The DPRK of Today: Strategic Assessments and China-DPRK Relationship

By Zheng Jiyong 

On January 1, 2018, the supreme leader of the DPRK declared that the cause of perfecting the “national nuclear forces” had been accomplished, the third Plenary Meeting of the seventh Central Committee of the Workers Party of Korea would be held in April, and the country would concentrate all efforts on the national economy. Without any doubt, this marked a significant turn in its state policy and fundamental strategy. As the “bolt” country in the issues in northeast Asia, the DPRK’s strategic assessments and directional shifts will shape the course of the Peninsula and northeast Asia at large. This shift results from the personality of the supreme leader himself and many changes taking place in the economy and society of the country.

I. A New Approach to Governance

What has happened so far points to a clear difference in DPRK’s governance approach, made possible by the tradition and the latest developments in the country. The clash and fusion of modernity and tradition exists in the DPRK.

First, Confucian values and Western influence are both present in its governance approach. On one hand, the country honors a long tradition of Confucianism, values moral order in human relationships, and people are generally honest and unsophisticated. On the other hand, the governing elites today have an international perspective and vision and are fond of Western way of life and modern gadgets. For example, Chairman Kim Jong Un can be seen using Western products for work, such as Apple computer, smartphone, and tablet PC. Compared with their fathers, the new generation is more “Westernized” in their lifestyle. On top of this, many senior officials once studied in China or are working with China on a regular basis. And the country as a whole is communicating with the outside world through cellphones and the Internet. 

Second, the focus of governance has been changing. Chairman Kim Il Sung founded the Korean Workers Party, the Korean People’s Army and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Being the founder gives him the legitimacy of governance. Next comes Chairman Kim Jong Il, who focused on developing nuclear and missile weapons and gave top priority to the People’s Army. He saved the country from the hard days of “gonanui hang gun” (the Arduous March) with the “Songun” policy, and maintained DPRK’s survival by concentrating efforts on building a “powerful nation”, thus securing the political system his father founded. Today, times are different and many conditions have dramatically changed. The international community is increasingly interwoven as never before. The tactics used by the previous generations for sustaining the political system can no longer work. Those in power have to shift their attention to improving the livelihood of the common people and polishing the image of the country. Developing a “new DPRK”, that is to develop the state his grandfather built, are the keywords today. 

Third, a new approach to governance is running into conflict with the entrenched values in the past seventy years. With a young, dynamic, and adventurous supreme leader and governing team, the DPRK has tried out bold measures to make adjustments and transformations in its economy and society, such as the “July First Economic Reforms” and “Pojon Responsibility System”, which gave a strong boost to the agricultural, industrial, and construction sectors of the country. Yet, its society remains a traditional agrarian one, deeply influenced by the seven decades of political indoctrination and seclusion after WWII. Relatively conservative views led to the incomprehension and even misinterpretation of the new approach to governance and management, thus preventing it from being fully guaranteed for implementation. 

Fourth, a trial-and-error method since the supreme leader came into office has helped to turn the government from confrontation to cooperation. Starting from 2012, the leader of the DPRK has been making bold trials at home and abroad to find a way out. Domestically, a host of new political and economic steps consolidated his power and preempted challenges from others, therefore creating the political foundation for his new diplomatic moves. Externally, the leader oversaw a series of nuclear and missile tests that exhausted all possible scenarios. While displaying military prowess and the commitment to security, he made regular efforts to engage the US and South Korea, developing an accurate understanding of the trends in the situation and the determination of relevant parties. In the end, self-adjustment, economic sanctions, and military pressure worked together to deliver the decision to concentrate all efforts on the national economy. A head-on collision was averted and the country began to show its cooperative side. 

