Understanding Kim Jong Un’s Economic Policymaking: Project Overview

38 North has launched a project that reviews the dynamics of North Korea’s economic policymaking under Kim Jong Un, from when he assumed power in December 2011 until 2020.[1] In the coming months, the authors will follow up with analyses of the specific themes they have identified for closer inspection. Translations of the North Korean economic journal tables of contents and articles used for this project will also be made available on 38 North.

Significance of the Economic Policy Question

North Korea’s economic policy is not just about trade statistics, budget figures or the impact of international sanctions. It revolves around the deeper and broader questions of resource allocation priorities and the balance between central control and latitude in lower-level units. These two issues inevitably have implications for North Korea’s domestic and foreign policy and offer a glimpse of the extent to which Kim Jong Un will carry out economic reform. How the North Korean economic discourse evolves is critical as the country continues to experiment with new ideas and practices to improve its “economic management methods,” a codeword for the country’s reform-oriented economic measures.

A central component of progress toward North Korean denuclearization and improved inter-Korean relations, up to and eventually including unification, will be economic. It will be impossible to successfully implement economic initiatives that could support denuclearization without a full understanding of North Korea’s current and future economic policy calculus. Similarly, steps toward inter-Korean rapprochement and unification must resonate within the framework of North Korean thinking and experience. New ideas and economic concepts cannot simply be imposed from the outside. They will have to be formulated, introduced and implemented in a way that builds on what is already there, either in terms of practice or ideas that have already been discussed.

Methodology and Scope

Methodology: This project focuses on the timing and sequencing of innovations introduced under Kim Jong Un and the type of opposition they have encountered. Crucially, it pinpoints articles in the regime’s two premier—and publicly available—economic journals that provide a window into the types of ideas which the regime allows for discussion, and the range of policy choices it appears to have seriously examined over the years. We know, for example, that from 2001 to approximately 2006, Kim Jong Il introduced new economic policies, which sparked different shades of opinion observable in North Korea’s main economic journal Kyo’ngje Yo’ngu[2] and the North’s central media.[3] We assume, and think we can discern, a similar dynamic at work under Kim Jong Un.

There are many approaches to utilize in setting out on such an analytical journey. One popular method in recent years has been the use of machine-learning tools to examine huge swaths of North Korean text.[4] This broad-strokes approach of semantic analysis is effective for identifying the general trends of Pyongyang’s areas of interest. But it fails to distinguish between significant and purely propagandistic articles, and overlooks the often-nuanced arguments presented in a pool of select important articles and the domestic or external context in which they appear.

By contrast, we have settled on a traditional but time-tested methodology that relies on refined and tested human understanding and intuition, the result of long experience actually dealing with and observing from a wide variety of angles the North Korean system and its internal media practices.

Scope of Sources: The primary source for this project is the North Korean economic quarterly Kyo’ngje Yo’ngu, translated into “Economic Research.” We will review the Journal of Kim Il Sung University (Economics) to supplement our research of Kyo’ngje Yo’ngu.[5] Throughout the project, we will utilize the party daily Rodong Sinmun in order to compare, and in some cases contrast, Kyo’ngje Yo’ngu articles with the official economic line. We will also utilize North and South Korean open-source materials to check how Kyo’ngje Yo’ngu lines up with major North Korean domestic and foreign policy milestones. Finally, we will use articles and commentary in Choso’n Sinbo, a paper run by the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (Chongryon). This source often conveys Pyongyang’s views—or at least a version of them—on important domestic and foreign policy issues which the North may be reluctant to comment on so directly in its own voice.

Screenshots of the cover pages of Kyo’ngje Yo’ngu, 2020, Volume 4 (left), and the Journal of Kim Il Sung University (Economics), Volume 66, No. 2, published in 2020 (right), obtained from the website of the Tokyo-based DPR Korea Media (KPM).

