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North Korea's Left Turn: Implications for Regime Stability

The bane of North Korea watchers is the seemingly endless media speculation based on the latest rumors over which of the Kim boys is in favor with their father, Kim Jong Il. This analysis tends to bypass North Korea's domestic politics, which have undergone a significant retrenchment since North Korea's nuclear test in 2006. North Korea's internal focus on regime consolidation and ideological orthodoxy has diminished prospects for Pyongyang's international engagement in a rear-guard action designed to assure internal stability.

Ruediger Frank has termed North Korea's ideological turn since 2006 "socialist neoconservatism." At a June conference held at the University of British Columbia, Frank presented research based on content analysis of the Rodong Sinmun to illustrate North Korea's domestic efforts to turn back the clock on short-lived experimentation with economic reforms undertaken during 2002-2005.

Frank illustrates the ways in which North Korea's domestic retrenchment has influenced North Korean descriptions of domestic, economic, and foreign policies. Most striking as an illustration of North Korea's left turn is the direct contradiction between quotations from Kim Jong Il in 2001 ("Things are not what they used to be in the 60s. So no one should follow the way people used to do things in the past.") and 2009 (officials should "energetically lead the masses by displaying the same work style as the officials did in the 50s and 60s.")

A clear element of North Korea's retrenchment has been the government's effort to reassert ideological control over the minds and hearts of the masses through ideological education and anti-market measures, but such a task is made more difficult now that the markets have replaced the state-controlled Public Distribution System as the primary source of food for many North Koreans. Continuous increases in refugee flows give the impression that the state is not only losing control, but also laying the foundation for an external dissident movement among former North Korean refugees based in South Korea.

However, conference organizer Park Kyung-ae argues in her paper that despite a steady increase in the numbers of North Korean refugees in South Korea to over 15,000 in early 2009, over 87 percent of refugees were either unemployed or manual laborers in North Korea, and most were female. Refugees are primarily economic rather than political exiles; Chosun Ilbo reported earlier this year that over forty percent of refugees are sending money to family members in North Korea. Park concludes that North Korean refugees do not constitute a political threat to the North Korean regime but that the refugee issue constitutes a growing diplomatic problem for the North Korean state.

These two papers suggest that the North Korean leadership's biggest challenge is how to address the internal effects of the impact of globalization, including policies toward dissemination of information and the development of markets inside North Korea. These are the two most severe current threats to the political control of the North Korean leadership. Hazel Smith has described the social changes that occurred in North Korea following the famine of the mid-1990s, describing the effects of marketization, monetization, and decentralization on aspects of North Korean daily life.

An increasing stream of reports from inside North Korea--including the establishment of a journal about life in North Korea entitled Rimjingang that is written by North Koreans and published in Japan--illustrate the extent to which regime controls over dissemination of information have broken down. A similar breakdown in control of information about the outside world is occurring inside North Korea through word-of-mouth as well as the dissemination of CDs, DVDs, and other cultural products within North Korea that make the outside world accessible to average North Koreans for the first time. Thus, it is not surprising that the North Korean leadership is taking measures to reconsolidate power and ensure political loyalty at all levels of society.

The overall tone of discussion among these specialists about prospects for diplomacy involving North Korea was pessimistic, but not hopeless. A survey of fifteen conference panelists revealed that forty percent of the participants still believed that there is a possibility that North Korea can accept denuclearization. However, all but one of these specialists believed that possibilities for U.S.-DPRK escalation of tensions have not yet been exhausted. While twenty percent of participants anticipated the resumption of inter-Korean dialogue and six party talks respectively by the end of the year, sixty percent of participants anticipated that U.S.-DPRK talks would resume by the end of the year.

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