This chapter takes the perspective of North Korea’s leadership as it confronts difficult economic problems in the remaining months of 2018. The major current and potential issues are listed and prioritized. Short and longer-term remedies are presented, each with trade-offs that affect other economic and policy issues. Given the absence of direct reporting from North Korea, the issues and debates presented are speculative, designed to give the reader a more comprehensive understanding of North Korea’s current problems than is ordinarily presented in western media. Kim Jong-un’s recent diplomatic offensive, reaching out to South Korea, China, and the United States is, in this view, suggestive of these internal economic troubles in addition to the nuclear security issues.
The troubles are both short-term—the collapse in trade with China in just the past few months—and long-term, the slow-motion collapse of the communist country’s “command” economy. And much more than in the past, the problems relate to the regime’s unusual and dangerous monetary system, money being a normal issue for most governments but a relatively new one for this still partially rationed, or planned, oriented system. The leadership may have little choice but to let the domestic economy move further from the plan—allowing decentralized market and private activities more sway—than ever before. This would help cushion the central government from losses due to the sanctions and open the door to a much more prosperous future. Without major moves in this direction, inflation and unemployment may cascade into social crisis. It should be noted, that the recent Assembly Meetings, which annually focus on the economy, gave little official indication of policy changes, only a sense of digging in further to protect the regime from outside forces. But just a week later, Kim may have telegraphed an upcoming sea change when, in his address to the Party Central Committee plenum, that he is instituting a new Party Line, socialist economic construction, as the total focus of the Party and the country. Major changes, if they are to occur, will likely come after the upcoming important summits with South Korea and the U.S.1
There is little doubt that the economy in 2018 is in very poor condition, delivering one of the worst productivity rates—productivity in terms of labor and of capital—in the world, but it is important to recognize that this is due not to natural circumstances but to decisions the government has made over the years, and trade-offs it has already made. This suggests that astute government policy can create solutions and restore growth. Remedies of the sort expressed here, for example in liquidating, that is selling or leasing state assets to private buyers, raising fixed prices for state delivered electricity and for water and other utilities, and giving large pay raises to the millions of state workers who now rely on rations, while culling their numbers, would require difficult economic and social trade-offs; one might say there is no free lunch for Kim and his regime although no doubt they are looking for one, even in these summits. The chapter discusses just what kinds of decisions might be made and the likely consequences. Negotiations being set with South Korea and with the United States, and likely more discussions with China, may weigh heavily in how far Pyongyang will be willing to go in these respects. In my view the regime will be looking for: outright aid, payments for pushing back the nuclear weapons program, and premature relief from sanctions, which would only give the regime time to avoid the hard choices needed to permanently fix the broken economic system.