Commentary Type

West-Bound Train Leaving the Station: Pyongyang on the Reform Track

Paper prepared for the Council on US-Korea Security Studies Seoul, Korea


Railroad enthusiast and cineaste, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il may remember the classic film Closely Watched Trains, set in German-occupied Bohemia during the closing days of World War II. In one scene a Nazi official gestures to a railway map and explains to the Czech railway workers that they should be prepared for westward-bound military trains to pass through their station. When asked by one bemused dispatcher how the westward movement of the troop trains is consistent with an ultimate German victory, the Nazi explains that the rout is a manifestation of "attacking by going backwards."

Over the past few months North Korea has undertaken a series of statements and actions that signal a new willingness to countenance change. These include the expression of regret following a clash between North and South Korean naval forces in June, the suggestion that North Korea was prepared to encourage the departure of Japanese Red Army hijackers whom it had sheltered for three decades, an informal meeting in July between the North Korean Foreign Minister Paek Nam-sun and US Secretary of State Colin Powell at the ASEAN Regional Forum and the resumption of formal talks in October, the announcement of a series of economic reforms, the initiation of work to connect transportation links between North and South Korea, a summit between leader Kim Jong-il and Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro, and the establishment of an autonomous special administrative region (SAR) in the Sinuiju area. Individually, these events could be dismissed as reflecting the vagaries of North Korean behavior. Together with Rodong Sinmun editorials excoriating capitalism and Kim Jong-il's panegyrics to the superiority of socialism, they amount to west-bound trains. The issues are whether the engineer knows where the train is heading and whether he can keep it on the track.


The North Korean economic reforms that began in July 2002 have four components: marketization, inflation, special economic zones, and aid-seeking. Marketization, in turn, has several features.1 The government appears to be attempting to adopt a dual-price strategy similar to what the Chinese have implemented in the industrial sphere. In essence the Chinese instructed their state-owned enterprises to continue to fulfill the plan, but once planned production obligations were fulfilled, the enterprises were free to hire factors and produce products for sale on the open market. In other words, the plan was essentially frozen in time, and marginal growth occurred according to market dictates.

The government has announced a scrapping/downsizing/attenuation of the system of distributing goods and services through rationing (including the public distribution system (PDS) for food), meaning that at the household or retail level, the allocation of goods will increasingly occur through markets and on market terms. (Two exceptions are health care and education that will continue to be supplied gratis by the state.)

One can question the extent to which this is a real policy change and how much this is simply a ratification of system-fraying that had already occurred-there is considerable evidence that most food, for example, was already being distributed through markets, not the PDS. In this respect, the North Korean move could be interpreted as an admission that the genie is out of the bottle.

On the production side, enterprises have been instructed that they are responsible for covering their own costs-that is, no more state subsidies. Modest changes in the organization of production have been introduced in agriculture and there are rumors that more dramatic changes in the agricultural sector are on their way. Yet it is unclear to what extent managers outside of agriculture have been given the power to hire, fire, and promote workers, or to what extent remuneration will be determined by the market. Moreover there has been no mention of the military's privileged position within the economy and domestic propaganda continues to speak of a "military-first" political path.

The state has administratively raised wage levels, with certain favored groups such as military personnel, party officials, scientists, and coal miners receiving supernormal increases. (For example, while it has been reported that military personnel and miners have received wage increases on the order of 1,500 percent, the increases for office workers and less essential employees are less, and the estimated income increase for agricultural workers may be on the order of 900 percent.) This alteration of real wages across occupational groups could be interpreted as an attempt to enhance the role of material incentives in labor allocation.

The state continues to maintain an administered price structure, though by fiat, the state prices are being brought in line with prices observed in the farmers' markets. This is problematic (as it has proven in other transitional economies): the state has told the enterprises that they must cover costs, yet it continues to administer prices, and in the absence of any formal bankruptcy or other "exit" mechanism, there is no prescribed method for enterprises that cannot cover costs to cease operations, nor, in the absence of a social safety net, how workers from closed enterprises would survive. What is likely to occur is the maintenance of operations by these enterprises supported by implicit subsidies, either through national or local government budgets or through recourse to a reconstructed banking system. Indeed, the North Koreans have sent officials to China to study the Chinese banking system, which although may well have virtues, is also the primary mechanism through which money-losing state-owned firms are kept alive.


