February 1, 2003｜Korean Peninsula
Kang Il Chong
Regular Director, Association of Korean Social Scientists in Japan, Part-time Lecturer, Korea University
It was August 1998 when the “Paektusan” multi-stage rocket (also known as the Taepodong) carrying the “Kwangmyongsong 1” artificial satellite passed over the Tsugaru Strait, astonishing everyone. The 1st Session of the 10th Supreme People’s Assembly was held five days later, during which Kim Jong-Il, General Secretary of the Korean Workers Party, was inaugurated as Chairman of the DPRK’s National Defense Committee; shortly afterward, a vision for the construction of a powerful nation was mapped out. It seems that it is since that time that slogans with a strong militaristic flavor, such as “prioritizing weapons” and “military-first revolution”, which are difficult to convert into Chinese characters on a Japanese computer, have become more noticeable. On the other hand, however, signs of economic recovery also date back to that period.
The disappearance of socialist markets and the country’s closed economy, as well as military tension and a series of natural disasters, quite simply formed a trilemma for the DPRK’s economy. “It is hard to imagine the size and suddenness of the impact that the DPRK’s economy suffered when, as we looked on in blank amazement, the stable market that accounted for 70% of trade was extinguished and both short- and long-term trade agreements with other countries were left up in the air as their implementation was suspended without warning or even a certain period of deferment.” (Prospects for the Trade and Economy of the DPRK, JETRO, 1994, pp.79-80) Of course, it is undeniable that problems predating this had a significant effect on the country’s prolonged economic hardship. At any rate, the situation in which “almost everything necessary for running the economy, including fuel, electricity, transport infrastructure, communications, food and foreign currency, is lacking ” has continued. (EC-DPRK Country Strategy Paper, 2001-2004, p9)
Common sense suggests that it would have not been at all surprising had the economy collapsed on more than one occasion. “Military-first politics” is thought to be one of the keys to solving the mystery.
Amid the so-called “march of misery”, in which even major enterprises were supplied with as little as a quarter of the electrical power they usual required and people lacked food to the extent that they even had trouble getting up to go to work, it was the military that was the main force in laying the foundations for economic reconstruction, including the construction of power plants and the development of agricultural land. The military was not only set to work on such complex engineering projects as the Anbyon Youth Power Station and the Kaechon – Lake Thaesong waterway, but was also employed in building fish farms and poultry factories, and even worked as farm laborers in the end. If I may say so without fear of being misconstrued, it is highly likely that using the military to spearhead economic reconstruction was the most efficient option for allocating limited resources, as it is far superior to any other form of labor in terms of its organizational ability and general competence.
Accordingly, the fundamental requirements for rectifying the economic situation were developed, including restructuring heavy industrial enterprises, which form the backbone of the independent national economy, the intensive modernization of light industry and food-related facilities that are essential to the people’s quality of life, and the development of agricultural infrastructure; following this, reform measures focusing mainly on the introduction of a system of incentives began to be implemented last July with the aim of revitalizing the economy, and the Five Year Plan, with technical reform as its main pillar, is due to begin this coming spring. Although it is regarded as having achieved positive growth for four consecutive years up to last year, it is not necessary to point out that there are many problems yet to be solved. Along with food, infrastructure, such as energy and transportation, is a prime example. However, regarding electricity, although the country once inclined towards developing nuclear power due to the limitations of thermal power caused by a lack of fuel, and the decrease in the supply of hydropower during droughts and major freezes, as well as periods when water is needed for agriculture, the plan had to be put on ice because of suspicions that it was developing nuclear weapons. As far as transportation is concerned, even though cooperation in the connection and modernization of the North-South railway has been actively promoted, with a view to its connection to the Trans-Siberian Railroad, the project has suffered frequent delays due to issues arising from jurisdiction over the demilitarized zone. Many issues are connected with the US-DPRK relationship.
It is very doubtful that what the U.S. is trying to prevent is merely the expansion of weapons of mass destruction. It seems that the U.S. is making a stand against everything that Kim Jong Il’s administration is aiming to achieve, including economic recovery, the stabilization of the people’s livelihoods, further improvements in international relations and the establishment of peace and order. Describing another country whose sovereignty the U.S. had agreed to respect as part of an “axis of evil” and labeling the statement “We are entitled to have nuclear weapons and more” an endorsement of nuclear weapons development were undeniably blunders. Drawing an analogy with someone buttoning up a shirt, the U.S. has put the buttons in the wrong buttonholes and must start buttoning up its shirt again from the very beginning. What must be prevented is the continuation of the anomalous relationship between the two countries that has existed for 50 years.
[Translated by ERINA]