It appears that North Korea’s supreme leader Kim Jong Un is continuing to try to consolidate his power through his country’s time-honoured tradition of purging.
In 2013, Kim had Jang Song Thaek, his uncle and the country’s second-most powerful official, killed following suspicions that Jang was plotting a coup. In April, defence minister Hyon Yong Chol was reportedly executed (with an anti-aircraft gun) after falling asleep while Kim was delivering a speech.
Choe’s death, which reportedly occurred in May under the direct order of the supreme leader, is of particular interest to those seeking to discover what, if any, policies Kim may have to reboot the North’s failed economy.In between, perhaps up to 70 officials have been purged from the leadership. Now, it is reported that Choe Yong Gon, one of several vice premiers, has been executed. Choe has not been seen in public since December, and Pyongyang announced his replacement in July.
The vice premier came to some prominence in the mid-2000s when he represented Pyongyang in breakthrough trade talks with Seoul. He was also seen as playing a prominent role in the 2004 opening ceremony of the Kaesong industrial zone, a factory park run with Seoul that is the last remaining joint project of the two countries.
Both the North-South economic co-operation talks and the Kaesong project were relics of Kim’s father’s brief flirtation with economic reform. The reforms were announced in 2002, when North Korea’s economic situation had become dire.
There were food shortages, industry had ground to a halt, aid donations were falling because of the political impasse over the North’s restarted nuclear programme, and donor fatigue had set in following the horrific famine of the 1990s.
Despite this catalogue of disasters, Pyongyang had always resisted reform. When China’s leader Deng Xiaoping told Kim Il Sung that China’s reforms were a window to the West, Kim replied: “When you open a window, flies come in.”
Still, the 2002 reforms — including wage and pricing changes, greater marketisation, a looser agricultural policy, reform of the public distribution system (rationing), and a Chinese-style special economic zone in the city of Sinuiju — were the first real reforms to touch upon the domestic economy.
But the reform process, described as “perestroika à la Pyongyang”, was disjointed and ultimately failed. The reforms were incomplete; at best, failures and, at worst, the cause of further economic deterioration. The Sinuiju experiment was completely delinked from any other economic activity in the country and went nowhere fast.
It remains unclear from where within the closed world of Pyongyang the reform impetus sprung. It is assumed that Kim Jong Il, ‘Dear Leader’ and father of the current leader, was the instigator, though, among his then-inner circle, it seems Choe was a champion of greater openness.
The failure of the reforms could not be apportioned to the Dear Leader, and so others, such as Choe, had to shoulder the blame. Strike one against Choe.
At the same time that the North began experimenting with reform, it was being wooed by the South through then-president Kim Dae-jung and his so-called Sunshine Policy.
Kim Jong Il hoped the policy and the various North-South economic summits it engendered — all of which saw Choe play a major role — would help prop up his regime, generate investment from the South and continue the drip feed of international aid upon which his regime was increasingly dependent. The policy however, faltered against a backdrop of continued North Korean missile tests, and collapsed altogether in 2008. Strike two against Choe.
The only real lasting legacy of the Sunshine Policy years was the Kaesong industrial zone, which was announced in 2002 and based upon South Korean investment and North Korean workers.
At its height, Kaesong employed more than 50,000 North Koreans. Choe was closely associated with the project from the start, another indication of his openness to reform and of his search for ways to revitalise the moribund economy.
But the project started to fall apart during the North Korean crisis of 2013 with resumed missile firings, this time under Kim Jong Un’s leadership. In April 2013, the North removed all its workers from Kaesong, effectively closing the project. The zone has reopened but amid rancour and disagreement on both sides and has been unable to regain its previous momentum. Strike three against Choe.
Choe’s political career appears to have effectively ended around the time the Kaesong project collapsed. Kim Jong Un appears to have no coherent ideas about economic reform; his few tinkerings with the system to date have achieved little to nothing.
Perhaps in the purge of Choe we can see the price paid for being a supporter of economic reform in North Korea at a time when economic reform seems clearly off the agenda.
Paul French is a long-term Democratic People’s Republic of Korea watcher based in Shanghai and London and author of the recently published North Korea: State of Paranoia (Zed Books, 2014).