Our study reaches back to 2007, when Kim Jong Il’s reform policy started being rolled back, and before Kim Jong Un appears to have been directly involved in policy, though he likely already was being groomed as the successor. One reason for going back to this period is to avoid the pitfall of assuming that arguments—orthodox or reform-oriented—appearing after Kim Jong Un took power were new to his leadership; another is to examine how the North’s economic policies in the last few years of Kim Jong Il’s reign may have shaped his son’s economic policies. Out of nearly 1,900 articles and over 1,500 articles from Kyo’ngje Yo’ngu and the Journal of Kim Il Sung University, respectively, we will examine in detail 100 or so from the former and approximately 20 from the latter.

Scope of Topics: Under the broad objective of gauging the regime’s current and future economic policy calculations, our research is driven by a number of questions:

  • What are the general trends observed in Kyo’ngje Yo’ngu? What subjects are covered, and how are they discussed, explained, defended or criticized either on the pages of the economic journal itself or in other North Korean media?
  • How do Kyo’ngje Yo’ngu articles signal new developments or explain changes to previous orthodoxy? How are they reflected—if indeed they are—in official party policies, such as in Kim Jong Un’s speeches, party meetings, or party daily editorials?

Out of a range of topics addressed in the two economic journals, we keyed in on themes that appeared to best represent the leadership’s thinking on reform and competing priorities, recognizing that in any single article, there could be clues and arguments about larger ideological or political issues we might miss. These themes included: socialist principles and economic management; economic systems; prioritization of industries and resource allocation; the accumulation-consumption dynamic;[6] economic levers; banking; and “revisionism.” Some of these themes appeared to reveal tensions between the traditional views of socialist principles and the more flexible, reformist interpretations, the challenges facing the regime as it pushes its reformist agenda, and the extent to which the regime appears willing to go to implement its economic policy.

Kyo’ngje Yo’ngu and Journal of Kim Il Sung University: A Sketch

Kyo’ngje Yo’ngu: Experts who follow Pyongyang’s economic policies unanimously agree that this journal is the single most important North Korean source of information on the economy, on the grounds that it offers insight on the regime’s current policies and the direction in which it is headed with a level of detail not available in central media. In effect, Kyo’ngje Yo’ngu functions as an economic “policy handbook” that discusses and, to some extent, reflects differing views on aspects of policy not yet fully decided, still unofficial party policies, and guidelines not published in central media but circulated in the form of detailed internal party instructions. Kyo’ngje Yo’ngu articles on the role of commercial banks offer a good example: Central media very rarely mention these institutions, let alone explain their function in the national economy or North Korea’s policy toward them. For years, their existence was considered so sensitive that even Choso’n Sinbo was not allowed access to these banks.

Kyo’ngje Yo’ngu was launched in 1956. The North Korean encyclopedia describes the journal’s target audience as economists, economic experts, university instructors, economic management functionaries and university students majoring in social sciences.[7] The journal was published quarterly, on the 30th of January, April, July and October, by the Science and Encyclopedia Press Group until December 2020, when the KPM website announced that Kyo’ngje Yo’ngu and three other “humanities” journals would cease publication starting in 2021. It remains uncertain whether North Korea will replace Kyo’ngje Yo’ngu with a journal that has a similar function. The North had suspended its publication once before—from 1968 through 1984.[8] Based on that precedent, the journal might be resuscitated in the future, though that could take a while.

The identity of Kyo’ngje Yo’ngu authors requires educated guessing: Their affiliations are never revealed, and between 2007 and 2020, only 376 out of 1,880 articles, or 20 percent, disclosed author titles (professor or associate professor) or academic degrees.[9] Based on the level of technical expertise and knowledge required to coherently explain party policies in an article, its writers most likely consist of instructors, professors and researchers at academic institutions. Those academics who contribute articles likely are involved in policy proposals and discussions, as are researchers in the Academy of Social Sciences.

