Understanding Kim Jong Un’s Economic Policymaking: Juche and Foreign Trade
Throughout this project, we have noted that some authors in North Korea’s two premier economic journals—Kyo’ngje Yo’ngu and the Journal of Kim Il Sung University, also known as Hakpo—often use a form of intellectual sleight of hand in order to be seen as staying within orthodox boundaries while actually advocating positions beyond those limits.
Kim Jong Un’s economic reform agenda introduced new ideas and initiatives for a wide variety of issues—enterprise management, agriculture, banking and special economic zones, to name a few. As such, the pulling and hauling over how far the new policies could or should go was almost inevitable.
The call to expand foreign trade presented special tests because it potentially presented direct challenges to the regime’s bedrock concept of Juche. How could a country supposedly dedicated to an extreme concept of independence and self-reliance justify expanding trade with the outside world, particularly with capitalist countries? In some cases, articles on trade in the journals raised Juche in a cautionary manner, to warn against compromise of basic principles even while cautiously expanding trade. In others, however, Juche was used not as an excuse to limit foreign trade, but as grounds for actually enlarging it.
In this article, we examine how the North Korean economic journals used the topic of Juche to build the case for broadening, rather than limiting, foreign trade since the early years of Kim Jong Un’s reign. We then review how these journals, which were generally more forward-leaning in their thinking on foreign trade, took on a more conservative tone by 2020, seemingly a reflection of Pyongyang’s hardening foreign policy after the collapse of the Hanoi Summit and the lack of any further diplomatic progress with Washington by the end of 2019. This shift to a more conservative tone on trade was significant in that it was one of the early signals of Pyongyang heading toward virtual repudiation of foreign elements and imports.
Juche as Justification for Trade
An article in Kyo’ngje Yo’ngu fairly early in Kim Jong Un’s reign was heavy on warnings about trading with capitalist countries and stressed that the dangers of the infiltration of capitalist practices far outweighed whatever economic benefit might accrue.
In 2014, the same journal carried what read like a forward-leaning reply to orthodox circles’ conservative position on trade. This article threw up a defensive screen by warning against accepting “capitalist elements,” and argued that “we should maintain the Juche-oriented standpoint” in conducting foreign trade, which by itself might have been an argument for limiting trade. Instead, the author argued, Juche was not so confining. In fact, the article argued, Juche did not mean “unilaterally pursuing just the interests of one’s own country in external economic transactions,” but “opposing all kinds of unequal and unfair international economic relations and enabling all countries to benefit from one another on an equal footing and with equal rights, thereby carrying key significance in broadening economic relations between countries.”
Crucially, the article implied there was no fixed standard for judging how much or where Juche principles should be applied:
Firmly maintaining the Juche-oriented position, therefore, is a very important issue for resolving all issues arising in economic transactions with other countries in accordance with the actual circumstances of one’s own country. (Emphasis added.)
Indeed, this article suggested, Juche actually mandated trade. In addition, since it could be said that Juche was in pursuit of developing a “self-supporting national economy,” it followed that trade was perfectly in line with achieving that goal:
By maintaining the Juche-oriented position and developing foreign economic relations on the basis of self-supporting national economic construction, it is possible to produce and sell various products in demand in other countries, and, in return, buy goods necessary for the country’s economic construction and the improvement of the people’s living standards…
One could almost hear this muttering in the background: “But look what happened to the East European countries that opened themselves to dealing with capitalist countries!” In what looks to be a preemptive effort to head off such criticism, the article went into a lengthy recounting of the fate of those countries in the 1980s:
The experience of many countries shows that, when one does not maintain the Juche-oriented position and develop foreign economic relations on the basis of self-supporting national economic construction, it will cause serious consequences for the revolution and construction. Former Eastern European socialist countries just listened to others without Juche, producing and selling only those that had tradition in and advantages for production and importing machinery, equipment, and people’s consumer goods from other countries. As a result, they failed to achieve the country’s economic self-sustenance and later even had the socialist system collapse. In addition, even some developing countries have yet to completely put an end to the deformities and backwardness of the economy they inherited from colonial rule and, shackled to an outdated international economic order, have not been able to escape from the imperialists’ domination and plunder even though it has been a long time since they became independent. That is because they were unable to establish their Juche and build foreign economic relations on the basis of self-supporting economic construction.
The proposed solution to that dilemma was not to limit foreign economic relations, but rather to adhere to Juche:
Like this, firmly maintaining the Juche-oriented position is the main guarantee for simultaneously pushing ahead with the country’s economic development and expansion of economic exchanges with other countries by advancing foreign economic relations on the basis of self-supporting national economic construction.
Moreover, the article pointed out, there was no choice but to deal with non-socialist countries. And if that was a problem, here again, Juche was the solution:
Furthermore, firmly maintaining the Juche-oriented position in foreign economic relations is an important issue because it arises as an even more important demand in today’s changed external economic environment where socialist markets have collapsed. Under the condition where socialism was frustrated in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, we cannot but expand foreign economic relations with capitalist countries.
