Home > Our Work > Raising Awareness > Strategies for Change > NKSC Speaker Series: Dr. Lankov Talk (March 12, 2014)

Dr. Lankov: North Korea Making Slow-Paced
Moves Toward Economic Reform

But cautions still too early to get excited
Elite have “no illusions” that reform will lead to instability


By Matthew McGrath

On March 12, Dr. Andrei Lankov, a professor at Kookmin University and well-known North Korea historian, spoke about Kim Jong Un’s rise to power and significant recent changes in North Korea’s political and economic landscape. The lecture was the inaugural event in the North Korea Strategy Center’s “Strategies for Change” speaker series, which will run from March until May 2014.

Dr. Andrei Lankov in the heat of lecture.

Dr. Andrei Lankov in the heat of lecture.

While explaining Kim Jong Un’s rise to power within North Korea’s political sphere, Dr. Lankov noted the challenges the young Kim faced as a newly appointed leader. The first serious obstacle Kim Jong Un had to address in his new role was a leadership problem. According to Dr. Lankov, Kim had to gradually replace his father Kim Jong Il’s old leadership team before he could begin to implement any new policies. He described Kim’s situation as one in which “he [Kim Jong Un] is driving a car in the right direction, but doing so in a very risky manner.” Dr. Lankov was referring to massive military purges in late 2013, the likes of which had not occurred in North Korea since the 1960s. These purges led to the removal of North Korea’s “most dangerous civilian,” Jang Song Thaek.

Dr. Lankov noted that after Jang Song Thaek’s very public purge, arrest, and execution, “little signs of changes intensified.” The first indication of these changes were references to Kim Jong Un’s alleged letter on agricultural reform to the National Conference of Agricultural Subteam Workers, otherwise known as the “June 28 Statement.” Provisions in the letter included instructions to reduce the size of production teams to just five or six people which, as Dr. Lankov pointed out, is essentially the size of an average North Korean household. The letter also stated that farm teams would be allowed to keep up to 30 percent of their harvest and also allocated some land to farming teams for an indefinite period of time. Dr. Lankov said this was essentially the same thing the Chinese did in the 1970s: a slow motion, low-profile switch to more effective private agriculture. He added that in the areas where this new system has been implemented, productivity rates have increased upwards of thirty to forty percent. Moreover, for the first time in twenty-five years, North Korea was also able to produce enough food to meet the physical demands of the population in 2013.

Participants clinging to every word Dr. Lankov says.

Participants clinging to every word Dr. Lankov says.

Dr. Lankov also highlighted changes in North Korea’s industrial sector saying that since October companies that successfully exported products for a profit have been allowed to dramatically increase their worker’s salaries to exorbitant levels. In North Korea an exorbitant salary would be roughly 35 to 40 dollars a month, which is sufficient enough to sustain oneself and their family. Dr. Lankov said this is the first time that North Korean workers have been earning enough money at their daily jobs to survive. He also pointed out that North Korea has plans for 13 new special economic zones, which brings the total number of North Korean Special Economic Zones (SEZs) to 16 when combined with the Shinuiju, Rason, and Kaesong SEZs.

Despite positive signs of change, Dr. Lankov cautioned the audience not to get too excited, warning that “reform in North Korea will become dangerously unstable.” Dr. Lankov made it clear that the North Korean elite does not have any illusions regarding the idea of reform and what it would mean for their survival. However, Kim Jong Un’s situation is quite different than his father’s because of the younger Kim’s age, he said, and the likelihood of North Korea’s current system lasting for another 50 years is more or less close to zero.

A video of the lecture and consequent Q&A session can be found on the Strategies for Change Facebook page: facebook.com/strategiesforchangenk.

Next week’s lecture on March 19th will feature Dr. Daniel Pinkston, the International Crisis Group’s Northeast Asia Deputy Director and a long-time nonproliferation expert. Dr. Pinkston will speak about the origins of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

A complete list of Strategies for Change’s upcoming speakers can be found on the North Korea Strategy Center’s English website at nksc.co.kr/english. Before attending the lectures, please make to RSVP by sending your name and affiliation to nksc.seouloffice@gmail.com.