Kyo’ngje Yo’ngu articles have become greater in number and shorter in length over the years. From 2007 to 2011, a single edition rarely contained more than 30 articles. From 2012 to 2015, per volume, the journal carried between 32 and 38 articles; in 2016, between 41 and 44; and from 2017 to 2020, between 37 and 48. Prior to 2016, articles averaged roughly 700 to 1,200 words in length; since 2016, that has shrunk to approximately 600 to 700 words per article.[10]

The general thematic structure of Kyo’ngje Yo’ngu is as follows:

  • Articles on the Kim leadership’s achievements. These almost always comprise the first one to four in every volume. Kyo’ngje Yo’ngu started publishing articles dedicated to Kim Jong Un in 2012, Volume 2, approximately four months after he ascended to power.
  • Broad ideological and theoretical issues or economic priorities. Examples include socialist principles, economic management theories, economic structures and systems, and the use of economic levers in a socialist economy (ideological and theoretical issues); and prioritizing certain industries over others, giving primacy to science and technology, and building a knowledge-based economy (economic priorities).
  • Practical issues associated with business management, operations and strategies. This includes, for example, how enterprises should formulate business strategies.
  • Issues related to specific industries. Common industries featured include agriculture, finance, international trade, banking, taxation, foreign investment, tourism and the environment.
  • Historical issues. These include the emergence of markets and industries in ancient Korea and Japan “obstructing” Korea’s economic development during the colonial period.
  • Key current international economic trends or concepts and criticism of capitalism and “revisionist” theories.

Almost every Kyo’ngje Yo’ngu volume has a section labeled “common sense,” which explains a key economic, financial, trade or tax concept. These are often short primers, with no ideological content.

Journal of Kim Il Sung University: In the absence of Kyo’ngje Yo’ngu, the Journal of Kim Il Sung University (Economics) has become the top economic journal for gaining insight into the regime’s economic thinking. The Kim Il Sung University Publishing House launched the Journal of Kim Il Sung University in 1956; it was subsequently split into three social sciences quarterly journals in 1998, which were broken down further thematically into five biannual journals in 2019, with the Journal of Kim Il Sung University (Philosophy, Economy) being split into one journal on economics and the other on philosophy.[11]

Published on the 30th of April and October, each issue of the economics journal since 2019 has carried 12 or 13 articles; the Journal of Kim Il Sung University (Philosophy, Economy) published anywhere from 19 to 45 articles per volume from 2007 and 2018. In contrast to articles in Kyo’ngje Yo’ngu and the Journal of Kim Il Sung University (Philosophy, Economy), which were shorter and written in essay style, the economics journal articles have become longer and tend to be structured like formal scholarly papers, with an introduction, a main body consisting of a few themes and a conclusion.

The revamping of the Kim Il Sung University journals[12] was almost certainly a response to Kim Jong Un’s call in 2016 to “designate Journals of Kim Il Sung University as national professional academic journals and develop them into world-class academic journals” and send them to other countries.[13] It also fits with Kim’s report to the Seventh Party Congress in May 2016, stressing the need to bring North Korean education up to international levels.[14] As a part of that effort, Pyongyang appears to have viewed it as necessary to set apart these journals, published by the country’s top university, from other North Korean journals and align them with international academic norms and standards.

Similar to its predecessor and even Kyo’ngje Yo’ngu, the Journal of Kim Il Sung University (Economics) deals with a range of economic, financial, trade and international economic issues and capitalism. In a stark contrast to these two journals, however, the Journal of Kim Il Sung University (Economics) typically does not start with an article praising a Kim leader’s achievements. It tends to lead off with an article explaining priority issues for developing the national economy, and ends with an article criticizing capitalism. More than half of the contributors to the Journal of Kim Il Sung University (Economics) are identified as professors or associate professors, but their affiliations remain undisclosed.[15]

What’s Next?

How North Korea presents the national defense industry and heavy industry and their places in the national economy relative to light industry and agriculture—sectors that have a direct impact on the people’s daily life—often is a weathervane of the regime’s current thinking on reform, any challenges it may be facing and where it may be headed. The accumulation-consumption debate tends to resurface when Pyongyang is considering or has decided to pivot from reform-oriented policies and reprioritize national resources between national defense (or heavy industry) and light industry and agriculture.

