 촉발한 것이다.   북한이 정말 개혁에 나선다면 우리로선 크게 반가운 일이다. 북한의 개혁 없이 남북관계의 진정한 발전도, 한반도 평화와 안정도 도모하기 어려울 것이기 때문이다. 김정은 제1위원장은 박근혜 정부 출범 뒤 남북관계 개선을 기대하는 듯한 언급도 했다. 남북관계 개선을 강조한 박근혜 당선인의 공약을 의식했을 것이다. 북한의 개혁과 남북관계 개선이 맞물려 진전될 수만 있다면 더없이 좋은 일이다. 그러기 위해선 북한이 먼저 풀어야 할 일이 있다. 핵무기와 장거리 미사일 개발을 중단함으로써 국제사회의 신뢰를 회복하고 고립을 해소하는 것이다. 그런 과정 없이는 경제건설을 이룰 수 없음을 지난 20여년 북한 역사가 증명하고 있다.
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