II. The New “Byongjin” (Parallel Developmeng) Line

Under the new circumstances, whether the country will continue its adjustments and shifts is a question that needs to be carefully studied. Following are the factors at play:

First, developments on the nuclear issue hold the key to its ability to reform and open up. Whatever path is eventually taken, the DPRK is primarily concerned with solving the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula. The critical question for it now is how to engage with the US and win its recognition on the abandonment of nuclear power. This process is still underway and will remain so for a long time to come. So,  the DPRK is trying to find out how possible improvements in its relations with the US can be made a sufficient but not necessary condition for its reform and opening-up. Years of dealing with the US and an accurate appreciation of the international situation give the DPRK the confidence in its influence. And it trusts that President Trump is willing to make deals and it is ready to seek a solution to the nuclear issue in return for its political and security interests. 

Second, the DPRK is not isolated by its own choice, but by its external environment. The country believes it was forced to close by the blockade enforced by countries such as the US, not by its own will. On its part, the DPRK has always been inclined towards openness. Years of practicing the trial-and-error method and experimentation has, in particular, convinced the country that antagonizing the international community, especially China, will only be bad for itself. Therefore, it is turning to cooperation, reform, openness and engaging the international community, determined that the only way to survive in this world is to embrace it, not be isolated from it. 

Third, the DPRK has accummulated experiences and learnt lessons from its past development. The country has gone through almost six years of campaigns to develop the economy. Through the “50-day battle”, “70-day battle” and “100-day battle”. The economy improved to some extent, but most of the gains were invested into “monument-style projects”, such as the Mirae Scientists Street, Ryomyong Street, municipal projects in Wonsan, development of the Samjiyon County, and the Masikryong Ski Resort. The frequent nuclear and missile tests since 2016 led to mounting sanctions by the international community, which dealt a heavy blow to its economy and gravely threatened the livelihood of its people. This is why the announcement to concentrate on the economy in the 2018 new year message was welcomed by the public. It was then affirmed in April at the Third Plenary Session of Seventh Central Committee of WPK,and was made a state policy. Today, the country is fully geared towards economic development and the people are quite business-minded. This has become the new trend in society.

Fourth, the country enjoys political stability and there are no political alternatives. Since assuming office in 2012, the leader has replaced most of the officials in the key departments in the Party, government, and military in a surgery-style move, keeping political power, especially the military, firmly in his hands. With many of the newly appointed being the second and third generations of “Paektu Mountain”, the upper echelons of the Party, government, and military are now in a community of common interests and shared future with Chairman Kim Jong Un. At the same time, the approval rate of the leader is at a high level, boosted by a publicity approach that revokes the public memory about Kim Il Sung and a better economy. 

Despite considerable uncertainties, the external and domestic environment of the DPRK raise hopes for a better future. 

First, externally, the country sees its relationship with China as being restored and back on an upward trajectory, its relationship with the US being mended, and that with the ROK completely under control. 

Stable relations with the two major countries, China and the US, give it a stable external environment. Although the gaming over the nuclear issue is still underway, the DPRK believes its relationship with the US will never collapse despite constant struggles, and it is well positioned to keep this relationship steady. With its relations with these two major players properly managed, the country will have an easier job dealing with other relations. These years of interactions with the US has helped the DPRK develop a good understanding of the country. And President Trump is particularly seen as a rare “window of opportunity”. Therefore, the DPRK is willing to address Trump’s concerns to a certain extent at some critical moments. It knows full well that China is the only country in its neighborhood whose path of development and political model do it no harm. The US is an old enemy; changes in its tactics only happen out of expedience, but will not shake its fundamental goal of toppling the government of the DPRK. The H-shaped economic belt proposed by the ROK and many of its other practices and purposes are mostly in disregard of the future of the DPRK, especially the reunification through absorption and gobbling up, which is of grave threat to the political system of the DPRK. To satisfy its multiple purposes of protecting state power, ensuring security, and pursuing development, China’s path of development is the only harmless choice. 

Second, given its domestic situation and resources, the DPRK has significant needs and potential for development.

