EU Parliamentarian Sees "Another" North Korea

Date: 08-28-2006

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HONOLULU (Aug. 28) — “If North Korea didn’t have the United States, it would be it’s own worst enemy.”

Glyn Ford, a long-time British member of the European Parliament’s foreign affairs committee and a ten-time visitor to North Korea, says despite that assessment “there is another North Korea that is attempting the difficult path of economic reform.”

Addressing an East-West Center (EWC) seminar, the visiting EWC POSCO Fellow quoted a 2001 New Year editorial in the Rodong Shinmun , North Korea’s official newspaper, “… since we have entered the second millennium, we should break down old paradigms and embrace new points of view in the field of economics.”

Ford admits it is difficult to see beyond those old paradigms and the nature of North Korea’s ruling regime.

“Let me be clear, North Korea is one of the world’s worst regimes,” he notes. “It has an awful human rights record, not so much because there are hundreds of thousands of people in camps, but (because of) the cult nature of the regime itself.” Ford says one of his colleagues addressed that point when he pointed out, “The problem is not that there are tens of thousands in camps, but there are millions of people who are actually locked inside their minds. They don’t need to be controlled, they actually believe it.”

And, that, according to Ford helps to account for the fact that North Korea has not yet collapsed as many had predicted. “The North Korean regime is not an imposed regime like that of the former Soviet empire. It has a strength and ability based on the fact it resonates with the indigenous culture and history of Korea … some liken it to the Japanese emperor cult of the 1930s, in terms of how it’s organized.”

Aside from the headline-grabbing human rights and nuclear issues, and the questions they raise about regime survival, Ford says, “There’s a North Korea that is not stuck in the security impasse, but one that is actually trying actively to reform its economy.” He puts the start down that path to “when Kim Jong Il finally took control back in the late-1990s … certainly when you started to see the disappearance of the old idea of juche (self-reliance)” that was the cornerstone of the failed economic policies of his late-father, Kim Il Sung.

Ironically, Ford notes that juche was becoming a hard-sell for the North Korean leaders “when 85 percent of the people living in the areas where food aid is delivered could not help but see aid bags marked with the names of donors such as South Korea, China, the European Union, and even the United States.”

The Rodong Shinmun 2001 New Year editorial signaled the regime’s desire for market change. A year later the government took concrete steps toward that goal.

“We saw in July 2002 the State Price Control Bureau (SPCB) actually marketized the economy,” Ford says, beginning with the agricultural sector. “It introduced lower agricultural targets … and allowed the surplus to actually be sold in the market place. It endorsed the markets for the first time.” Other major changes followed quickly, according to Ford. The SPCB “devalued the won (North Korea’s currency) by 40 times (its previous value), it increased salaries by 18, food prices by 26 times.” Not surprisingly, agricultural production sharply increased. Ford remembers the comments of the SPCB vice chairman, “He said the moves were actually better than fertilizer at increasing productivity.”

Skeptics could be excused for not readily believing the reports of success out of Pyongyang given past pronouncements by the North Korean government. But, Ford says there is no better proof than visiting the markets themselves.

“Go to (Pyongyang’s) Tong Il Market, there are thousands of North Koreans crowding the market, buying and selling,” Ford notes. “It’s supposed to be a farmers market, but I have to say I’m not sure which farmers in North Korea actually produce oranges, dates, palm trees, and computer parts … nevertheless, the farmers market is there and people are buying and selling.”

Another indication that the market mentality is taking a foothold, no matter how small, is the fact that “you’re starting to see evidence,” according to Ford, “of gangster activity around the market place. There are some very unsavory characters there.”

While not endorsing all of the manifestations of this new market mentality, Ford points out other changes: "Prostitution is now on the streets of Pyongyang ... and conspicuous consumption (is evident). I mean, who else would want to buy a palm tree in a climate where it gets down to minus 30 (degrees Celsius) in the winter?"

The market economy may be growing in the agricultural sector, but Kim Jong Il’s plans are not working as well in the industrial area. In 2004 Kim, after apparently winning an internal faction fight, abandoned North Korea’s industrial plan. He was hoping to do for industry what his earlier move did for agriculture. It did not work.

The reason was very simple. Ford notes that North Korea could no longer deliver raw materials to its industries. “So, in 90 percent of the cases the plants,” he says, shut down and were left empty. He adds North Korean factories are now free to choose what to produce, but few are producing anything. Ford says the situation is such that with few or no raw materials, “Industry is now free to hire and fire, mainly fire rather than hire.”

The problem, according to Ford, is “they have no inputs.” He says the new policies worked in the agriculture sector because “you only need a spade, in one sense.” But, with industry, “If you don’t have (a steady supply of) electricity it’s very difficult to make anything. If you don’t have raw materials it’s even harder.” North Korea has little of either.

“What they do require,” Ford says, “is inward investment. But, of course, who in their right mind is going to invest in North Korea with the security threat that hangs over it?” The answer to that is also a simple one. Very few. He goes on to say, “The only investment they get is family investment, in a sense, from South Korea.”

And that, for the foreseeable future, may be all they get. Ford notes South Korea is still betting on the success of former president Kim Dae Jung’s “sunshine policy.” In fits and starts, it has been continued by Kim’s successor. And, according to Ford, the agreement reached between Pyongyang and Seoul over the new Kaesong industrial area, just north of the Korean Demilitarized Zone, is something that has grown out of that approach. “Kaesong is where the action is now,” he says, although it can be argued that the South got the better of the deal. “They (North Korea) sold a bit of North Korea to the South.”

Ford does not see an easy or fast solution to the problems plaguing North Korea. Although he is cautiously optimistic that the recent economic moves taken by Kim Jong Il’s regime can lead to slow and subtle changes.

“North Korea is a mixture of normal and abnormal. Then there is the complete absurd,” Ford notes, “but the young people are a possible agent of change … the (ruling Korean Workers) Party, much like in China, is also becoming an agent of change, especially economic change.” But, Ford says serious change will not come about until there is “serious inward investment” and that will not happen until “the nuclear problem is solved.”

And, the EU parliamentarian says several things have to happen to effectuate that. One is that the outside countries with a stake in the geopolitics of the Korean peninsula — China, South Korea, Japan, Russia, and the United States -- have to agree on a unified approach. Another, Ford sees, is that those countries “have to persuade Kim he can survive … whether he actually can does not really matter, look at the changes that have taken place in China.” And, a steady stable supply of energy to North Korea is also very important. “Without energy nothing can be done,” Ford says. And without the assurances of energy Kim will continue to worry more about regime survival, and base many decisions on that, rather than regime-led change.


Glyn Ford has been a British Member of the European Parliament since 1984 and a long time member of its Foreign Affairs Committee where he is a specialist on East Asia. He is a member of the Socialist International’s Asia-Pacific Committee. He was the European Union’s Chief Election Observer for the Indonesian Elections in 2004 and has just been appointed Chief Observer for the Aceh Elections later this year. He has visited North Korea on ten different occasions, four of these as a member of the European Parliament Delegations and in October 2004 he was a keynote speaker in Pyongyang at the EU-DPRK Workshop on Economic Reform. Mr. Ford can be contacted at the East-West Center at (808) 944-7325 or via email at

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