Perhaps concerned that even the above argument might not be a sufficient justification to blunt orthodox counterarguments, the author again used history to justify more, not less, trade. Openly admitting the dangers—always a good tactic to blunt criticism—the article then invoked Juche as the means to provide the all-encompassing shield of protection.
We should maintain the Juche position in foreign economic relations with socialist countries as well, but we must maintain it more firmly in foreign economic relations with capitalist countries. The imperialists use economic relations with other countries as a means of overseas invasion and plunder, saying this and that about “cooperation” and “aid.” Moreover, under today’s condition, where the anti-Republic maneuvers of the imperialists, including the US imperialists, are severe, we can prevent all kinds of capitalist elements from invading our inside only when we firmly maintain the Juche-oriented position in foreign economic relations. One of the main reasons for the collapse of socialism in Eastern Europe was the failure to maintain a Juche-oriented position in foreign economic relations. Countries in this region opened up and liberalized their countries’ economies, talking about developing the economy. In doing so, they were unable to defend their socialist planned economies and let the capitalist market economy run rampant.
Finally, the author arrived at the bottom line, putting the case most directly:
Maintaining the Juche-oriented position in foreign economic relations is by no means a closed-door principle and does not preclude the development of economic relations with other countries. Juche-based foreign economic relations simply oppose the attempt to blindly rely on trade transactions, technology transactions, equity joint ventures, and contractual joint ventures with other countries and demand that we tackle what our country does not have or lacks through foreign economic relations. Though they may belong to capitalist countries, we should accept things like advanced technologies, rational production organization, and construction methods if they are necessary and beneficial to us.
Nine months later, in January 2015, another article in Kyo’ngje Yo’ngu picked up the essence of the argument that foreign trade might not be contrary to Juche, though at the same time injecting the cautionary note that following the party’s line was of primary importance.
The economic construction line and policies presented by the party intensively reflect the interests of the masses of working people and society, as well as the fundamental interests of the revolution. They also explain on a full scale the external economic sector’s direction of development, tasks, and methods of their implementation. Only when the calculation of economic effectiveness is based on the line and policies presented by the party can external economic exchanges give practical benefits to society and the people and directly contribute to economic development and the improvement of the people’s living standards.
A more direct call for trade appeared the next year, prominently linking Kim Jong Il with the idea that foreign trade was consonant with a “self-supporting national economy”:
Taking a brilliant place among the immortal ideological and theoretical achievements accumulated by the great leader Comrade Kim Jong Il in laying a solid foundation for the construction of an economically powerful state are the ideas and theories on the correlation between a self-supporting national economy and foreign trade.
Building on that idea, the article went on:
Based on scientific analysis of the essence of the construction of a self-supporting national economy and the lawfulness of the development of international trade relations, the great leader Comrade Kim Jong Il presented original ideas and theories on the correlation between a self-supporting national economy and foreign trade, such as the inevitability of foreign trade in the construction of a self-supporting national economy, the development of foreign trade based on the construction of a self-supporting national economy, and foreign trade that serves the construction of a self-supporting national economy.
To make sure there was no doubt about the question, the article quoted the late leader directly:
The great leader Comrade Kim Jong Il instructed as follows:
“A self-supporting national economy is by no means a closed economy and does not exclude foreign trade. Even if we build a self-supporting national economy, we cannot produce tens of thousands of types of things all by ourselves, nor do we need to.” (The Complete Works of Kim Jong Il, Volume 4, p. 199).
Notice that the key point in the argument here is to give a nod to the concept of a “self-supporting national economy,” which the author summarizes as “an economy that is not subjugated to others and walks on its own, an economy that serves its own people and develops by relying on its people’s strength”—but then quickly moves on to the crucial qualification:
Just because a self-supporting national economy is an economy that walks by itself does not mean it is an economy that excludes or shuts its door to trade relations with other countries and produces and supplies everything necessary for the country’s economic construction and the people’s livelihood. A self-supporting national economy inevitably calls for foreign trade as an objective condition for economic construction in every country. No country, no matter how rich in natural resources, has all kinds of resources necessary for its own industrial development in sufficient amounts. Nor is there a country, no matter how favorable it is to agricultural development, that has the natural and geographical conditions to sufficiently produce and supply all kinds of agricultural products.
The importance of trade helping to fulfill one of Kim Jong Un’s goals—developing the science and technology sector to expand the economy—appeared in a 2017 Kyo’ngje Yo’ngu article:
The scientific and technological achievements and experiences of each country are not the same due to the differences in and limitations of scientific and technological development in each country, as well as natural and economic conditions and the degree of productivity development. For that reason, it is not possible to solve all the scientific and technological problems arising in economic construction on one’s own. Especially today, in the era of the information industry, as science and technology develop faster than ever before and economic construction intensifies; as a result, it is impossible for one country to solve all the necessary scientific and technological problems.
