Earlier this year, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un brought hope to many when he stated he was shifting the emphasis away from the parallel development of both strategic weapons and the national economy to focus strictly on the impoverished nation’s economic development.
That hope was premature for several reasons. Chief among them: Pyongyang continues to extract fissile material for nuclear weapons and continues to build missiles to deliver them.
However, by stating that the regime would concentrate on improving the economy, Kim has placed himself in a difficult – if not impossible – position internally. Prioritizing the economy requires giving less attention to the military, and that sets up potential sources of significant discontent and dissent.
Military vs civilians
Given that Kim has limited resources, the more he focuses on the country as a whole, the more the military is going to feel sidelined. Already, there have been grumblings, and an increase in the number of officers seeking discharges has been reported.
Moreover, desertion rates are up and even some officers are feeling the lack of financial opportunity since they are not allowed to participate in the market.
This is a dangerous situation, for without the support of the military, Kim’s grip on power is weakened. How much is difficult to calculate, but an unhappy military in a dictatorship is always a potential coup awaiting propitious conditions.
Military members see their respected status slipping away, their preferential treatment being diminished and they feel less important as the country moves – however slowly – in a different direction.
Doubtless, the military has been carefully petitioning Kim to not denuclearize, pushing the idea that only the nukes and missiles protect the country and Kim himself. But such advice is self-serving.
In fact, there have been other reports of discontent among the military. And the South Korean Ministry of Unification commissioned a study in 2016 that found that should Pyongyang fail to achieve a better economy, then the North Korean military could work toward a “military-centric government.”
While the military has its own concerns, ordinary citizens have had their expectations raised by Kim’s declaration that the economy is now center stage. Kim has apparently been unable to control talk about unification and the financial gains to come from economic engagement with South Korea.
At least one report states that disappointed citizens have not seen any real progress toward what many thought would quickly occur. Yet hopes almost certainly remain. Such optimism presents another problem.
As any psychologist will confirm, the most dangerous period is not when difficult times are getting worse or even when they are at their worst, it is when conditions are improving. The light at the end of the tunnel for North Korea is sanctions relief and economic engagement with South Korea.
Salvation beckons, but those in distressed positions cannot reach it fast enough. That is when discontent is most dangerous.
The official news outlet of the North Korean Workers Party reportedly published an editorial admonishing officials to better manage the expectations – read: the discontent over current conditions – of the general population. All this indicates that concern about dissent is mounting.
A no-win for Kim?
Kim may have inadvertently placed himself in a no-win situation. If the regime shifts its focus to the economy at the expense of its fighting forces, military petulance could reach serious proportions. There have been mutinies in the past, as discussed in veteran correspondent Jasper Becker’s 2005 book Rogue Regime.
On the other hand, if Kim reverts to attending to the military either to keep them in line or as a result of continued pressure from the US, the citizenry could become restive. As noted, Pyongyang is already concerned about that possibility.
In a way, Kim is locked into a perilous journey. If he fails to deliver, the level of discontent will increase – perhaps to some inflection point. That is not to say an actual rebellion is going to occur, but certainly discontent will become more vocal and contentious by either the military or the civilian population. Or both.
Washington should take advantage of these factors by continuing its hardline stance: Demanding meaningful progress on denuclearization while keeping sanctions in place. This will certainly complicate negotiations on denuclearization with Pyongyang – but so what? It is highly doubtful that Kim is going to surrender his hard-won “treasured sword” any time soon.
In addition to maintaining sanctions and firming up its negotiating stance, Seoul ought to increase the amount of information available to the common folks of the North. That would foster more impatience in North Korea regarding market reforms and economic opportunities.
The focus should be on the superior economic and living conditions in the South, which has the most relevance to the North’s population.
Nonetheless, no matter which way the regime moves, Kim faces a problem. If he returns to the “byungjin line” of parallel development of the economy and strategic weapons – as recently threatened in response to US President Donald Trump’s insistence that sanctions remain in place – then citizens are likely to be furious.
Yet, if the focus truly shifts to the overall economy, then the military will be increasingly irascible.
Kim has a very narrow path to travel in order to keep two powerful yet competing interests satisfied to the degree that allows enough time for a state-controlled but bottom-up market economy to further develop and so enrich the country. If he fails in that, conditions on the peninsula are going to become very complicated for everyone in the region.