North Korea: Can the Iron Fist Accept the Invisible Hand?
North Korea: Can the Iron Fist Accept the Invisible Hand?
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Interpreting North Korea’s Failed Satellite Launch
Interpreting North Korea’s Failed Satellite Launch
Report / Asia 2 minutes

North Korea: Can the Iron Fist Accept the Invisible Hand?

Despite the deepening nuclear confrontation between North Korea and the world, the North is undergoing the most profound economic changes since the founding of the state 57 years ago.

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Executive Summary

Despite the deepening nuclear confrontation between North Korea and the world, the North is undergoing the most profound economic changes since the founding of the state 57 years ago. It is unclear if the regime is capable of fully embracing the market; the final outcome cannot be predicted, and no major new economic engagement should be attempted until the nuclear issue is resolved. Nevertheless, the international community has an opportunity to increase the chances that North Korea will make a successful transition from a Stalinist command economy to one that is more market-driven and integrated into the global economy. Facilitating its economic reforms remains the best strategy for pushing the North towards more acceptable international conduct. There are some important preliminary steps not involving the transfer of meaningful resources that ought to be undertaken immediately both in order to prepare for what should be done if a nuclear deal is struck and to show Pyongyang why it needs to make that deal in its own interest.

The most important changes since July 2002 are that gradual marketisation and incipient entrepreneurship are creating semi-private markets, shops and small businesses across the country; and economic ties with China and South Korea are deepening in unprecedented ways, giving a growing number of North Koreans their first unfiltered taste of the outside world.

Deeper institutional reform is still constrained by the regime's overriding obsession with its survival. Economic growth is also hindered by the degeneration of the industrial, transportation and energy infrastructure and the bureaucracy's lack of understanding of basic market economic concepts. Corruption is rampant, and many state officials have already learned how to tilt the market for their own enrichment. Even if the regime can overcome these obstacles, the reform process will ultimately fail unless it can proceed in an international environment that is conducive to providing the necessary technical and financial assistance.

Economic sanctions, though they may well become necessary if the nuclear issue remains unresolved, would have little impact on the North Korean economy, particularly if its two largest trade partners, China and South Korea, were not to participate. The economic changes underway are also unlikely to lead to the toppling of the regime any time soon, but as they take hold, the pressure for political change will increase. The international community can start to improve North Korea's chances of making a successful transition by:

  • taking advantage of the new opportunities to train North Koreans in financial, technical and market economic skills, both inside and outside the country;
     
  • addressing infrastructural constraints, particularly in the power and transportation sectors; and
     
  • undertaking comprehensive needs assessments to prepare for the next stage of reform.

North Korea will not and should not receive significant international development assistance until it gives up its nuclear weapons, but it would be worthwhile trying already to develop a better understanding of the country's economy and what it will require in the way of help. Whether the regime survives or not, North Korea will need officials who are better versed in economic matters and have a greater exposure to the world. Increasing knowledge about the economy would also likely improve the prospect that any deal reached on the nuclear issue would lead to transformation of the economy and improved living standards rather than simply channel resources to the elite.

Seoul/Brussels, 25 April 2005

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