First, the country is underdeveloped in heavy, light, chemical, energy, and power industries. There is tremendous need for development in these sectors in order to build a complete industrial chain. Its level of development and needs at this stage make it a potential destination for the production capacity China is trying to transfer. Second, the country is rich in mineral and fishing resources,and its agriculture is performing poorly. These industries that require high input but generate slow returns are in fact the most crucial and strategic ones in the country. It would not want to see them controlled by the ROK and the US. Third, the country has a strong prime-age and mostly well-educated labor force. They are skilled professionals asking for only modest pay cheques. The significant number of service personnel also represents a powerful source of work force. These days, the military is expanding its role from protecting security to participating in major projects, demonstrating an impressive capacity for construction that can be tapped into at any time. Fourth, the fragile financial sector in the country is in need of strong support. The government is gradually changing the proportion of foreign currencies in its financial system, such as the US dollar, RMB, and the euro, and mandating the use of its domestic currency in order to be free from possible external financial controls. But for reasons in the past, the country’s financial dealings with China takes up the largest part, and China is the only source for the considerable funds needed for its infrastructure projects aimed at increasing connectivity. Financial cooperation between the two countries therefore enjoys a promising future. 

These factors bring about the recognition in the DPRK that any reversal of the situation or backward steps would be very costly. Not only will it lose its favorable political and diplomatic position, but it will also see the conditions badly needed for development evaporate. In addition to honoring its commitment to the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, it also needs to create conditions for development so that the country can integrate into the international community and benefit from the advanced ideas in the world. With this recognition, the DPRK has moved away from Kim Jong Il’s strategic choice of “Songun” and “developing a powerful nation”, and has also broken the constraints of the earlier “Byongjin line” which saw the country pursuing economic development and, meanwhile, stepping across the nuclear threshold with utmost efforts at the the cost of confronting with the outside world. It now follows a new “Byongjin” line that pursues denuclearization and the policies of the Third Plenary Session of the Seventh Central Committee in parallel, for the purpose of economic development.

III. Turnaround and Improvement in the Situation on the Korean Peninsula

There are considerable uncertainties in the situation on the Peninsula; but working together, these uncertainties have been instrumental in the turnaround and improvement in the situation. 

First, the future and sustainability of denuclearization.

The will of the leader himself to abandon nuclear weapons is the most important. Developments so far point to the sincerity of his willingness to do so, i.e. engaging in the denuclearization process in return for development opportunities. The Peninsula now faces the “Kim Jong Un opportunity”. This is also an important reason for the turnaround in the situation since 2018. But whether denuclearization can be realized in full remains a hanging question. It depends on the ability of the major countries concerned to turn the willingness into real actions and solid facts. 

The differences and even confrontation between China and the US will impact the situation on the Peninsula. History has shown that issues on the Korean Peninsula were mostly the result of struggles between major countries. For example, the Peninsula was severely divided due to the confrontation between the US and the former Soviet Union during the Cold War;the military standoff between the DPRK and the ROK and the increasing role of geopolitical factors was a result of the US attempt to preempt China’s rise since the end of the Cold War. If there is cooperation between major countries, there will be progress on the Peninsula; and on the contrary, competition between them leads to retrogress. However, the situation on the Peninsula has been making good progress these days even though there are full-scale strategic competitions between China and the US, and between the US and Russia. Such a good momentum was not even damped by the raging trade war between China and the US, which saw both countries trying to use the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula as a bargaining chip. 

The DPRK and the ROK are taking the driver’s seat. The ongoing turnaround on the Peninsula is characterized by the initiative of the two countries. They are trying for the first time to work with each other to address the issues in the shadows of competition between major countries, and not to be constrained by them. However, their cooperation so far is only limited to the low-hanging fruits in a political sense, such as small-scale exchange in the cultural and sports sector and limited personnel interactions. On the military and diplomatic levels, they are still held back by the US-ROK alliance and the sanctions of the UN Security Council. 

Second, different characteristics and personalities of the leaders of the US, ROK, and DPRK.

