Economic reform takes backseat in North Korea

January 02, 2012

By YOSHIHIRO MAKINO / Correspondent

SEOUL--A Politburo meeting may signal a change in the decision-making process in North Korea--but that's about all expected to be different in the short term under Kim Jong Un's rule.

Kim has shown increased dependence on the military as he tries to secure his position as North Korea's new leader. This approach will make it difficult to reform the nation's anemic economy or implement an open-door policy that could help the people.

Kim, who on Dec. 30 was named supreme commander of the military, inspected a tank brigade for the first time, the Korean Central News Agency reported on Jan. 1.

The report was likely made to show that Kim was securing control over the military, which had received priority throughout the reign of his father, Kim Jong Il, who died in December.

Almost all of Jong Un's close associates and policy positions are those handed down from his father.

Kim Jong Il joined the Workers' Party of Korea in 1964. His selection as a member of the Central Committee in February 1974 was a sign that he had been tapped to eventually succeed his father, Kim Il Sung, North Korea's founder.

From that time, Kim Jong Il is said to have begun making key personnel and policy decisions. He was named supreme commander of the military in December 1991, when his father was still alive.

According to a former North Korean government official, Kim Jong Il around that time would remain in his office until late at night and go through as many as 50 documents daily for each government agency. Any document that had Kim Jong Il's signature was considered more important than any law.

In contrast, Jong Un is far from being in a position to make personnel and policy decisions on his own.

According to Tokyo-based news agency Radio Press, a Dec. 30 Politburo meeting was the first since an expanded session was held last June.

The last time an ordinary Politburo meeting was held was 17 years ago, in October 1994, shortly after the death of Kim Il Sung.

Such meetings were not held under Kim Jong Il because he hated those meetings and decided everything himself.

The holding of such a meeting after Kim Jong Il's death may indicate a change in the way decisions are made in North Korea.

Analysts said Jong Un would likely consult with Jang Song Thaek, the vice chairman of the National Defense Commission who is married to Kim Jong Il’s younger sister, Kim Kyong Hui, and other close associates while also gaining the approval of the 25 or so members of the Politburo.

"He will likely seek to build up a true dictatorship after repeated purges and conciliatory gestures," one expert said of Jong Un.

A major problem for Jong Un, however, is that he will have to depend on the legacy of his father in stating his own legitimacy as a ruler.

The joint slogan of the Workers' Party Central Committee and Central Military Commission announced on Dec. 31 was a call to the people to thoroughly implement the policies of the Kim Jong Il era.

That means that it is obviously too early for Jong Un to present his own course of action.

Moreover, Jong Un will have to plot a course of action amid a collapsed economy. Food rations are only available in Pyongyang, which represents just 10 percent of the population.

Depending on the kinds of personnel and policy decisions made, dissatisfaction could arise even among those within the special class who have enjoyed the benefits of the dictatorship.

The joint slogan also threatened to turn the South Korean Blue House, where the president works, into a sea of fire if North Korea came under attack.

The military opposes economic reform and an open-door policy because it has huge vested interests in terms of foreign trade. However, that stance in the long term could serve to weaken Jong Un's power base.

By YOSHIHIRO MAKINO / Correspondent
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A man in Seoul watches TV footage showing new North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visiting a tank brigade on Jan. 2. (AP photo)

A man in Seoul watches TV footage showing new North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visiting a tank brigade on Jan. 2. (AP photo)

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  • A man in Seoul watches TV footage showing new North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visiting a tank brigade on Jan. 2. (AP photo)

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