No Pyongyang Spring this year, either

The reasons why North Korea is holding a party congress are still a matter of conjecture to those of us fortunate enough not to live there. The congress is almost certainly related to Kim Jong-un’s consolidation of power in some way. It will probably reinforce the personality cult. The regime’s organization charts and wiring diagrams may be rearranged. Pessimists suspect that there will be more bloody purges or another nuclear test. Optimists still hold hope that His Corpulency will validate their frustrated predictions of reform.

Certainly nothing in the regime’s behavior before or during the congress supports the optimistic view. The preparations for the congress were mostly marked by increased repression and surveillance, exhausting mass mobilizations for forced labor, confiscatory “loyalty” payments, and crackdowns on market trading.

Nor is there any sign of glasnost in how the regime has treated the foreign press. So far, it has paraded them through a circuit of model farms, a model kindergarten,

a “children’s palace,” where children are militarized and made to perform,

a model factory,

a munitions museum, 

where reporters were shown an example of “indigenous” weapons,

 

and even a model barbershop.

Some of the foreign reporters are naive enough to think this is how North Koreans actually live.

And, inevitably …

Some observers justify compromises with the truth.

Others ask the minders and props in this play hard questions. They don’t get answers, but at least they tell us so, which reveals something — about themselves, if not about North Korea, which refuses to change. 

So, when The Event itself began, the minders left the reporters standing on a street corner outside, reading foreign websites on their smartphones to learn what they could about events happening 500 meters away.

The odds seem unlikely that the 130 foreign journalists currently in Pyongyang to cover the congress will be allowed to report any useful information, other than the useful fact that Pyongyang is isn’t letting them report any useful information.

There are, however, a few useful dramatizations of things we already knew. For example, the money is still worthless.

And the regime, which still can’t feed its people, has finished building a new headquarters for the bank that prints the worthless money.

Pyongyang has long benefited from cultivating the hope that it would reform, which optimistic policymakers, naive academics, foreign profiteers, and Pyongyang’s small, noisy band of apologists have long cited as an argument against sanctions and other forms of pressure. If there were any truth to the reform theories, you’d think Pyongyang would want to amplify them for a global audience, if only as a tactic for strategic deception. So far, it seems to be making little pretense in that direction.

Then, there is the adage that personnel is policy. The officials who are ascendant among the top ranks Pyongyang today are not reformers but hard-liners. But at the mid-to-low levels, older party cadres are being excluded from the congress, in favor of younger (but less experienced, and often, less ideologically inclined) cadres who have proven their loyalty to Kim Jong-un through successful performance at his pet projects. This doesn’t foreshadow the adoption of reformist policies, but might further widen the gulf between Pyongyang and the provinces, and between the highest officials and the lower ranks of the ruling party.

The short, unhappy reign of His Porcine Majesty has been one running disappointment for wishful thinkers in northwest Washington, but that is much less important than the disappointment of the desperately poor from North Hamgyeong to South Hwanghae. 

“Discontent among the people has risen high because of the closed politics of three successive generations,” the RFA quoted a source in Jakang Province. “For North Koreans, reform and openness is no longer just a wish but a must.” [….]

“If all Kim does is repeat the same old revolutionary slogans without clear commitment to reform and open policy, it will be an irreversible disaster for Kim’s stable reign,” another source was quoted as saying. “Citizens are now waiting for the seventh party congress, and regard reform and openness the issues for survival that cannot be delayed any longer.” [Korea Times]

I genuinely wish Pyongyang would finally go through the agricultural reforms it has been promising since 2012, even if in practice, those “reforms” would amount to little more than sharecropping, an arrangement few of us would associate with economic justice. And for all the excitement this has caused among certain North Korea-watching academics, actual North Koreans are much more interested in abandoning the collectives entirely, clearing private plots, and illegally growing food to sell in the markets — a trend that is impossible to measure, but which probably averted a famine despite last year’s drought.

What North Koreans really need isn’t marginal experiments with the collective system or a new New Economic Policy, it’s fundamental land reform that gives land to the tillers. This would do nothing to solve the nuclear crisis or alleviate North Korea’s other humanitarian crises, but it would effect dramatic improvements in North Korea’s food situation. But the unfortunate conclusion I draw is that this regime prefers a hungry population. It’s more easily cowed. And as for political reform, who seriously speaks of that today?

7 Comments

  1. Pity I was so wrong about a coup just before the big event. Still one lives in hope. He’s even on a charm offensive, with offensive the operative word.

  2. Hopefully the BS that his Corpulency spouted on KCNA about “not being aggressively nuclear” and “willing to make amends with former enemy nations” won’t snow any of the blowhards who want to back off on the sanctions. Reading what snippets of his speech the press got access to makes me worry he’s going to fool the UN and give China an excuse to back off right when sanctions are starting to sting.

  3. @ventogt: It may seem bizarre to say this, but I hope North Korea does test its fifth nuke soon. If they do, it could discourage China, the U.N., etc. from backing off from sanctions like you mentioned.

  4. @anonymous I 100% agree, but something tells me that KJU realizes the shitstorm he is in if he doesn’t do something to change his appearance to the outside world. Here’s to hoping, but the rhetoric and posturing make me nervous that the headlines will read “After the Party Congress, here is the new improved North Korea”, and the civilized world restarts the cycle of kowtowing again.

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