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Analysis: Kim Jong Il, the reformer?

North Korea is where Vietnam and China were before they started major market overhauls.

anti-north korea protester
A university student (left) holds a portrait of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il at an anti-North Korea rally in Seoul, May 30, 2010. (Jo Yong-Hak/Reuters)

ATLANTA — Now that food shortages reportedly have forced North Korea to reverse its crackdown on capitalist-style markets, more systematic reforms for its collapsed economy may not be far behind.

The markets policy reversal came May 26 in directives issued by the cabinet and the ruling Workers’ Party to subordinate organizations, according to a report by the Seoul-based newsletter North Korea Today, which gets its information from officials and ordinary citizens inside the North. “The government cannot take any immediate measures” to relieve a food shortage that is “worse than expected,” the newsletter quoted one of the directives as saying in explanation for the policy change.

The same authorities only late last year decreed a sudden currency revaluation that crippled the “anti-socialist” markets, where stallholders had been trading for individual profit, by confiscating the traders’ wealth. The new decrees bless and deregulate what’s left of the markets, which have shrunk and in some cases closed completely in the interim, in the hope that market trading will keep people from starving. And the directives instruct managers of state-run enterprises to pursue lucrative deals — especially in foreign trade — that could help feed their employees.

This could all turn out to be the big event that finally pushes the very reluctant leadership into a multi-year campaign of serious reforms of the sort that began decades ago in Vietnam and China, according to Felix Abt, a Swiss involved in North Korean joint ventures in pharmaceutical manufacturing and computer software.

“Given an industrial stock and an infrastructure beyond repair, and the impossible task of maintaining a huge army, economic reforms appear unavoidable in the very near future,” Abt, a former president of Pyongyang’s European Business Association, wrote in an email exchange.

“It looks intriguing and it reminds me of Vietnam’s history of reforms,” said Abt, who did business for years in Vietnam before going to Pyongyang and recently has moved back to Vietnam while maintaining his involvement in North Korea.

“The Vietnamese economic situation looked dire at the beginning of the 1980s,” he explained. “Nguyen Van Linh, party secretary in Ho Chi Minh City, favored moderate economic reforms. He tried too early, lost his job and left the political bureau in 1982.

“Le Duan, secretary general of the Communist Party, was categorically against any economic reforms. He died in 1986, the year of the five-year party congress which brought Nguyen Van Linh back and elected him as his successor. The new party secretary general immediately launched the Doi Moi policy — ‘reforms.’”

Abt ventured the lesson that triggering reforms “takes something big like the death of a leading politician” in Vietnam — or, in North Korea, a “ruinous” currency revaluation.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/worldview/100623/north-korea-economy-kim-jong-il