If absolute power is never having to say you’re sorry, what could this possibly mean?
On Friday, Premier Kim Yong Il apologized for the aftermath in a meeting with government officials and local village leaders, the mass-circulation Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported, citing an unidentified source in North Korea.
“Regarding the currency reform, I sincerely apologize as we pushed ahead with it without a sufficient preparation so that it caused a big pain to the people,” Kim read a statement during the meeting at Pyongyang, according to the paper.
Kim said the government “will do its best to stabilize people’s lives,” saying it will ease its curb on markets and re-allow the use of foreign currency, the paper said. [AP, Hyung-Jin Kim]
The AP helpfully notes that the Premier is the third-most powerful man in North Korea, after Kim Jong Il and Kim Yong Nam.
This is simply astonishing … an open admission of failure and defeat? From these people? In such a system, apologies tend to portend dark things. It may well be that the removal of Pak Nam Gi, the Finance Director of the Workers’ Party, and Kim Dong-Un, the head of Bureau 39, will now expand into a broader purge of party officials. Purges are dangerous things for regimes. Even when they don’t fracture the leadership, they weaken it, as The Great Purge of 1937-1939 weakened the Soviet Army. To this day, there is still speculation that Stalin was poisoned by aides who thought they’d be purged next.
Just as significant, the regime is now reversing some of the Great Confiscation diktats, or so says an anonymous source for the Chosun Ilbo:
He indicated that the regime will allow people to use foreign currency, which has been banned since the reform, and permit open-air markets to return to normal after a crackdown that seemed aimed at strangling a nascent market economy. But Kim at the same time stressed the need to stick to state-set prices, adding that the government will strictly crack down on the hoarding of goods.
Some experts say the situation in the North has returned to almost the state before the currency reform. A South Korean official said North Korean authorities loosened their control of the markets since there has been unprecedented resistance from ordinary people. This seems to have forced Kim’s hand.
After Kim’s apology, most money changers and illegal traders who had been arrested were reportedly freed. The number of people leaving for China has grown noticeably as offices of state agencies or state-run corporations involved in earning dollars, which suspended business due to the ban on use of foreign currency, have resumed business. [Chosun Ilbo]
The source claims that the apology has “quenched a lot of the simmering public anger,” though this is a report I find difficult to credit too much:
“Premier Kim Yong-il’s direct apology to village chiefs, who are representatives of the people of each region, is tantamount to an apology to the people themselves. It’s a big event in the history of North Korea,” a former senior North Korean official who defected to the South said. “Authorities have never apologized to the people for wrong policies before.” He believes the apology came “because discontent with the currency reform had spread widely even among core supporters of the regime,” he added.
Residents in Hwanghae Province are in some cases said to have beaten security officers who were cracking down on the use of dollars.
But of course, much of the damage can’t be undone. You can’t unburn a pile of worthless currency; revive people who’ve been starved, executed, or killed themselves; or restore confidence in a currency that’s under the control of unstable and arbitrary people.
Furthermore, in a system where power is a zero-sum commodity, for the first time, people fought the system and lived to fight again. To a lot of people used to being under the heel of absolute power, an apology is going to look like weakness. It will invite more challenges. Indeed, the Chosun Ilbo’s source agrees that this apology may invite North Koreans to become more assertive in the future.