Kim Jong Un’s report to the Korean Workers’ Party Congress in early January set out a clear overall direction for the North Korean economy. Although the report itself contained little new policy, it emphasized Kim’s ambition to restore state leadership and control over economic affairs. In the context of the vast growth of the role of semi-private economic activity in the past few decades, this is a concerning signal that the state may seek to limit market activity and semi-private business, both of which are crucial for the livelihoods of a major share of the population.
However, none of this should come as a surprise. Despite Kim Jong Un’s seeming willingness to experiment with loosened state control over the economy in the early years of his tenure, regaining state authority in areas where it was lost since the 1990s has been a central ambition throughout Kim’s years in power. This ambition is not limited to the economy alone.
The government in totalitarian states has always regarded economic control as a central way to manage social structures, hand out privileges and punishment, and further their ideological agenda. Indeed, in their classical framework for totalitarianism as a system of governance, Carl J. Friedrich and Zbigniew Brzezinski posit a “centrally directed economy” as one of six necessary components for full state control over society. Among the other five elements are authority of mass media and mass communications.
Thus, Kim’s emphasis on economic governance is part of a much bigger program of political and social control, and the Congress report made this clear with such expressions as the need for “a firm political climate” and “the struggle for eliminating all kinds of anti-people factors.” This was partially a reference to those economic officials that Kim has long claimed are not working hard enough and with sufficient creativity in policy and management.
These terms, however, also hold broader meaning. Although they are standard phrases in the political vocabulary of the country, in the larger context of the speech, they indicate a more comprehensive policy priority. Kim spoke explicitly about the need to clamp down more strongly on the infiltration of foreign culture and media into the country, a reference to the consumption of smuggled South Korean dramas among a significant share of the population. Since cross-border smuggling began to proliferate in the 1990s, illegal consumption of foreign (and South Korean in particular) culture has become widespread in the country. The state always cracks down on it with different levels of intensity. Kim called for “a powerful mass campaign against the practices running counter to the socialist lifestyle, deeply bearing in mind the faith in socialism and love for and trust in things of their own”; he also demanded a “revolution in newspapers, news services, radio and TV broadcasting and publishing.”
In other words, the state should strive to compete with illegal foreign alternatives and stamp out the infiltration of foreign influences. Indeed, repression against outside influences has been a hallmark of Kim Jong Un’s tenure. In the winter of 2020, Daily NK reported, the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly adopted a law against “reactionary thought,” defining as illegal “[…] listening to, recording or distributing foreign [radio] broadcasts; importing and distributing ‘impure’ foreign recordings, video content, books or other published materials; and copying or distributing music unapproved by the state.” Those who are caught disseminating such materials can be sentenced to death, and the law even punishes people with up to two years in a labor camp for using South Korean expressions or speaking in a South Korean accent.
The crackdown against South Korean culture, of course, is in itself nothing new. The North Korean government has always severely punished smuggling and illicit consumption of South Korean TV dramas and pop music, but Kim’s regime has significantly intensified such crackdowns. These moves not only reflect the strong priority he attaches to repressing outside information, but have also reportedly been taken in response to specific events whose narratives the regime has been eager to control—for example, the rapprochement with South Korea and the summits between Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae-in 2018, and the general downturn in North Korea’s economic situation and relations with the US and South Korea at the present moment.
Moreover, information control has been a high priority during Kim’s tenure as a whole. In 2014, Kim gave a speech at a large-scale meeting for “ideological workers” where he accused the “imperialists” of attempting “to infiltrate corrupt reactionary ideology and culture into our country” and singled out “young people” and “service personnel” as a particularly receptive target group. He also called for “[…] putting up [sic] ‘mosquito net’ double and treble to prevent the viruses of capitalist ideology which the enemy is persistently attempting to spread from infiltrating across our border.”
These policy pronouncements appear to have had practical implications. For example, a 2017 study based on defector interviews indicated that crackdowns against foreign media and unsanctioned information, as well as general smuggling, had become significantly harsher and frequent during Kim Jong Un’s time in power. Indeed, “[n]ot a single survey respondent believed that it had become less dangerous to watch South Korean and other foreign dramas under Kim Jong Un, and the majority believed it had become more dangerous.” As one source inside North Korea told Daily NK in early 2018, “[i]t used to be that you just needed money to watch South Korean dramas, but that’s no longer the case. Now only Ministry of State Security (MSS) officials or agents can openly watch them, while ordinary people have to find secretive methods to view them.”
Liberalization and Control Part of the Same Story
Although it appears counterintuitive, Kim Jong Un’s early and significant experimentation with economic liberalization and relaxation is consistent with the trend of greater control over information. Some of the most significant changes were encapsulated in the so-called “Our Style Economic Management Methods” of institutional changes, which allowed significant decentralization of management and production planning in the state sector, granted permission for farming units to freely dispose or keep 30 percent of their production, and permitted some limited private investments in the small business sector, to name a few examples.
