Is North Korea Opening? What Might That Mean?

If we have few good answers on North Korea, then maybe we need to refine our questions.[1]

Case in point: Is North Korea opening? Articles on this theme are a hardy perennial of the field. I’ve been reading them since at least the 1980s. Back then I was writing them. After my first visit to the DPRK in 1986, one of a series of pieces commissioned for a cover story in the Far Eastern Economic Review (a journal much missed) bore the confident headline: “After the Great Leader, pragmatism will prevail.”[2] Oh well. Win some, lose some…

Hope springs eternal, and the death of Kim Jong Il has naturally inspired a fresh bout of…what, exactly? “Reading the tea-leaves,” but too often clutching at straws. Wow, Pyongyang has traffic now! Things are really on the move! Geoffrey See has recently warned wisely in these pages against making too much of visual impressions. Not that these aren’t real; there are indeed more cars. But what does this mean? To answer that requires conceptual clarity.

First up, deconstruction. A lot of people, including the lazier end (very busy lately) of what KCNA likes to call “the reptile press,” view North Korea through a hazy lens of Western-centric smug commonsense and wishful thinking. Unsurprisingly, the result is they can’t see a thing.

On this view, North Korea is weird because it is not like us. It needs to change: implicitly defined as becoming more like us. And it does bad things, which it must stop doing right now.

Such shallow, finger-wagging critique—shovelled out in shitloads after Kim Jong Il died—isn’t even as critical as it sounds. The risk in superficiality is that one can also get too easily over-excited if the DPRK does anything contrary to our stereotype, as quite often it does.

The latest instance: A cute quintet of accordionists, playing the A-Ha hit, “Take On Me.”[3] Why is this a big deal? North Korea has no problem with tinky-plinky 80s pop pap. Now, if they took on Coltrane…

We can and must do better than this, and it isn’t that hard. For a start, discard the teleologies and disaggregate the problematique. North Korea needs to be seen in its own terms, not ours. (note that I said in, not on.) And we need to be clear what exactly it is that we are talking about.

Those who want North Korea to open up (and who doesn’t?) tend to conflate two things: nuclear disarmament and economic reform. Forget the former: It ain’t gonna happen. Pro forma we have to keep pushing for it, but meanwhile the wise course is to seek out change of other kinds in North Korea’s system. And in that regard too, we need to think more sharply and carefully, and above all, contextually, about what various DPRK phenomena really mean.

This article tries to offer a very basic tool-kit for such an endeavor. It begins with some dry but necessary concepts, and then illustrates these with comparative cases as well as North Korea.

Analytically, then, the idea of North Korea opening raises at least seven kinds of questions:

  1. Opening what? The economy? Politics? Society? Culture? These are not all the same. An opening in one sphere does not necessarily entail it in others. Teleology—the fond idea that change in one area will spread to become generic—is the bane of DPRK studies (China too).
  2. Outward or inward? A state may open to the outside world without any parallel opening up internally, to its own citizens. (Vice versa is logically possible, but unlikely in practice.)
  3. Time frame. Is opening permanent, or merely temporary? Is it reversible, for instance if contested, as has proved the case with the July 2002 economic reform measures?[4]
  4. Strategic or tactical? Is the opening serious and sincere, or a ruse or ploy of some kind: reculer pour mieux sauter? Critics of the Six Party Talks would cite these as one example.
  5. Opening to whom? It’s a dire error to suppose opening has to be intransitive or general. Au contraire, it may be highly directional. Concretely: the DPRK is opening to China while slamming the door on South Korea (at least notionally, for now, and Kaesong excepted).[5]
  6. Who is opening, exactly? The old assumption of the DPRK as monolithic may be less true these days. Today’s Pyongyang to some degree contains multiple and competing entities, as would be normal in other countries. (But they all want your money, as noted below.)
  7. Is opening the same as reform? Nope. You can have O without R (vice versa is possible, but unlikely: see point #2 above). Thus to improve North Korea’s collapsing infrastructure doesn’t require reform as such, just shedloads of Chinese cash—as we are starting to see.

