While North Korea’s recent spate of ballistic missile testing has understandably grabbed international headlines (along with dubious reports of another execution-by-anti-aircraft fire), other developments are underway in the country that may be suggestive of longer term internal change. For the first time in a decade, North Korea convened a meeting of senior officials in charge of economic and policy planning.
The development is doubly significant as it comes shortly after Kim Jong-un dismantled the long-standing National Defense Commission, which is father, Kim Jong-il, had elevated as the apex of state power during the years of his songun, or “military first,” national strategy. The National Defense Commission was replaced with a newly created Commission on State Affairs, with Kim Jong-un as its chairman.
North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) that the economic officials met in Pyongyang on Monday and discussed the implementation of the new five-year economic plan set in place during the Workers’ Party of Korea’s congress earlier this year in May. Kim Jong-un, in 2013, announced his intention to following the byungjin line, his signature national strategy and the successor to his father’s songun policy. Under byungjin, Kim would see to it that North Korea succeeds in its parallel pursuit of a nuclear deterrent and economic development.
I speculated earlier this year that the reason for the unusual uptick in North Korean missile testing and related activities (including the fourth nuclear test and satellite launches in January and February respectively) was for Kim to demonstrate that the first leg of byungjin, the nuclear deterrent, was proceeding according to plan. (Pyongyang’s first successful Musudan test earlier this summer was an important milestone in this regard.)
In the context of byungjin after the WPK congress, the first meeting of top economic officials in Pyongyang since 2006 seems important, even though reading the tea leaves in Pyongyang is often an exercise in semi-informed speculation. What will lend credence to the idea that Kim Jong-un is earnestly looking to work more on the second leg of byungjin is the actual implementation of economic change.
We may already be seeing some evidence of this; a Reuters analysis earlier this summer identified that North Korean planners may have learned to leave markets alone instead of resorting to the old-fashioned dirigisme intervention that had caused catastrophic economic consequences in the past.
KCNA’s report on the meeting of economic officials offered scant details on the specifics of what was discussed or what decisions were taken, but the continued ascendance of economic planning bodies within the North Korean state suggests that Kim Jong-un is looking to get serious about his country’s economy.