Kim may have intended such market mechanisms to boost economic efficiency and productivity. At the same time, however, these policy experiments, as is true of all other measures of economic relaxation in North Korea, have primarily formalized private economic activity that was already happening in practice. In doing so, the state also sought to administer and gain oversight over such activity, partially to reap financial benefits through taxes and fees. In addition, in recent years, the state has scrapped previous reforms in areas such as foreign trade in order to recentralize control. Even during the heyday of institutional changes in economic management, the state refrained from legalizing common practices like actual, full private management of firms.
The most obvious and visible example of this dual attitude in economic governance is the growth of general markets in the country. Many facets of market trade were illegal when they became commonplace after the famine, and vast marketplaces sprung up despite this to fill the gap of failed state distribution of food and other necessities. Now, most markets are administered by the government, which collects taxes and fees and issues permits for market trade. Indeed, as one of the most thorough empirical studies of the market system concluded, “[…] the General Market system has developed as a direct result of North Korean government policy.” Although very little is known about the contents of the amendment and its implementation, a recent example appears to be the revisions to the country’s enterprise law that the Supreme People’s Assembly adopted in early November. It reportedly incorporates semi-private businesses contracting with state-owned foreign trade companies into the larger state-owned enterprises they are affiliated with, placing them under Workers’ Party administration.
Thus, the formalization of private economic activity in the Kim Jong Un era has never been about liberalization for liberalization’s sake. Stronger government oversight has always been a central goal, and the recent pronouncements of strengthened control in Kim’s Congress report should be seen as fulfilling this ambition as well. The state currently appears to be rolling back much of the freedom it previously gave to economic actors. But, in retrospect, it remains doubtful that Kim Jong Un was ever committed to large-scale, transformative economic reforms. Therefore, it is important, therefore, not to exaggerate the regime’s permissive attitude toward market mechanisms in the first years of Kim’s rule.
When the planned economy collapsed in the 1990s, the regime effectively lost several tools of governance central to any modern state, such as the ability to administer and oversee much of the economy and fully regulate its borders. Corruption made smuggling and illegal crossings commonplace, and the state tacitly allowed such activity because of its importance to the economy. Symbolically, defections to South Korea have dropped fairly consistently throughout Kim’s tenure (this year by an extreme 78 percent), at least in part as a result of strengthened border controls. Simply put, Kim has been reasserting social control throughout his time in power, and the remarks in the Congress report are part of this pattern.
Kim’s aspiration is somewhat understandable. Every state strives to control its borders and set out economic policy. The North Korean state, like all states, needs to tax business transactions to generate government revenue. The measures currently underway, however, as well as those on the horizon, risk leading to a significant increase in economic difficulties for the civilian population, which depends on market trade and private economic activity for survival, and whose enjoyment of innocent South Korean dramas is now to be punished even more severely than before. The ambitions for a stronger role for the state in the economy, expressed in Kim’s Congress report, are part of a broader agenda of more robust social control overall and should not be understood in isolation.
Thanks to Christopher Green, Kang Mi-jin, Sokeel Park and Peter Ward for valuable discussions and inputs for this piece. All errors and opinions belong solely to the author.
For example, Kim explicitly mentioned the need to “restore the state’s leadership and control” in the context of services. Services is one of the sectors where semi-private businesses are the most prolific and common.
Carl Joachim Friedrich and Zbigniew K. Brzezinski, Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1956), 9–11.
“Great Programme for Struggle Leading Korean-style Socialist Construction to Fresh Victory: On Report Made by Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un at Eighth Congress of WPK,” DPRK Ministry of Foreign Affairs, January 9, 2021, http://www.mfa.gov.kp/en/on-report-at-eighth-congress-of-wpk/.
Ibid. The state has prioritized both the modernization of domestic media and clamping down on foreign cultural infiltration well before the Congress. For example, North Korean television has already undergone significant modernization and revamping over the past few years and has even—with unusual transparency and timeliness—broadcast directly from the field, around the clock, during Typhoon Bavi in the late summer of 2020.
“Speech of Kim Jong Un at Conference of Ideological Workers,” Korean Central News Agency, February 27, 2014.
Nat Kretchun, Catherine Lee and Seamus Tuohy, Compromising Connectivity: Information Dynamics Between the State and Society in a Digitizing North Korea (Washington, DC: InterMedia, 2017), 24, https://www.aquietopening.org/s/Compromising-Connectivity-Full-Report.pdf.
In Ho Park, The Creation of the North Korean Market System, (Seoul, Republic of Korea: Daily NK, 2017), 20, https://www.dailynk.com/english/notices/?mod=document&uid=68.