Regime changes, from communism to capitalism, can take many shapes. In the best cases, we might see a peaceful transition into democracy in a way akin to the Velvet Revolution of Czechoslovakia. Worst case, we might see a communist dictator replaced with non-communist one, such as the seizure of power by Augusto Pinochet in Chile, 1973.
But what about the third-way? In countries like China and Vietnam, we don’t really see transition as a change of regime, or movement from one system to another. Rather, the powers that be simply begin to adopt more free-market principles and (occasionally and within limits) civil liberties. What former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping called ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’; communist in name, but with a gradual acceptance of the benefits of a free market economy.
As the world tries to make sense of the failed Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi between the leaders of the US and DPRK, we have to ask the crucial question: how can we anticipate reform in the so-called ‘hermit kingdom’?
Naturally, there’s a lot of ground to cover when we’re discussing reform. Oftentimes, the media likes to focus on the nuclear-aspect, and understandably so. After all, we can hardly take the possibility of nuclear weapons pointed at the US, as well as the massive artillery barrage aimed at the South Korean capital of Seoul, lightly.
Within the North’s borders, however, live twenty-five million people who are consistently ranked as some of the most oppressed on the planet. Alongside abject poverty, North Koreans face corruption, a total lack of civil liberties, and the constant threat of brutal and arbitrary punishment. Seeking reform in North Korea is an exceptionally tenuous task, and one that can’t be taken without careful consideration.
Things become even more complicated when we realise that real reform is going to have to come from within the North Korean government. Pushing reform from the outside through ‘maximum pressure’ serves only to further corner the reclusive state, pushing up its defenses even higher and, in all likelihood, making life for the average North Korean even more miserable than it already is.
Inside the country, the blackout on virtually all outside information and the vice-like grip the state holds over the people makes internal protest or calls for change very unlikely, so we can hardly expect an Central-and-Eastern European style peaceful transition anytime soon.
In all likelihood, reform in North Korea is going to mirror that of China. No dramatic uprising or fall of the Kim regime, but a gradual adoption of more free-market principles and a slow re-integration into the global community.
In fact, this has already been going on for a while. After current leader Kim Jong-Un succeeded his father Kim Jong-Il, the state mantra changed from ‘Military First’ (Songun) to ‘Parallel Development’ (Byungjin).
Following this new slogan, the government of the DPRK is gradually mirroring the aforementioned Chinese policies under Deng Xiaoping. There’s been a slow-growing acceptance from the state on free-market activities (such as the Jangmadang markets, upon which a fifth of the population is dependent). In 2016, nearly half of the North Korean GDP came from private enterprise.
Change is possible in North Korea, and it seems clear that Kim Jong-Un is far more open to certain reforms than his predecessors. But this will be gradual, and can only be achieved if the global community starts to try to bring the country back into the global community.
While it is absolutely crucial that the systemic human rights abuses within the country be challenged and brought to a stop, pushing too hard in the past has simply pushed the DPRK back into it’s corner, shields up and closed for business. Let’s learn from those mistakes, start to trade with North Korea, and bring about a gradual and sustainable regime change that works for everyone.