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.
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