Term difference. One of the defining features of the ongoing turnaround is time anxiety. While the leader in the DPRK can expect a prolonged period in office, those in the US and the ROK have to expect a lot more from the nuclear issue in order to secure their reelection or keep their political party in power. For the DPRK, although it is not satisfied with Trump, it knows that it has to keep dealing with him since he is the only US president willing to make deals with the DPRK in years. For Trump, the Korean nuclear issue is a diplomatic toolkit. Therefore, despite their differences, both are interested in keeping their interactions and bargaining alive. 

Different approaches to the Korean Peninsula issue. Conventional ideas and practices are no longer suitable for tackling the Korean Peninsula issue today. The old approach stemming from a geopolitical perspective and power politics has lost its relevance.Non-conventional means, such as multiple rounds of summit meetings, direct engagement between the DPRK and the US, flexible dialogue and “extreme” measures, are playing a more active role. Another common approach in the past was for the working levels to talk to each other and the leadership make the strategic call. Now, a top-down approach has taken its place, with the top leadership directly involved in clearing up many of the obstacles faced by the working levels. In addition, the Korean nuclear issue is no longer treated as part of a package that includes issues of missiles and human rights. President Trump is more interested in dealing with one issue at a time. 

Domestic politics seperated from diplomacy. The personalities of the leaders also created a window of opportunity for settling the issue. For example, in the DPRK, US, and ROK, opposition to their leader’s position on the nuclear issue is stronger than the support it gets. But the leaders themselves do not flinch. The presidents of the US and ROK even went as far as meeting with the DPRK leader and promoting progress on specific issues in disregard of the opposition of their parliaments and other agencies. 

Third, interconnection between DPRK’s economic development and denuclearization process. 

Incentives from economic development and alternative security. The most urgent task for the DPRK and the international community now is to prove the positive correlation between “denuclearization” and “all-out pursuit of economic development”. That is, denuclearization will help the DPRK focus on the economy, which will in turn deliver social security and make nuclear weapons unnecessary as a security guarantee. This will mean that denuclearization is good for national security and economic development. 

Incentives from integration into the international community. The DPRK needs to be convinced that the multiple rounds of summit meetings and its effort to reach out to the world is met with good will and brings rewards. Like others, the DPRK is a country welcomed by the international community, and its needs for security and development are normal. This will help it integrate into the international community and realize social and economic development. 

Legitimacy of the DPRK government. The incumbent leader’s approach to govern the DPRK is different today; the reality in the country makes it impossible for him to hold on to power in the old-fashioned way. He has to derive legitimacy in a way different from that of his father and grandfather by delivering social progress and an economic takeoff. 

Fourth, challenges and impediments to political transformation in the DPRK.

New challenges and realities are emerging in the social environment of this country. 

The emergence and spread of market economy factors led to social stratification. The country today has 3.8 million cellphones, over 600 free markets, many more self-organized markets, hundreds of thousands working away from their hometowns, and active trade. The spread of market factors and information flow has changed the way of life, created a well-off group, and shaped the way the people view domestic and international politics. This trend is now irreversible. Given the theory of the economic base determining the superstructure, these economic changes will find their way into the political structure. 

A new mindset is clashing with conventional ideas. The sharp-minded younger generation is proposing new solutions that are better accepted abroad than at home. For most of the members of the public whose worldview is modeled by the old style of education in the past 70 years, these solutions are incomprehensible. Even if they win the people’s understanding, chances are slim that they will be put into action due to a number of constraints in reality. 
Transformation brings significant political opportunities and risks. The lesson so far is that opportunities for transformative development will not come if the old politics and practices cannot be broken through. The leadership must think hard over how to make political breakthroughs to energize social and economic development and, at the same time, maintain the legitimacy of its governance. 

IV. Conclusion

First, the basic variables in the Korean Peninsula issue are changing. 