As with earlier articles, Juche was also cited as part of the solution. Simply stated, if the problem was that no one country (namely North Korea) could resolve every issue in the science and technology sector, then Juche becomes key to facilitating the required foreign trade:
This calls for advancing the country’s science and technology quickly in the shortest period of time possible by solving scientific and technological problems arising in economic construction from a Juche-oriented position, thoroughly based on the scientific and technological capabilities of one’s country and one’s own resources, while resolving, by means of acceptance from other countries, the scientific and technological issues that cannot be resolved right away on one’s own or are urgently needed.
Juche as a Shield Against Trade
By 2020, warning flags were flying in Kyo’ngje Yo’ngu about the dangers foreign trade presented. This was, in part, a reflection of the retrenchment of policies across the board that was underway after the failed Hanoi Summit and as the country entered a period of self-isolation to prevent a COVID outbreak. Juche was no longer an open door. Instead, it had regained some of its old orthodox colors. According to one article in Kyo’ngje Yo’ngu, there could still be:
…foreign economic cooperation, technological exchanges, and trade activities in a multilateral, proactive, and strategic manner in the direction of supplementing the parts and aspects that are desperately needed to strengthen the country’s economic foundation.
Embodying the principle of independence from a Juche-oriented position means establishing an independent line in economic relations between countries and taking the lead in developing foreign economic relations in accordance with the actual conditions and interests of one’s own country by relying on one’s own strength.
The suppleness of previous interpretations of Juche as a boon to foreign trade began to fade, and it became part of the defensive barrier of preserving independence by hewing to the “revolutionary stand” without compromise:
If [we] are to properly establish a foreign economic development strategy and correctly formulate the methods and measures for its implementation without the slightest bias, [we] should clearly see through our party policy on thoroughly defending the principle of independence from a Juche-oriented position and should not in the slightest compromise the principle of independence in formulating and implementing a foreign economic development strategy…
First, [we] should firmly maintain socialist principles in formulating and implementing foreign economic development strategies. If we abandon the revolutionary stand and give up socialist principles under today’s condition, where the hostile forces are tenaciously clinging to sanctions and blockade maneuvers to isolate and crush us, [we] will ruin the revolution and [socialist] construction and lose everything.
The above-cited 2020 Kyo’ngje Yo’ngu article was only one of the many signals pointing to North Korea’s shift to conservative policies across all realms, including foreign policy and trade, since the collapse of the Hanoi Summit.
North Korea took a yet more conservative turn at the latest party plenary meeting, held in December 2022. The party plenum “dealt a resolute and serious blow to the outdated idea that still attempts to bargain on the principle of self-reliance, without shaking off dependence on the technology of others. It also acknowledged the need to continue to wage a struggle to completely liquidate the remnants of all kinds of wrong ideas hindering our work….” By referring to the acceptance of foreign technology as an “outdated idea” and one of the “wrong ideas hindering our work,” the meeting in effect contradicted what was previously seen as acceptable or even advocated.
A review of Kim Jong Un’s public remarks and North Korean media’s treatment of political, economic, social and foreign policy issues suggests that the North’s policies, including those on the economy and trade, will remain conservative for the foreseeable future.
This paper is the fourth in the “Understanding Kim Jong Un’s Economic Policymaking, Part 2“ series, which focuses on the external elements of North Korea’s economic policy. The first installment of Part 2 was on Kim Jong Un’s tourism policy; the second installment dealt with his economic development zone policy; the third installment addressed Kim’s foreign trade policy with a focus on decentralization, diversification, and sensitivities involving trade. This series uses a modified version of the McCune-Reischauer romanization system for North Korean text. Diacritics are replaced with apostrophes. Some proper nouns follow internationally recognized spellings or North Korean transliterations instead.
최영옥, “실리를 보장할수 있도록 대외무역전략을 세우는데서 나서는 중요한 문제,” Kyo’ngje Yo’ngu 4, (2013).
황한욱, “주체적립장은 대외경제발전의 주요담보,” Kyo’ngje Yo’ngu 2, (2014).
김세영, “대외경제교류의 경제적효과성타산에서 지켜야 할 중요원칙,” Kyo’ngje Yo’ngu 1, (2015).
리순철, “자립적민족경제와 대외무역의 호상관계를 밝혀주신 위대한 령도자 김정일동지의 불멸의 사상리론적업적,” Kyo’ngje Yo’ngu 4, (2016).
For more, see Robert Carlin and Rachel Minyoung Lee, “North Korea Makes a Still More Conservative Turn at Party Plenum,” 38 North, January 5, 2023, https://www.38north.org/2023/01/north-korea-makes-a-still-more-conservative-turn-at-party-plenum/.