The likelihood is increased by the second component of the economic policy change, the creation of enormous inflation. At the same time the government announced the marketization initiatives, it also announced tremendous administered increases in wages and prices (Table 1). To get a grasp on the magnitude of these price changes, consider this: when China raised the price of grains at the start of its reforms in November 1979, the increase was on the order of 25 percent. In comparison, North Korea has raised the prices of corn and rice by nearly 4,000 percent. In the absence of huge supply responses, the result will be an enormous jump in the price level and possibly even hyperinflation.

Moreover, when China began its reforms in 1979, more than 70 percent of the population was in the agricultural sector. (The same held true for Vietnam when it began reforming the following decade.) In contrast, North Korea has perhaps half that share employed in agriculture. This has two profound implications: first, the population share, which is directly benefiting from the increase in producer prices for agricultural goods, is roughly half as big as in China and Vietnam. This means that reform in North Korea is less likely to be what economists call Pareto-improving (in other words a change in which no one is made worse off) than the cases of China or Vietnam. Instead, reform in North Korea is more likely to create losers and with them the possibility of unrest. Second, the relatively smaller size of the agricultural sector suggests that the positive supply response will not be as great in the North Korean case as compared to China or Vietnam either. Again, this increases the likelihood of reform creating losers and unrest.

In the short run, the initial jump in the price level is usually accompanied by an increase in economic activity, as households and enterprises mistake increases in the overall price level for changes in relative prices. This is likely to be particularly acute in North Korea, where many households and enterprises can be expected to be relatively naïve about market economics, and where significant alterations in the structure of relative prices will be coincident with the rapid increase in the price level. So in the short run, there may be an increase in economic activity.

In the longer run however, once households and enterprises begin to distinguish more clearly between changes in relative and absolute prices, it will become apparent that some parts of the population have experienced real increases in income and wealth, while others have experienced real deteriorations. The North Koreans have not announced any mechanism for periodically adjusting prices, so in all likelihood, disequilibria, possibly severe, will develop over time. Access to foreign currency may act as insurance against inflation, and in fact, the black market value of the North Korean won has dropped approximately 50 percent since the reforms were announced.

Those with access to foreign exchange such as senior party officials will be relatively insulated from this phenomenon. Agricultural workers may benefit from "automatic" pay increases as the price of grain rises, but salaried workers without access to foreign exchange will fall behind. In other words, the process of marketization and inflation will contribute to the exacerbation of existing social differences in North Korea. Given how stressed a society North Korea has become, the implications for "losers" could be quite severe. It would not be at all surprising to observe a significant increase in mortality rates.

Make no mistake about it: North Korea has moved from the realm of elite, to the realm of mass politics. Unlike the diplomatic initiatives of the past several years, these developments will affect the entire population, not just a few elites. And while there is a consensus that marketization is a necessary component of economic revitalization, the inflationary part of the package would appear to be both unnecessary and destructive. (If one wanted to increase the relative wages of coal miners by 40 percent, one could simply give them a 40 percent raise--one does not need to increase the overall price level by a factor of 10, and the nominal wages of coal miners a factor of 14 to effect the same real wage increase.)

So why do it? There are at least three possible explanations. The first, as alluded to above, is the most benign: by creating inflation, the government hopes to provide a short-run kick-start to the economy, the long-run implications be damned. (From the standpoint of North Korean policymakers, Keynes' aphorism, "in the long run we are all dead" may apply with a rather short time horizon.) Given the extremely low levels of capacity utilization in the North Korean economy, this argument has a certain surface plausibility. Yet the problems of the North Korean economy run far, far deeper than underutilized resources. In large part the economy is geared to produce goods (televisions and radios without tuners, to cite one example, or Scud missiles, to give another) for which there is only limited demand. Unless there is a significant reorientation in the composition of output, it is unlikely that inflation alone will generate a sizeable supply response. Even agriculture is problematic in this regard: North Korean agriculture is highly dependent on industrial inputs (chemical fertilizers and agricultural chemicals, for example) and agriculture could be disrupted if the farmers find themselves getting squeezed on the input side.

A second possibility is that the inflation policy is intentional, and is a product of Kim Jong-il's reputed antipathy toward private economic activity beyond state control. One effect of inflation is to reduce the value of existing won holdings. (For example, if the price level increases by a factor of 10, the real value of existing won holdings is literally decimated.) Historically, state-administered inflations and their cousins, currency reforms, have been used by socialist governments to wipe out currency "overhangs" (excess monetary stock claims on goods in circulation), more specifically to target black marketers and others engaged in economic activity outside state strictures, who hold large stocks of the domestic currency. (In a currency reform, residents are literally required to turn in their existing holdings-subject to a ceiling, of course-for newly issued notes.) In July it was announced that the blue won (Korean People's Won) foreign exchange certificates would be replaced by the normal brown won, though it is unclear if these are convertible into foreign currency. In the case of North Korea, the episode that is now unfolding will be the fourth such one in the country's five-decade history.