Denuclearization and the peace mechanism on the Peninsula demands renewed thinking, as changes outlined in the previous part have altered the way the issue should be approached. Principles such as phased and synchronized implementation and action for action now require detailed, concrete targets. On the concept of denuclearization, not only there is a need to make a clearer definition of what it means for the DPRK to abandon nuclear power and the Peninsula to be denuclearized; but also nuclear weapons, materials, and potential nuclear capacity should be described in a more specific way; and clear rules should be established for the production, storage, and launch of long-range missiles and its materials. In terms of the peace mechanism, only a general, principled statement on the specific conditions for signing a declaration of the end of war, declaration of peace, peace agreement, or peace treaty will no longer suffice. And it goes without saying that progress on the Korean Peninsula issue will be linked with the US-ROK military relations and the transformation of the  alliance.

On the architecture of the future, the building of peace mechanism will involve China-US relations and have a bearing on the relations between major countries. If it is pushed forward steadily as the relevant parties wish, the main topics to be discussed will include multilateral security guarantee for the Korean Peninsula, setting up a nuclear-free zone, and disarmament in northeast Asia;Whereas if not, rising factors of military security threats will severely disrupt the balance of power in Northeast Asia. Countries in the neighborhood locked in conflicts and competition will not only exacerbate traditional security threats, but will also affect non-traditional ones. 

Second,  China-DPRK relations need to be updated to catch up with the times.

Beginning in 2012, the DPRK, with a view to clear the obstacles to the security of its political system, conducted dozens of missile and nuclear tests, which greatly worsened the situation on the Peninsula. The UN Security Council imposed multiple sanctions that hit hard on its nuclear and missile activities; the US, Japan, and the ROK used unilateral sanctions against the country. All exacted a heavy price. China, with its own security gravely threatened by these nuclear activities and legally bound by the resolutions of the UN Security Council, faithfully carried out the resolutions. But in addition to the punishments, China provided reasonable assistance in areas of civilian livelihood that are not targeted. 

In late 2017 and early 2018, when the DPRK vowed to concentrate all efforts on the national economy, China responded actively. In addition to livelihood assistance, it encourages relevant parties to reach out to each other and the DPRK to engage with the international community, and creates the environment and conditions for the DPRK to hold summit meetings with the ROK and the US. The DPRK-US Singapore meeting took place thanks in large part to China’s efforts. At the United Nations, China calls for the reversible provisions in the sanctions against the country to be invoked at an early date and the moves by the DPRK to destroy its nuclear test site and dismantle ballistic missile test site facilities be met with good will.

Given the current circumstances, especially as the DPRK continue to show its sincerity in denuclearization and take concrete actions, China, while upholding the authority of the UN Security Council and international law and helping with the DPRK’s integration with the international community, is actively taking steps to help keep the country to the new “Byongjin” line, i.e. pursuing complete denuclearization and concentration all efforts on the national economy in parallel. This is an effort to ensure that the two parts of the new “Byongjin” line will reinforce each other and form a benign cycle whereby denuclearization enables economic growth and better living conditions, and economic and social development pushes for the early realization of denuclearization. 

The DPRK holds the key to East Asia cooperation. When the DPRK is in good shape, the Peninsula and northeast Asia will be an integrated whole; when the Korean nuclear issue cools down, risks of war in northeast Asia will be significantly lower and the settlement of other issues will become easier. Therefore, besides encouraging the country to follow the new “Byongjin” line, it is also advisable to help it integrate with the international community, such as by participating in China’s Belt and Road initiative. A favorable external environment will allow the country to draw on international development experience and reap an early harvest, so that a positive relationship between development and denuclearization can be put in place at an early time, and development will take the place of nuclear power as the guarantee of security. This way, the DPRK will not only uphold its own interests, but also become part of a community of shared interests that includes the northeast Asian nations. As countries in the region share a common set of values in terms of history, security, and development, and when the DPRK is better integrated with northeast Asia and becomes a constructive partner, a community with a shared future will eventually take shape in this region. 

Zheng Jiyong is Director of the Center for Korean Studies,Fudan University.