Yesterday was the seventieth anniversary of the founding of the dominant party in North Korea: the Workers’ Party. The massive amount of pomp and propaganda are juxtaposed with the precarious position that the reclusive nation is in. The nation is facing the worst drought it has encountered in a century, with much of its rice paddies drying up within the past year. To make matter worse, the diplomatic situation in North Korea has reached its nadir. The relationship between the DPRK and China, as well the relationship between it and Russia, have become immensely strained, and on the relationship between the two Koreas has been the most strained it has been in years. The most recent diplomatic developments — the reunion of families separated by the Korean war and word that the DPRK would consider signing a peace deal to end the 62-year Korean War — have been met with doubt and cynicism. On top of that, Pyongyang watchers around the world have noticed the troubling and bloody consolidation of power by Kim Jong-Un.
Amid the issues affecting the DPRK, it seems likely that the nation would collapse within the next few years. However, even in one of the bleakest, most unstable periods in North Korean history since the Korean War, the regime is actually stable. However, many of the same reasons that are keeping the DPRK from collapsing in the short run are the same reasons for why attempted reforms from Pyongyang are faltering, and why the regime could face challenges within the next decade.
The main reason for the overall stability of North Korea recently is its young, inexperienced leader: Kim Jong-Un. Although having almost no experience with governing a nation state (in comparison, by the 1980s, Kim Jong-Il was running the nation on a day-by-day basis), and with relatively little propaganda to prop him up (around three years, compared to the 25 years spent on his father before his ascension), Kim Jong-Un has been able to firmly establish himself within both the general populace and the elite of the DPRK. Furthermore, he has been consolidating his power within the government, killing, according to The Atlantic, over seventy government officials. While these actions have ensured Kim’s rule for the rest of his life, they also have crushed any chance of any official offering advice against the young leader’s desires. As a result, Kim Jong-Un is virtually alone in supplying ideas as to how to run the government. The increasingly baffling actions from Pyongyang since 2011 could be read as evidence of this theory; no one will stand against Kim’s impulsive actions, nor will they offer input that would make his list of reforms more effective.
Those reforms are mainly centered on the economy. As the nation strays from its Stalinist roots, there has been mild liberalization of the economy. Pyongyang, for the moment being, has acquiesced to the large underground market economy, allowing for a proliferation of Chinese-smuggled goods to enter North Korean homes and slightly lifting the veil that Pyongyang has held over its people. Even more shocking is the liberalization of agriculture. Now, farmers can keep a significant portion of their harvest, something unthinkable in the reign of either Kim Jong-Un’s father or grandfather. This comes as the North Korean economy is growing at a rate of two percent a year.
The economic reforms, along with the successful consolidation of power, are signs that the regime is still firmly in place. However, both, especially in relation with each other, could lead to massive issues within the next decade or so. Although the economy is growing, the growth is much less than what it could be, due to both the economic system in place and the fact that the one driving these reforms – Kim Jong-Un – is without economic advisors who would debate against him in order to optimize the reforms. The nascent market liberalization, the greater exposure to information from the Chinese, and the lack of advisors in Pyongyang who will not simply follow the desires of Kim Jong-Un will end up feeding into each other, possibly leading to fractures within the government, and failures in enacting effective policy.
Within the short term, the relatively inexperienced Kim Jong-Un has succeeded in strengthening his hold on power. However, by doing so, and especially in the bloody manner that he has done it in, he has allowed for many of his desired reforms to falter. That faltering could lead to eventual unrest in the DPRK, which could end in disaster on an intercontinental scale.