Rocky roads conjure images of pitfalls and jarring bumps on a tortuous journey toward some desired destination, without assurance that some calamity will not bar the way to the hoped-for end of the journey. This seems to be the case today for the course of the North Korean economy. The leadership has set high expectations for North Korea to become a “strong and prosperous nation” by 2012, the 100th birthday of the father of the nation, Kim Il-sung. Such a destination seems implausible to outsiders without major breakthroughs in both the security and economic challenges facing the country. In its 1 January 2010 New Year’s editorial, the leadership outlined in terms very different than in previous years its policies for reaching this destination, including improving dramatically its relationship with the United States and giving priority to improving radically the people’s living standard through accelerating development of light industry and agriculture. The editorial also recognized the important role of expanding international trade, drawing on science and technology, and improving the economic management system to achieve these goals.
It is hard to disagree with this framing of national aspirations. The international community generally and most economic experts would support the objective of improving the welfare of ordinary North Korean people and the priority that needs to be given to agriculture and light manufacturing in meeting this objective. Broad-based sustainable economic growth will also require expanding international trade and increasing productivity through improved technologies, and most observers would heartily agree that improving economic management is critically needed. But here the room for general agreement hits the wall. The policies that the government has embarked upon in late 2009 and early 2010 to attain these objectives are not ones that most outside observers believe will succeed; indeed, most believe they will create more difficulties for attaining the national goals than the problems they were intended to redress.