So far so good for Kim Jong-un
Updated: 2012-09-27 07:47
By Liu Xuelian and Zhang Jingquan (China Daily)
The 6th session of the 12th Supreme People's Assembly of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea was held on Tuesday. With Kim Jong-un about to complete one year in office, there is much speculation across the world over his administrative performance and the direction in which the DPRK's economy is headed.
According to Korean Central News Agency, the assembly agreed to extend compulsory schooling by a year to better "train able revolutionaries", showing that Pyongyang is attaching greater importance to talents able to expedite national development. The assembly has not announced any major economic or agricultural reforms, though, as many had expected.
The DPRK is not expected to change overnight. Since Kim Jong-il had been a powerful leader for a long time, the greatest challenge Kim Jong-un faced when he assumed office was to make the succession smooth and consolidate power. That means, Kim Jong-un has had to uphold Kim Jong-il's political policies, especially the military-first principle, because only after strengthening his core position in Pyongyang can he lead the country toward economic development.
In fact, there are many signs to indicate that after the stabilization of the political situation in the DPRK, Kim Jong-un has shifted focus, even if slowly, to other areas such as economic development and friendly relations with other countries.
The DPRK has deepened its economic cooperation with China to establish economic reform zones. In June, Pyongyang proposed establishing an economic management system with special characteristics, for example, economic reform with DPRK characteristics. It also took measures to improve people's living standards, laying special emphasis on adolescent education, quality of life and entertainment facilities.
This year, the DPRK's physically challenged athletes participated in the London Paralympic Games, the first time they have done so. The DPRK also held talks with Japan on the kidnapping and hostage issue, and discussed with the Republic of Korea how to launch effective relief and rescue operations in the wake of natural disasters like typhoons.
Under such a relatively stable backdrop, the DPRK may take some measures to further boost economic development, especially because the Standing Presidium will in all probability boost Kim Jong-un's leadership.
Pyongyang has laid out new economic policies for implementation, and taken initiatives to build economic zones and even expand them in scale and nature. It is likely to increase expenditure on education and infrastructure, too, to gain the support of the people and the intellectuals for economic reform.
But even if the Supreme People's Assembly didn't announce significant economic reforms, the DPRK will continue to move forward on the road of economic development. It is expected to make breakthroughs in light industries and agriculture to solve its economic problems.
Kim Jong-un has tried to keep a balance between political stability and economic improvement. Recent territorial claims and counterclaims such as the Diaoyu Islands dispute between China and Japan, the Dokdo/Takeshima Islands dispute between the ROK and Japan, and Southern Kuril Islands/Northern Territories dispute between Russia and Japan have drawn international attention, and the DPRK seems to be removed from the center of a brewing storm in Northeast Asia after a long time. Nevertheless, the disputes over the islands involve four (effectively five) of the countries in the Six-Party Talks, and that may have a bearing, no matter how small, on the DPRK.
The island disputes have temporarily eased the international pressure on Pyongyang and given it a valuable opportunity to concentrate on economic development. But Kim Jong-un needs more time to execute the government's plans.
The island disputes may lead to deeper cooperation between China and the DPRK, and the DPRK and the ROK could even resume contact or begin cooperating on the economic front. There is also a chance for the petroleum and natural gas pipeline project among Russia, the DPRK and the ROK to be launched. All these will provide more time and resources for the DPRK to implement its new economic policy.
Since the attention of China, Russia, the ROK, Japan and the US is focused on the island disputes, Kim Jong-un has also got more security space to implement his domestic policies effectively and maintain internal stability. But Pyongyang will not change its military-first policy to people-first policy because of the sensitive security situation it feels it is in. This is why there is fear that Pyongyang's economic development may not make as much headway as expected.
Several countries will hold national elections or see leadership changes amid rising tensions over the island disputes in Northeast Asia, adding to the security concerns in the region. And the uncertainty over security is a double-edged sword for the DPRK.
The disputes among some countries may have given Pyongyang some time and space for economic development. But once any of the island disputes spirals out of control, the DPRK will not have the time and resources it now has to focus on economic development because it will also be affected and may have to begin everything anew.
The authors are professors at Northeast Asian Studies Academy of Jilin University.
(China Daily 09/27/2012 page9)