After Kim Jong-un inherited the throne in 2011, the central policy of his government was the so-called byungjin line: the simultaneous development of both the economy and the military (i.e. nuclear weapons). This was in many ways a continuation of his father’s military-first policy, which not only increased the size of the country’s standing army but elevated its top brass to a position of unprecedented power. But in April of last year, at the Third Plenary Meeting of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party, Kim made a startling announcement: The byungjin line was officially dead. The development of nuclear weapons was complete and had been “victorious.”
While outsiders continue to debate to what extent Kim intends to denuclearize, it’s notable that his spring announcement was followed by a reshuffling of military personnel at the top, implying a certain discord within the ranks around Kim’s decision, as well as a general downgrading of the military apparatus. Kim went on to declare that the sole focus, moving forward, would be the development of the economy, while engaging in a diplomatic process to maintain peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula. Besides his brief meeting in Singapore with Donald Trump, Kim has to date met three times for lengthy meetings with the South Korean president, Moon Jae-in. Moon has stated, repeatedly, that he believes Kim’s intentions to be sincere.
It is notoriously difficult to know what the regime wants, but between the economic liberalization and the shifts in foreign policy, the upbeat interpretation is that Kim wants to open up North Korea. Bruce Cumings, a professor at the University of Chicago who has written a number of books on modern Korean history, is particularly sunny on the matter. “For the first time in North Korean history, I’m starting to believe that Kim Jong-un is moving in the direction of what Deng Xiaoping did in 1979 in China,” he told me. “I think his aspiration is create a secure environment in which North Korea can open up to the world economy in the way that China and Vietnam have. That’s very much behind the diplomacy with South Korea that’s been going on since January and the diplomacy with the U.S. I think this has actually been the North Korean goal for the last 25 years, but they found it very difficult to articulate it: some way to bring the U.S. in to solve their strategic problem after the Soviet Union collapsed.” For the economy to grow meaningfully, the North Koreans would need the United States and the United Nations to lift economic sanctions, allowing the country to access goods and, crucially, capital. But for this very reason, many are deeply skeptical of Kim’s motives, with hawkish North Korea watchers believing the United States is being suckered into lifting sanctions in exchange for nothing.
The question remains whether the monolithic North Korean political system can survive the disruptive force that a market economy poses. The key to the equation might be the donju, who have made themselves an integral part of a complex financial system. Given the paucity of hard data released by North Korea, it is difficult to gauge just how many belong to this rising economic class. One thing is clear, however: Just as Kim has come to rely on the donju, the donju rely on the survival of Kim’s regime. The Russian-born North Korean-studies scholar Andrei Lankov believes that, unlike the upper-middle classes whose discontent with the system played such a pivotal role in the Soviet Union’s downfall, the donju fear that the collapse of the North Korean government and subsequent reunification of the Korean Peninsula would mean having to compete with the global economic behemoths of South Korea, leaving the Northerners with second-class status, or worse. Fully cognizant of the poverty that surrounds them — and the fact that many of them started off as “ordinary” people — it is in their interest that the current status quo be maintained. In this situation, the donju can hardly be thought of as a dissident class; they just want the state to lay off them so that they can get rich.
After a round of beers, Comrade K. apologized and said he had to cut the night short. He had to leave the next morning on a business trip to Nampo. Before we all got up to leave, he presented me with a gift: an expensive lighter emblazoned with the Chollima, a winged horse from Asian mythology renowned for its amazing speed of flight. It was invoked by Kim Il-sung in the Chollima Movement of the late 1950s. Similar to the Great Leap Forward in China and the Stakhanovite Movement in the Soviet Union, the Chollima Movement was a mass labor campaign meant to spur rapid economic advancement via “ideological incentives,” such as Chollima Rider titles bestowed on those who exceeded their quotas. Among other tactics, the government encouraged workers to drink less soup so as to take fewer bathroom breaks. The Chollima Movement was lauded as a historical milestone in North Korea, but some outside observers have claimed that it resulted in little more than an exhausted, undernourished populace and an array of shoddy, inferior products and that it was yet another example of the government’s legacy of economic ineptitude.
K. also handed me a green carton of cigarettes. “This is the new trend brand here in Pyongyang,” he said with a smile, then, lowering his voice: “The brand that the elites smoke.” I read the name of the company that makes them aloud: “Naegohyang.” My hometown.
At the cash register, I tried to pay, but Comrade K. waved his hand, removed a thick wad of $50 bills from the breast pocket of his Dolce & Gabbana shirt, peeled one off and slapped it down. The hostess’s fingers danced across her pocket calculator, and she returned his change in a combination of dollars and a few thousand worth of won notes featuring Kim Il-sung’s smiling face. With a scowl, Comrade K. pocketed the dollars, slid the won across the table back to the hostess and sauntered out to the parking lot, where our driver was waiting.