Against that backdrop, our next piece will cover how the journals’ discourse on the national defense industry and heavy industry evolved between 2007 and 2020, and how it aligned with and possibly even deviated from Pyongyang’s official economic policies and priorities. The piece will also inevitably review the journals’ coverage of the accumulation-consumption issue.

This research was made possible through generous support from the Henry Luce Foundation and Korea Foundation.

  1. [1]

    The authors would like to thank Dr. Young Hui Kim, a graduate of Cho’ng Chun-t’aek Wo’nsan University of Economics, who is currently a senior researcher at the Korea Development Bank in Seoul and an expert on the North Korean economy, for her insights on Kyo’ngje Yo’ngu.

  2. [2]

    This paper uses a modified version of the McCune-Reischauer romanization system for North Korean text. Diacritics are replaced with apostrophes. Some proper nouns will follow internationally recognized spellings or North Korean transliterations instead.

  3. [3]

    Robert L. Carlin and Joel S. Wit, “North Korean Reform: Politics, economics and security,” in Adelphi Paper 382 (London: Routledge for the International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2006), 35-52.

  4. [4]

    See, for example: Soo-hyun Kim and Sohn Wook, “Economic Policy Changes in North Korea: A Text Mining Approach to Economic Research,” Bank of Korea, February 25, 2020, https://www.bok.or.kr/portal/bbs/P0002240/view.do?nttId=10056673&menuNo=200092.

  5. [5]

    The Journal of Kim Il Sung University (Philosophy, Economy) through 2018, and the Journal of Kim Il Sung University (Economics) from 2019. The Journal of Kim Il Sung University (Economics) is the official English name of Kim Il Sung Chonghaptaehakhakpo (Kyo’ngjehak).

  6. [6]

    Whether to put more weight on “accumulation” (investment) or “consumption” has long been a source of debate among North Korean economists and policymakers, going back to the mid-1950s. Traditionalists favor accumulation, which they view as the key to expanding production and improving the people’s livelihood, while reformists regard a balance between accumulation and consumption as necessary for raising the people’s living standards and keeping workers motivated.

  7. [7]

    Electronic version of 조선대백과사전, compiled by the Encyclopedia Press Group and created by the Samilp’o Information Center, 2005.

  8. [8]

    Kim Eun-young, “사회주의권 붕괴 이후 북한의 대외경제 관련 담화 분석,” KDI Review of the North Korean Economy, December 2012, p. 48, at https://www.kdi.re.kr/forecast/forecasts_north.jsp?pub_no=12712&pg=8&tema=G&pp=10; and Kyo’ngje Yo’ngu archives of the KPM and the Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU) and ROK Ministry of Unification websites.

  9. [9]

    Based on the 2007-2020 Kyo’ngje Yo’ngu table of contents retrieved from the KPM website on April 20, 2021.

  10. [10]

    Figures derived from a sampling of Kyo’ngje Yo’ngu articles, specifically the approximately 100 articles singled out for a closer study.

  11. [11]

    The KPM archive, however, shows that this split occurred in 1997, not 1998.

  12. [12]

    All five Kim Il Sung University social sciences journals underwent the same changes as of 2019.

  13. [13]

    Quote translated into English from the full text of Kim Jong Un’s letter to Kim Il Sung University faculty and staff marking the university’s 70th founding anniversary: “김정은 《주체혁명의 새시대 김일성종합대학의 기본임무에 대하여》 김일성종합대학창립 70돐에 즈음하여 대학 교직원, 학생들에게 보낸 서한 주체105(2016)년 9월 27일,” Minju Joson, September 30, 2016.

  14. [14]

    Kim Jong Un’s “work summing-up report” to the Seventh Party Congress. “조선로동당 제7차대회에서 한 당중앙위원회 사업총화보고-김정은,” Rodong Sinmun, May 8, 2016.

  15. [15]

    The Journal of Kim Il Sung University (Philosophy, Economy) altogether omitted titles and academic degrees from bylines starting with Volume 3 in 2008 through Volume 4 in 2018. Kim Il Sung University resumed including author titles and academic degrees with the launch of the Journal of Kim Il Sung University (Economics) in 2019.

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