North Korea’s parliamentary session ends with no announced reforms


North Koreans walk in front of the Mansudae Assembly Hall in Pyongyang last week. A rare parliamentary session closed Tuesday without the announcement of economic policy changes that many outside experts had predicted. (Vincent Yu/AP)
September 25, 2012

A rare North Korean parliamentary session ended Tuesday without the announcement of economic policy changes that many outside experts had predicted. The silence immediately tempered expectations about the impoverished state’s pace of reform.

Analysts, as well as government officials in Washington and in Seoul, had been watching for concrete evidence of a policy shift under leader Kim Jong Eun that would allow farmers to keep more of their crops and sell surpluses in capitalist-style markets.

Such a policy change, which would echo Chinese reforms of the late 1970s, had been widely reported by media outside North Korea over the past month, but it was never confirmed by Pyongyang.

The North had fanned expectations of a major announcement by holding a meeting of its rubber-stamp parliament, the Supreme People’s Assembly, which convenes only infrequently. But a state news agency report released after the meeting Tuesday said merely that the assembly had authorized a few low-level personnel changes and extended the period of compulsory education from 11 years to 12.

Outside experts who study the opaque totalitarian nation said the North might simply be reluctant to publicly state its new economic policies because a formal announcement would make it harder to later back away from any changes or crack down in some other way. In 2002, the last time the North experimented briefly with economic reforms, the country mentioned the news only in a pro-North Korean Japanese publication, according to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency.

“Just because there’s no official announcement does not mean reforms are not taking place,” said Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Kookmin University.

“Such reforms are bound to be introduced by low-key, semi-confidential methods,” such as in Workers’ Party speeches delivered at local meetings, he added. “The idea of keeping it low key is basically just to say, ‘Look, our system has always been perfect, we are making just minor adjustments.’ ”

Despite decades of food shortages, the North Korean government still channels much of its money toward weapons and its 1.2 million-member military. Its state-run rationing system hasn’t functioned in years, and citizens, particularly in rural areas, depend on illicit market trading for goods and food.

Since taking power after his father, Kim Jong Il, died in December, Kim Jung Eun has given hints that he wants to improve the North’s economy. The elder Kim long resisted such changes, apparently fearing that any economic opening would erode the tight state controls that helped keep his family in power.

This week’s meeting marked just the third time in nearly two decades that the assembly gathered more than once in a year. It also met in April to appoint Kim first chairman of the powerful National Defense Commission.

According to a report this week from the Associated Press, which operates a bureau in Pyongyang, the North is rolling out changes that will allow farmers to keep surpluses after they have fulfilled state quotas. That marks a change from the current system, which requires farmers to relinquish almost everything they produce.

Other reports, from various news organizations that employ North Korean defectors and maintain contacts in the North, go a step further and suggest that the North will buy produce at market prices, as opposed to a state-fixed rate.

The North’s nascent reforms resemble those of China or Vietnam, said Koh Yoo-hwan, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul.

“The North is taking very cautious steps,” Koh said. “For North Korea, economic reform is not a choice but a matter of speed or scale.”

Yoonjung Seo in Seoul contributed to this report.

Chico Harlan covers personal economics as part of The Post's financial team.
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