North Korea at a Crossroads

Wednesday, January 1, 1997

North Korea remains a country difficult for outsiders to analyze, given the paucity of hard data. Yet certain facts have been established. The economy is in crisis, a product not only of the Russian demise and the recent floods but of the inadequacies of a Stalinist economic strategy: autarky, imbalance, and overbureaucratization. A growing number of the elite now recognize these facts, and the momentum for reform is rising despite perceived political hazards. Whether it will be in time to prevent collapse is debated by outside observers.

Politically, the effort is to maintain the existing order by reproducing Kim Il Sung in his son, Kim Jong Il. Young Kim is cultivating the military assiduously and carefully replacing his father's guerrilla generation with individuals closer to his age, some of them relatives. There are no signs of cleavage at this point, but the decision-making structure remains difficult to discern. The goal, however, is clear: total unity under the leader and party.

The Democratic People's Republic of Korea's (DPRK's) foreign policy is rational from the North's perspective: achieve diplomatic relations with the United States and Japan while relegating the Republic of Korea (ROK) to the sidelines. Yet improvements in North-South relations will be essential if the broader goal is to be reached. Meanwhile, relations with China are relatively satisfactory but lack the old warmth, and those with Russia are still tepid not- withstanding Moscow's efforts.

Despite the uncertainties surrounding the DPRK's future, the interests of others, including the ROK and the United States, lie in seeing this state undergo an evolutionary process rather than a collapse. Thus policies should be directed toward that end, acknowledging that the outcome will depend heavily on North Korean leaders and their decisions.