Let’s now apply all of this: to North Korea, but first to some other cases by way of comparison:

  1. China and Vietnam are far from perfect, but the extent to which each has transformed in recent decades means that they get cited in discussions of North Korea as implicit models of what others (including the PRC) would like the DPRK to do and become. Both have opened and reformed their economies drastically. Their polities have changed too, but much less so.
  2. Cuba is often cited alongside the DPRK as the two last hardline communist holdouts, yet this is misleading in several ways. On the external economic front, it is the US—and only the US—that applies closure to Cuba more than vice versa. Internally, Cuba is finally grasping the nettle of market reforms with a will, rigor, and honesty still wholly missing in North Korea.[6] 
  3. Burma/Myanmar too is often bracketed with North Korea, though its closure was never so extreme. Its current opening looks substantial:[7] questions 2, 3, and 5 above pertain. The internal aspect is striking: peace with the Karens, and Aung San Suu Kyi running for election (the DPRK it ain’t). Externally, fresh fence-mending hopes to avoid excessive dependence on China. They must ponder that in Pyongyang too, though a visit by Hillary Clinton hardly looks imminent.
  4. Libya is a cautionary tale. Gaddafi’s post-2003 rapprochement with the West was real, as were the WMD he surrendered; but there was no parallel internal opening. Some saw this as a precedent which the DPRK should be encouraged to emulate. That was a pipedream, and the subsequent fate of the colonel and his regime only hardened DPRK suspicions of western blandishments—as Ruediger Frank presciently pointed out in these pages almost a year ago.

And North Korea? In one of his last foreign media interviews in April 1994, Kim Il Sung got quite touchy when invited to announce a Chinese-style economic opening to the West:

We opened already. Do I have to say it again? We allow foreign investment and joint ventures. We opened. Is there any room for more opening? We have set up zones where they can best fit in. When we open we do it in our own way, not following others. It’s anathema for me to follow others.[8]

True, the DPRK had allowed joint ventures since 1984 and created its first special economic zone (Rajin-Sonbong) in 1991. Yet the great leader seems not to grasp what this truly entails. “Opening in our own way” is incoherent. Opening is a relationship. In a competitive world, “our own way” better appeal to others. The Sinatra-esque solipsism of Kim’s last sentence (“I did it myyy way”) is a sour note. If your opening is idiosyncratic, ain’t nobody gonna come.

Two leaders later, how much has changed? It’s too soon to judge Kim Jong Un’s input, and it would take another article to answer in empirical detail. For now, on our seven-point checklist:

  1. While the regime may evince a fitful economic interest in the wider world, it emphatically intends no opening of its society, culture, or above all polity. (North Korean society on the ground is, of course, much changed, with the rise of markets since the 1990s. But as Haggard and Noland rightly insist, this occurred despite and against the state, not because of it.)
  2. Relatedly, any North Korean opening is thus purely external, economic, and instrumental.
  3. Even that might prove fragile. Pyongyang’s neanderthals scored a serious “own goal” with the 2009 currency reform fiasco, but their dead hand is all over the first two leaden texts of the Kim Jong Un era: the usual New Year’s Joint Editorial, and the even ghastlier “Joint Calls” a day earlier by the WPK Central Committee and Central Military Commission.[9] A regime that puts out hectoring twaddle like this in 2012 can hardly be said to be seriously opening. The same goes for the vast baroque edifice of economic irrationality catalogued in an earlier article here. While all this persists, the odd chap who asks Geoffrey See for a reading-list on finance—while much to be encouraged—must swim against a mighty tide of nonsense. Or for an excellent sectoral study, see Randall Ireson’s recent article here about what the DPRK regime should and could do concretely to improve agriculture, if it really wants to.
  4. Similarly, until there is clear proof that Pyongyang’s equivalents of Deng Xiaoping have vanquished the old guard once and for all, any seeming DPRK opening must be viewed with caution. They are desperate for money, and will say or do anything to get hold of it. Nothing in North Korea’s past record offers any basis to take anything at all on trust. Sad, but tue.
  5. As noted above, the opening to China is clear; although not, by recent accounts, all smooth sailing.[10] Closure to South Korea might seem just as clear-cut from Pyongyang’s rhetoric, but in fact, is not. Not only does the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC) remain in business, but at least one South Korean firm—the world’s number two shipbuilder, no less, whose majority owner is the ROK state[11]—seems to have found a way to sneak in on China’s coattails. Even so, the next occupant of the Blue House will have a lot of lost ground and time to make up.
  6. For sure, there are individuals and institutions (the latter probably under the Cabinet) in Pyongyang who favor more substantial opening. But here again, caution is essential. The odd news that the DPRK’s several new bodies touting for investment don’t actually speak to each other can only ring alarm bells. Rather than true capitalist competition, that suggests courtiers vying to see who can bag the most loot and win the king’s favor; not genuine opening. This reeks of and reinforces the old order: specifically the shadowlands world of Inspector O, where menace lurks and links to hidden strongmen are what count. It’s a vital difference.
  7. Much as we all enjoin market reforms on the DPRK, we should admit that in some areas economic progress is in fact feasible without it. Infrastructure is a case in point: it just all needs rebuilding, which just needs capital. (The idea that infrastructure works better if privatized is now out of fashion.)

