Path to an Advanced North Korea by 2032: Building a Complex Networked State


The North Korean leadership has officially declared that North Korea will become a gangseongdaeguk, or “strong and prosperous state,” by 2012. But the outlook is grim. Despite its efforts to develop a nuclear military-first ideology, North Korea is walking down the path of deepening insecurity and uncertainty, followed by additional excessive security measures. Its currency reform was made to no avail. Excessive spending for security has made it impossible for Pyongyang to invest sufficiently in culture, the environment, and information technology, which are all necessary aspects of developed states in the twenty-first century. Last, Kim Jong-il’s dire health condition has led Pyongyang to the inevitable next succession, and it is unclear whether his successor, Kim Jong-un, will persist in military-first politics or redirect the country to an economy-first politics.


In the 1990s North Korea was faced with three hardships. It experienced the fall of communism in 1991, and it had to bear the death of Kim Il-sung in 1994. Then, after going through the “Arduous March,” a terrible famine that killed significant number of the total population, the second Kim’s regime raised a new banner in 1998 to build a gangseongdaeguk as a goal of the state for the twenty-first century. In the same year on May 22, Rodong Sinmun (Newspaper of the workers) described the word as defining an “audacious blueprint to lead the country and shine upon the new century.” The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) said that “numerous states and people had attempted to achieve a lasting power and prosperity, but history had yet to see a perfect gangseongdaeguk.” It emphasized that the DPRK would start by building a “nation of strong ideology” with Kim Il-sung at the center, then establish “‘mighty armed forces” as the pillar for the revolution, and last add a “flourishing economy.” “That is Our General’s [Kim Jong-il’s] own way of gangseongdaeguk” (Rodong Sinmun, May 22, 1998).


Pyongyang designated the year 1999 to be the turning point for gangseongdaeguk in the 1999 New Year's Joint Editorial. Now ten years have passed, and it is still suggesting its way of gangseongdaeguk, with the three pillars of political ideology, military, and economy, as the survival strategy for the twenty-first century. With political ideology and military already established to some extent, the DPRK is placing emphasis on the economy, which might improve the standard of living as well as help develop heavy industry (Rodong Sinmun, January 1, 2010).


In June 16, 1999, in a joint article titled “Our Party’s (Worker’s Party) Military-First Politics Is Invincible,” Pyongyang claimed that “the Workers' Party of Korea (WPK)'s policy of giving priority to military affairs is a powerful policy that ensures a decisive victory in long-term confrontation with imperialism.” It added that “it is the perfect mode of politics in the present times.” Also, the DPRK explained that “military-first politics is a mode of leadership which solves all problems arising in the revolution and construction on the principle of giving top precedence to military affairs and pushes ahead with the socialist cause as a whole, putting forward the army as the pillar of the revolution.” According to these writers, military-first politics is a means to strengthen the revolutionary army, guarantee the independent status of the people, and maximize the creative roles of the people (Rodong Sinmun, June 16, 1999).


The DPRK explained that “changes in circumstances around the Juche state” and “unprecedented hardships in the face of the revolution” are the reasons for Kim Jong-il’s decision to focus on military-first policy in the mid-1990s. The fall of the communist bloc, the death of Kim Il-sung, the military threat from the United States, and the Kim Young Sam administration’s hard-line North Korea policy are the four factors Pyongyang listed as alarming “changes in circumstance.” As for the “unprecedented hardships,” the following three factors were spelled out: first, the collapse of the communist market, which accounted for 70-80 percent of North Korea’s overseas exports, seriously undermined North Korean economy; second, the financial sanctions by the United States and Japan “completely blocked international finance channels” and “strangled North Korea by economic means”; last, “years of natural disasters such as floods, tidal waves, and drought” befell North Korea. As a consequence, shortages of food, fuel, and energy ensued and the Arduous March began. The DPRK records the situation of that time as follows: “History records the 900 days of the Leningrad Blockade as the most catastrophic event. But our whole country, not one city, [has been] surrounded by enemies for much longer than 900 days. These enemies are not one but numerous imperialists attacking us every single day. This is truly unprecedented” (Kang 2002; Y. Kim 2005; Chun 2004; B. Kim 2005).


In order to overcome the Arduous March, the DPRK set January 1, 1995, as the first day of the military-first era, but it was not formalized until 1998. At the first meeting of the Tenth Supreme People’s Assembly held on September 5, 1998, Kim Jong-il was promoted to Chairman of the National Defense Commission and the DPRK constitution was revised to establish military-first politics with the National Defense Commission in the center. On that day, Kim Young-nam, who gave the welcoming address, described the role of the Chairman of the National Defense Commission as “the highest post of the state with which to organize and lead the work of defending the state system of the socialist country and the destinies of the people; and strengthening and increasing the defense capabilities of the country and state power as a whole through command over all the political, military and economic forces of the country. It is also a sacred, important post which symbolizes and represents the honor of our country and the dignity of the nation” (Rodong Sinmun, Sept. 7, 1998).


Decline of Military-First Politics


Military-first politics, which was chosen as a new political means to build twenty-first-century gangseongdaeguk, brought about the exact opposite of what was intended: a vicious circle of failing security, economy, and politics.


