Kim Jong-un must learn from Gorbachev

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Kim Jong-un must learn from Gorbachev

Kim Byung-yeon

The author is a professor of economics and head of the Institute for Future Strategy at Seoul National University.

Mikhail Gorbachev — the last leader of the Soviet Union — changed world history. Thanks to him, the Soviet Union dissolved to bring the crumbling of socialist states and the end of the Cold War. Whether he intended or not, his conviction to uphold peace made the world freer and safer. The leader of North Korea must ask himself if he is contributing to the peace of the Korean Peninsula and bringing hope to the people of North Korea. So far, Kim Jong-un has not moved in the direction due to his obsession with nuclear weapons. The nuclear arms he prizes as protection for his state and regime are actually endangering the safety of North Koreans.

North Korea studied hard the causes of the Soviet collapse. After he became the general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party in 1985, Gorbachev tried to revive the economy through perestroika (reform). At the time, the country was extremely short of consumer goods. People had to wait for an average three hours to buy food at state-run shops daily. The economy stopped growing, and productivity was negative. Cash bills had to be printed to cover the yawning fiscal deficit. When a series of reform actions under perestroika did not produce desired effect, he attributed it to resistance from the establishment, including KGB. He then pursued glasnost (openness) to make the political and bureaucratic apparatus more transparent, communicative and law-abiding. He tried to set examples of glasnost. North Korea thought that glasnost weakened state control and eventually led to the collapse of the communist regime in Moscow.

To avoid such consequences, Kim Jong-un strongly refused political opening while condoning market activities and easing control over the economy. By toughening a reign of terror and political purges, he made sure that his regime did not weaken from economic decentralization. Such dictatorship may not last long but could be effective for a short term. Defying the early prediction that the third-generation leader may not reign long, Kim succeeded in cementing his political hold. The economy was not in a bad shape, either. It grew 2 to 3 percent annually from 2012 to 2015.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un speaks at an expanded meeting of members of the Secretariat for the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party, June 27, in Pyongyang. [NEWS1]

But Kim Jong-un must have missed the fundamental cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The ineffectiveness of state controlled economic system accumulated to the point where it had to be abandoned to save the ailing economy in the 1980s. It had to follow in the footsteps of China toward reform and opening and adopt capitalism to some extent. But Gorbachev only tried to restructure the socialist system. Kim tried practical policies by 2018, but fell short of pursuing full-fledged reforms. He believed that economic progress was possible through policies within the socialist framework. But such efforts are in vain. Divorce from socialism is essential to advance the economy. If socialism cannot be forsaken, the economy is victimized. Gorbachev had been in the dilemma 30 years ago. Kim also faces the conundrum.

Just as Gorbachev helped trigger the Soviet collapse with policies designed to protect socialism, nuclear weapons are endangering the North Korean regime. Gorbachev believed that people’s heavy drinking hurt productivity and economic growth. Through nationwide campaign of sobriety and efforts to reduce alcohol consumption, liquor sales became halved in official statistics. But undisclosed data on household expenditure showed that the consumption of bootleg liquor actually increased. Due to a plunge in tax revenue from alcohol consumption, the fiscal deficit widened. Naïve policy ideas from a leader with a lack of understanding of economic complexities worsened the situation.

Kim’s obsession with nuclear weapons could be more fatal to the society than the failed policies of Gorbachev. For some period, Kim could strike a balance between economic decentralization and toughened political control. But his adherence to nuclear development broke the balance. As a result, Kim is reinforcing state control over economic activities for the sake of self-sufficiency to fight international sanctions. He upholds an ideological struggle to prevent economic troubles from threatening the regime. In the meantime, the economy worsened. No one would welcome stronger political oppression while their lives hardened. The regime inevitably has become unstable. Nuclear arms that were supposed to protect his power is actually jeopardizing his power and regime. North Korea nevertheless legalized its nuclear weaponization. It is a delusion to believe the cause of a crisis could solve the crisis.

Nearsighted obsession of a dictator can trigger a crisis. In such societies, statistics and expertise won’t matter. The dictator’s standard would define policy standard. Recently discovered documents showed that Gorbachev had delayed decisions despite repeated reports warning of grave disasters in the economy. Statistics could have been cooked up to indulge the leader. What do the North Korean people want today?
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
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