To conclude. Whether or not you agree with any particular judgments, I hope this analytical exercise helps. By clarifying in advance what opening means, we might just recognize it if and when it finally materializes. Or at any rate, we can and should avoid being fooled by mirages. Accept no substitutes. Taken as a whole, North Korea is not opening. Not yet.

[1] This article is based on a talk given in Brussels on December 13, 2011, at a seminar for European diplomats dealing with the DPRK organized by the Polish Presidency of the European Union. I’m deeply grateful to the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs for this kind invitation to participate in a very stimulating discussion.

[2] FEER Vol. 132, No. 26, June 26, 1986, p. 40. The archive is still accessible online to Wall Street Journal subscribers at But it would be good if Dow Jones would allow an open-access academic home for this treasure-trove. I’ve written to them about this, but received no reply. See also my comments at

[3] See, among many other reports, Alastair Lawson, “North Korean A-ha accordionists ‘destined for stardom,’” BBC News, February 10, 2012,

[4] The little-known post-2002 internal debates are valuably charted by Robert L. Carlin and Joel S. Wit, North Korean Reform: Politics, economics and security, London: Routledge for IISS (Adelphi Paper 382), July 2006.

[5] For an account and lament of how South Korea under Lee Myung Bak threw away its hand in the North, see Aidan Foster-Carter, “Lee Myung Bak, Pragmatic Moderate? The Way We Were, 2007,” 38 North, January 20, 2011,; Aidan Foster-Carter, “Scrapping the Second Summit: Lee Myung Bak’s Fateful Misstep,” 38 North, January 20, 2011,

[6] See Jose Luis Leon-Manriquez, “Similar Policies, Different Outcomes: Two Decades of Economic Reforms in North Korea and Cuba,” Korea Economic Institute Academic Paper Series, Vol. 6, No. 4, April 2011,

[7] There is a useful summary timeline of Burmese events at

[8] From “Kim Il-sung: In His Own Words,” Korea Countdown, Seoul: Merit Consulting, No. 9, May 1994, p. 6. In chatty mood, the great leader also reveals his idea of sport: “I shot two bears this year. Soldiers raise them, so they don’t run away. One had climbed up a tree. It heard the noise of the car and climbed down and I shot it.”

[9] Judge for yourself, dear reader. (Except alas in South Korea, where sadly your government doesn’t trust you to make up your own mind.) See, respectively, “DPRK Leading Newspapers Publish Joint New Year Editorial,” KCNA, January 1, 2012,; and “Joint Calls of WPK Published, KCNA, December 31, 2011,

[10] Unconfirmed reports claim that “China rejects Pyongyang’s new economic zone laws,” Korea Herald, January 11, 2012,

[11] See the ownership pie-chart at

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