Vicious Circle of the North Korean Nuclear Issue


The primary goal of military-first policy was protection of the Kim Jong-il Suryong or Great Leader Direct Rule system at all costs when the socialists’ international order collapsed. In the “Agreed Framework between the United States of America and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea in 1994,” the United States proposed construction of a light-water reactor and provision for heavy-water reactor in return for a complete freeze on the North Korean nuclear program as well as the disassembling of existing nuclear facilities. The United States also proceeded with negotiations to improve the relationship with the North, but the DPRK did not abandon developing nuclear weapons, because it considered them the last hope for the security of the system. The efforts of the Clinton administration made it possible to hold a Washington meeting with North Korea, but due to Pyongyang’s uncompromising demands for excessive security, the United States failed to achieve tangible results. Furthermore, after 9/11, the United States began to treat nuclear proliferation and terrorism not merely as a matter of global security but as a matter of highest national security. This implies that North Korea’s nuclear program became a matter of life and death for both Washington and Pyongyang.


The second DPRK nuclear crisis began when a high-enriched uranium (HEU) program was brought to the table by the U.S. Deputy Minister of the Asia-Pacific James Kelly, who visited Pyongyang in early October 2002. In the end, the Six-Party Talks, which began with Beijing’s mediation, tentatively agreed on the September 19 Joint Statement in 2005. But the core four elements of this Joint Statement, “North Korea’s nuclear abandonment,” “financial support,” “normalization of relations,” and “peace system,” faced the same fate that befell the “Agreed Framework between the U.S. and the DPRK in 1994”: no practical outcome. The DPRK demanded a lifting of economic sanctions, financial support, establishment of a peace system, recognition of the North Korean regime, and improvement in U.S.-DPRK relations as preconditions for abandoning its nuclear program. On the other hand, the United States emphasized verifiable nuclear abandonment prior to any progress in other areas (Ha 2006).


As expected, the Six-Party Talks failed to reach any agreement due to financial sanctions against North Korea, involving Banco Delta Asia (BDA) in Macao, and Pyongyang launched a nuclear test in October 2006. In 2007, both sides agreed to the three fundamental steps to fulfill the Joint Statement—disable the facilities, report the progress, and finally denuclearize—but they failed to narrow the gap in the steps for report and verification. North Korea soon declared the annulment of nuclear negotiations in April 2008 and restored its measures of freeze and dismantlement to its formal conditions. On May 25, 2009, it launched a second nuclear test. The North Korean nuclear issue repeated the vicious circle of economic sanctions and nuclear tests with no viable solution. In early October 2009, Chairman Kim Jong-il met with Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao and announced: first, “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” was the will of his deceased father, Kim Il-sung; second, the hostile relations between North Korea and the United States must be improved through bilateral talks between the two; and last, the DPRK intended to participate in the multilateral talks including the Six-Party Talks depending on the results of bilateral talks with the United States (Rodong Sinmun. October 6, 2009). In early May 2010, Kim Jong-il repeated these conditions during his visit to Beijing (Rodong Sinmun, May 8, 2010.


However, the fall of nuclear military-first politics is only a matter of time. Nuclear weapons of the Suryong system provide a warrant not for life but for death. If the North keeps rejecting the strategic decision to abandon the nuclear program, the U.S.-led economic sanctions will be intensified, and the possibility that the United States and China would implicitly allow an emergence of a non-nuclear, pro-Chinese regime in the North will mount. After 9/11, the United States has been placing top priority on eliminating weapons of mass destruction and terrorism. North Korea would be sorely mistaken to expect the United States to allow its nuclear program in any case.


Failing in Economic Growth


The Kim Jong-il regime has put the banner of a gangseongdaeguk for its twenty-first-century nation building and emphasized military-first politics and ideology, military, and economy as the main focus of its efforts. While all of those are essential, the relative importance differs. Military-first politics is the top priority followed closely by a strong military, with economy last. Therefore, when the logic of the economy has clashed with that of military-first politics, the latter has always taken precedence (Ha 2000).


In the midst of deepening crisis, North Korea chose a military-first economic strategy to prioritize the defense industry over light industry and agriculture, even during the Arduous March. This decision can be seen as a desperate action taken at the brink of collapse after the fall of the communist bloc.


The military-first economy attempted a twenty-first-century version of wijǒng ch’ǒksa, or defense of Confucian orthodoxy and rejection of Christian heterodoxy —that is, a rigid way of looking at its own future in a dichotomy of self-reliance and subordination—outwardly, and domestically allocated its meager capital into heavy industry and defense, all of which failed to resolve the imminent financial crisis. In the end, Pyongyang carried out the “July 1 Measure” in 2002 and implemented “jonghabsijang,” or the “Comprehensive Market System,” in 2003. But even these efforts were carried out within the limits of the military-first economy, and North Korea’s economy went through negative growth for 10 years consecutively from 1990. Despite slight growth in the 2000s, North Korea’s GDP remains at 500 to 1,000 dollars per capita, one of the lowest in the world.


In a new attempt, Pyongyang carried out a currency reform in November 2009, and since 2010, it has been emphasizing the importance of light industry and agriculture. However, if it does not make a sweeping decision to emerge from the limits placed by military-first politics, the DPRK will inevitably fall deeper into financial crisis...(Continued)