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Kim Jong Un shift from nuclear push to economy intensified internal debates in country, report says

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 9/22/2021 Michelle Lee
a group of people standing in front of a crowd: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, center, takes part in celebrations to mark the 73rd founding anniversary of North Korea in Pyongyang on Sept. 8. © KCNA/KNS/AFP/Getty Images North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, center, takes part in celebrations to mark the 73rd founding anniversary of North Korea in Pyongyang on Sept. 8.

TOKYO —In a pivotal 2018 address, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un announced he would shift from emphasis on nuclear development toward "concentrating all efforts" on modernizing and expanding the economy.

But new research suggests that before Kim’s speech, the policy shift was openly debated among high-level officials in the North Korea regime.

Those who supported greater defense spending on the military and nuclear programs — widely viewed by the North’s leadership as critical leverage with the world — made the case that investing in defense is actually good for the civilian economy.

Meanwhile, the gloves were practically off among those who wanted to see greater spending on civilians, who suggested the need to shift emphasis away from the military, according to the researchers.

A report released Wednesday by 38 North, a research program at the Washington-based think tank Stimson Center, provides a rare look into the range of leadership thinking on the tensions between the country’s nuclear ambitions and its dire economic struggles.

Through articles published in North Korea’s premier economic journals, researchers tracked internal struggles over spending on weapons development in the face of agricultural and consumer goods needs, particularly as Kim looked to make his pivot.

That debate was heating up when Kim took over in 2011, and intensified leading up to 2018 when Kim began engaging with South Korean and U.S. leaders — including two summits with President Donald Trump — carrying proposals to ease international sanctions in exchange for scaling back Pyongyang’s nuclear program.

“They can’t afford to be opening their arms to the outside and having a smiling face without having some real teeth,” Robert Carlin, former intelligence analyst and co-author of the report, said in an interview. “That’s why we see this back-and-forth. They’re never sure when they have enough to establish that external” connection.

[What’s happening inside North Korea? Since the pandemic, the window has slammed shut.]

The report comes amid stalled denuclearization talks with North Korea, dramatically less information about North Korea due to its pandemic lockdown, and mounting economic pressures from a food shortage, self-imposed trade restrictions and international sanctions.


Video: Washington Post reporter asks Kim Jong Un a question about the summit with President Trump (The Washington Post)

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The authors — Carlin, one of the foremost North Korean researchers in the United States, and Rachel Minyoung Lee, a former intelligence analyst based in South Korea — argue that understanding North Korea’s economic policy calculus and the historical tug-of-war over the allocation of the country’s limited resources are key to making progress on denuclearization or rapprochement.

Choe Ryong-hae, Kim Jong-un standing next to a person in a suit and tie: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, center, waves from a balcony toward the assembled troops and spectators during a celebration of the nation’s 73rd anniversary at Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang on Sept. 9. © KCNA/AP North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, center, waves from a balcony toward the assembled troops and spectators during a celebration of the nation’s 73rd anniversary at Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang on Sept. 9.

“There is a generally accepted view that a large — perhaps the largest — portion of the DPRK economy in one way or another is devoted to the defense sector, thus starving the civilian economy,” the authors wrote, referring to North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. “This does not seem to be settled policy, however, and has not been for some time.”

To uncover some of that debate, Carlin and Lee turned to the journals that reflect the current policies and directions, and whose publication has been discontinued since January.

[Dueling ballistic missile tests on Korean Peninsula signal rising tensions]

One of the main themes they found was that after Kim took power in late 2011 vowing to improve the economy, there were dueling arguments — though often in coded phrases — relating to that strategy.

As Kim made his public debut as the successor to his father, Kim Jong Il, the economic journals started carrying more articles about the need for improved economic management rather than defense, which may have been a part of an effort by the ailing elder Kim to lay down the groundwork for his son, Lee said.

One line of thinking advocated for a harder position on defense spending as a stimulant for the economy, and another suggested the need to shift the emphasis away from the military, according to the report. While authors did not disclose their affiliation, they likely had the backing of high-level regime officials to make such commentary on such a critical topic, Carlin and Lee wrote.

“You get to see North Korea’s thinking, their inner discussions on the different economic policies and positions that they may be thinking about, what they’re interested in,” Lee said in an interview. “It’s a more raw version of central media.”

These economic articles reflect the most relevant debates when there are major policies in discussion under leadership, the researchers said. They can provide context about official Pyongyang statements.

For example, even though Kim said in a January speech that he plans on developing new weapons and improving existing deterrence measures, the research articles throughout 2019 and 2020 showed “no signs yet of North Korea significantly backtracking on economic reforms to make room for more emphasis on defense industry,” the researchers wrote.

[North Korea appears to have restarted Yongbyon nuclear reactor, U.N. body says][North Korea has yet to begin coronavirus vaccinations as delays hamper U.N.-backed rollout][From the archives: North Korea announces five-year economic plan, its first since the 1980s]
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