The hypothesis has the strength of linking what appears to be a gratuitous economic policy to politics-Kim Jong-il not only rewards favored constituencies by providing them with real income increases and by going the inflation/currency reform route, but he also punishes his enemies. This line of reasoning is not purely speculative: it has been reported that one of the motivations behind unifying prices in the PDS and farmers' markets has been to reduce the need of consumers to visit farmers' markets, and to "assist in the prevention of "illegal sales activities" which took place when the price in the farmers' market was much higher than the state price" (CanKor, 9 August 2002). A number of unconfirmed reports indicate that the government has placed a price ceiling on staple goods in the farmers' markets as an anti-inflationary device. The increase in the procurement price for grain has reportedly been motivated, at least in part, to counter the supply response of the farmers, who were diverting acreage away from grain to tobacco, and using grain to produce liquor for sale.

The problem with this explanation is that having gone through this experience several times in the past, North Korean traders are not gullible: they quickly get out of won in favor of dollars, yen, and yuan. Indeed, even North Koreans working on cooperative farms reportedly prefer trinkets as a store of value to the local currency. As a consequence, this blow aimed at traders, may fall more squarely on the North Korean masses, especially those in regions and occupations in which opportunities to obtain foreign currencies are limited.

As an economist I am trained to assume rationality, and it is only with reluctance that I propose arguments that presume ignorance. But my personal experience in China suggests one more possible explanation for the North Korean policy. Demand and supply are not quantities or points-they are schedules indicating quantities as a function of prices. Market-determined prices are thus a signal of scarcity value reflecting underlying demand and supply. Conversations with Chinese officials in the early to mid-1980s, during the first stage of the marketizing reforms, however, revealed that fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of markets was widespread, especially among older officials who had spent many years in a planned economy.

The North Koreans have indicated that they are trying to unify (or at least reduce the differences between) state prices and those observed in the farmers' markets. In a press report, one unnamed official laid out the logic of the price reform: the administered price of rice would be raised to the farmers' market price, but since no one could afford rice at the market price, everyone's nominal wages would be increased commensurately. What this official did not seem to grasp was that the amount of won in circulation was instantly increased by a factor of 10 due to the wage increase, unless there was an immediate supply-response, then the government had effectively caused a 900 percent jump in the price level.

Again, political considerations increase the plausibility of this argument. By all reports, the economic policy changes being undertaken in North Korea are being devised by a small number of senior officials. Moreover, North Korea has a political system in which the political space of discussion and dissent is highly constricted, and the penalties for being on the wrong side of a political dispute can be quite severe. So while the logic of too many won chasing too few goods would seem elementary to those of us raised in market economies, under the circumstances that exist in North Korea, the possibility that economic decisions are being made by people who do not grasp the implications of their actions (or are afraid to voice their reservations and instead engage in preference falsification if they do) should not be dismissed too hastily.

Special Economic Zones

The third component of the North Korean economic policy change is the formation of special economic zones of various sorts. The first such zone was established in the Rajin-Sonbong region in the extreme northeast of the country in the mid-1980s. It has proved to be a failure for a variety of reasons including its geographic isolation, poor infrastructure, onerous rules, and interference in enterprise management by party officials. The one major investment has been the establishment of a combination hotel/casino/bank. Given the obvious scope for illicit activity associated with such a horizontally integrated endeavor, the result has been less Hong Kong than Macau North.

The 1998 agreement between North Korea and Hyundai that established the Mt. Kumgang tourist venture also provided for the establishment of an industrial park to be managed and operated by Hyundai. While the tourism project was obviously the centerpiece of the agreement, from the standpoint of revitalizing the North Korean economy, the establishment of the industrial park, which would permit South Korean small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to invest in the North with Hyundai's implicit protection, was actually more important. In the long run, South Korean SMEs will be a natural source of investment and transfer of appropriate technology to the North. However, in the absence of physical or legal infrastructure, they are unlikely to invest. The Hyundai-sponsored park would in effect address both issues. (The chaebols, because of their size and political connections, would not be so reliant on formal rules-they could always go to the South Korean government if they encountered trouble in the North.) The subsequent signing of four economic cooperation agreements between the North and South on issues such as taxation and foreign exchange transactions could be regarded as providing the legal infrastructure for economic activity by the politically noninfluential SMEs.

The North Korean government and the South Korean firm then negotiated for 18 months over the location of the zone, with the North Koreans wanting it in Sinuiju, a city of some symbolic political importance in the northwest of the country on the Chinese border, and Hyundai wanting to locate the park in the Haeju district, more easily accessible to South Korea. In the end, it was agreed that the park would be located in Kaesong-a decision that was hailed at the time as reflecting an increased emphasis on economic rationality in North Korea.

The industrial park at Kaesong has not fulfilled its promise, however: Hyundai's dissolution forced the South Korean parastatal KOLAND to take over the project, and the North Koreans inexplicably failed to open the necessary transportation links to South Korea on their side of the demilitarized zone (DMZ). Hence the September 2002 initiation of activity on the northern side of the DMZ could be an important step in the take-off of the Kaesong industrial park.

In September 2002 the North Korean government announced the establishment of a special administrative region (SAR) at Sinuiju. In certain respects the location of the new zone was not surprising: the North Koreans had been talking about doing something in the Sinuiju area since 1998. Yet in other respects the announcement was extraordinary. The North Koreans announced that the zone would exist completely outside North Korea's usual legal structures; that it would have its own flag and issue its own passports; and that land could be leased for fifty years.

To top it off, the North Koreans announced that the SAR would be run by Yang Bin, a somewhat shady Chinese-born entrepreneur with Dutch citizenship who was under investigation for tax evasion in China, and had reportedly fled to North Korea-though he does not speak Korean-during two previous investigations. (Among his various business interests, Yang operates a Dutch-style village in Shenyang complete with a windmill and imitations of Amsterdam buildings. Kim Jong-il, who knows a thing or two about fantasylands, has visited it himself.) At the time of Yang's appointment, trading in shares of his firm, Euro-Asia Agriculture Holdings, had been suspended on the Hong Kong stock exchange after crashing on the suspicion of fraud. When asked about Yang's appointment, China's Foreign Ministry spokesperson declined to endorse it. To paraphrase Senator Lloyd Bentsen's memorable line from the 1988 US Vice Presidential debate, "Mr. Yang, you are no Tung Chee Hwa." Indeed, Mr. Yang was subsequently arrested by Chinese authorities. Whether the zone will survive his arrest remains to be seen.

Assuming that these are mere growing pains, the question arises as to how important the Sinuiju SAR may prove to be. It should promote economic integration between North Korea and China, though one should keep in mind that China is a big place and that the most economically dynamic parts are in the southern coastal areas far from North Korea. But the North Korean economy is so far down that even integration with a comparative backwater like Dandong could be a boost.

More important is whether the SAR will generate any spillovers. In conventional terms this will depend on whether any lessons from the Sinuiju SAR experiment are generalized to the rest of the economy. (One ray of hope in recent events is the removal of the less than 50 percent foreign ownership ceiling in joint ventures.) More subtly the SAR might have a positive impact if internally it is regarded as giving Kim Jong-il's unimpeachable imprimatur to the reform process. Bureaucrats and factory managers who have been reluctant to get ahead of the leadership may take this as a sign that change is safe. Conversely, by taking the SAR completely outside of the normal North Korean governing structures, Kim Jong-il can in effect end-run the party and the bureaucracy, and manage the zone directly out of his office.

Uncle Junichiro…

Meanwhile, as exciting as the establishment of the Sinuiju SAR might have been, its long-run significance is probably less than that of an event that had occurred the previous week-a meeting in Pyongyang between Kim Jong-il and Koizumi Junichiro, a manifestation of the fourth component of the economic plan, passing the hat.

At the first-ever meeting between the heads of government of Japan and North Korea, Kim stunned the world by baldly admitting that North Korean agents had kidnapped 12 Japanese citizens and that most of the abductees were dead. Each of the leaders then expressed regrets for their countries' respective historical sins and agreed to pursue diplomatic normalization. It is expected that normalization will be accompanied by a large financial transfer from Japan to North Korea in the form of grants, subsidized loans, and trade credits. Japanese officials have not denied formulas reported in the press that would put the total value of a multiyear package at approximately $10 billion, despite the shaky state of Japanese public finances. Taking inflation, changes in the value of the yen, differences in population size, and other factors into account, this sum would be in the ballpark of the transfer that Japan made to South Korea in 1965 when the two countries normalized relations. Given the puny size of the North Korean economy, this is a gigantic sum. The critical issue for North Korea is whether these talks will proceed rapidly enough to generate aid inflows before the dislocations of marketization begin to bite. Given the Japanese public's revulsion at the disclosure of the probable murders of some of the abductees, the process of normalization may be more protracted than either the North Korean or Japanese governments expected.

In connection with this process, there are rumors that the North Koreans intend to establish yet another special economic zone on the east coast, to be oriented toward Japan. Discounting the failed zone at Rajin-Sonbong, this would give the North Koreans three special economic enclaves, one oriented toward South Korea, one toward China, and one toward Japan, diversifying their portfolios so to speak. Again, given the centrality of politics to North Korean thinking, they may well envision playing the three off against each other. In the long run, however, it is integration with South Korea that will be critical to the development of the North Korean economy.

…and Uncle Sam

The Koizumi visit amounted to a kick in the pants to the Bush Administration. It brought to a head the disagreement between the hawks and the moderates in Washington. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly was sent to Pyongyang with greater alacrity than he otherwise would have had. With its two allies in Northeast Asia moving forward with engagement, the "Axis of Evil" characterization will become increasingly difficult to sustain, and the United States will find its options more constrained.

For example, North Korea's membership on the list of state sponsors of terrorism prevents the United States from supporting the DPRK for membership in international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, or Asian Development Bank. The North Koreans have fulfilled most of the terms set out by the Clinton Administration to secure their removal from the list. A major sticking point has been third-party claims by Japan associated with the Japanese Red Army hijackers and the abductees. If the hijackers are returned to Japan and the North Korean and Japanese governments resolve the abductee issue as now seems likely in the near future, a major obstacle to North Korea getting off the list of state sponsors of terror will have been removed. While it is quite possible that the Bush Administration will insist on keeping them on the list and barring their entry into the international financial institutions, this position will be increasingly hard to sustain in the face of South Korean and Japanese objections.

At the same time, the transfer from Japan to North Korea is the single biggest financial claim that North Korea maintains on the international system and dwarfs anything it could hope to get from the multilateral development banks. Unlike the sorts of carrots that the United States might offer, it also contains an element of irreversibility, and no matter how well conditioned the loans, money is at least partly fungible, raising the understandable worry in Washington that the Japanese settlement could be used for military modernization. The apparent lack of consultation between the United States and Japan in the run-up to the meeting has added to Washington's concerns.


In the end, to understand the meaning of what has occurred in the last several months, one has to make some kind of assessment of the motivations behind North Korea's policy changes. One argument put forward by some North Korea-watchers is that Kim Jong-il has long understood that the North Korean system is irretrievably broken, but that it has taken a long time for him to consolidate power and implement these far-reaching changes. This is hard to believe. Kim Jong-il was reputedly running the country on a day-to-day basis for ten years before his father's death eight years ago. This means he has in effect been running the country for 18 years and was the uncontested supreme leader for the last eight. In a political system as hierarchical as North Korea's, it is difficult to accept that it has taken him this long to consolidate his position.

Indeed, the opposite interpretation would seem more plausible, namely, that Kim Jong-il has reluctantly concluded that the old methods are inadequate to revive the economy and out of political necessity is embracing marketization, inflation, and the former colonial master in a desperate bid to revitalize a moribund system. If this interpretation is correct, then we should expect hesitancy in the implementation of reforms, and a strong reliance on the international social safety net supplied by the rest of the world. In certain respects the plans put forward thus far appear to be ill-conceived, but a combination of marginal increases in economic activity and international aid inflows may put enough goods on the shelves to keep the population pacified, at least in the short run. Ten billion dollars can buy a lot of transistor radios.

However, the initiatives undertaken in the last several months are qualitatively different from the diplomatic initiatives that the North Koreans undertook over the last several years. Marketization and inflation alter economic, political, and social relations on the ground, and raise far higher stakes internally. While the upside potential may be great, failure could mean the end of the regime. The train has left the station, but where it is headed and if it will derail are open questions-even for the conductor.

Table 1: Price Increases

Product   Reported Price Increase (percent)
Rice   4,000
Corn   3,700
Pork   700
Diesel fuel   3,700
Electricity   5,900
Apartment rent   2,400
Subway ticket   900

Sources: Press reports, private correspondence.


1. This discussion is based on a variety of sources including press reports, diplomatic reports, and private conversations with diplomats and NGO workers based in North Korea. As in all things North Korean, there is a certain amount of uncertainty about what is actually happening. To illustrate, first-hand accounts from different regions of the country differ importantly in certain aspects. That is to say that there is more than one reality in North Korea, and one should keep this in mind.

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