The Countdown is On

[In order to bring up-to-date our website readers who are not CanKor Report subscribers, we are posting the introductions of the last three issues for your information. Here follows the introduction to CanKor Report #349, the penultimate issue.  –CanKor]

CanKor LogoFollowing the announcement that CanKor is coming to an end, we received numerous heartfelt expressions of regret and congratulations. Let me share some of them with you:

“You have been selfless, brilliant, imaginative, balanced and inspirationally dogged in conceiving, launching and sustaining an important enterprise to push the North Korean rock up a steep Canadian hill.” –Paul Evans

“What you have accomplished is remarkable!  You have been pulling this sled loaded with heavy logs uphill, winter and summer, virtually alone.  Your accomplishments have been (sometimes grudgingly) recognized in officialdom, academic and church circles in Canada, by specialists abroad and that handful (which may be more than a small one) of North Koreans who enjoy your humor, profit from your insights, trust your integrity, and now and again find it convenient to communicate to a wider public through you.” –Dwain Epps Read the rest of this entry »

Rolling Reforms: Reflections on Visits to Kim Jong Un’s North Korea, by Rudiger Frank

[On visits to North Korea since Kim Jong Un came to power, CanKor Brain Trust member Rudiger Frank has seen growing evidence of a more diverse and cash-based economy. These signs of creeping reform are evidence of North Korea’s desire for change, but achieving real transformation remains a long and delicate process. Rudiger Frank is Chair Professor of East Asian Economy and Society at the University of Vienna and Head of the Department of East Asian Studies. He has visited North Korea numerous times. This article appeared in Global Asia, a publication of the East Asia Foundation in Seoul, Vol. 8, No. 2, SUMMER 2013. The full article, as published, with numerous pictures may be accessed here: Rolling Reforms. –CanKor]

Rollerblading has become a hot new hobby on the boulevardes of Pyongyang. (Photo by Rudiger Frank)

Rollerblading has become a hot new hobby on the boulevards of Pyongyang.
(Photo by Rudiger Frank)

Painting a masterpiece and reforming North Korea have a surprising number of things in common. We know the necessary ingredients, tools and available techniques. There are numerous cases for comparison and a large body of literature to study. Still, few if any of us can create art to equal that of old masters such as Rembrandt or Kim Hong-do.

In theory, realizing North Korea’s potential seems easy. State socialist systems have been well researched and understood for decades. We possess a growing amount of empirical knowledge about North Korea. We can look at transformations in China, Vietnam and Eastern Europe for guidance. Incentives have to be set right, so that resources are allocated more efficiently. China has demonstrated that this does not require a fully-fledged Western-style democracy, just a stable currency, markets where demand and supply result in realistic prices, private ownership and an economy that can freely import and export goods, services, capital and technologies.

We know that North Korea has a food, energy and transportation problem. We know that it can, theoretically, produce more food with more inputs of fertilizer, electricity, fuel and machinery, but that, for the time being, importing food would better reflect the North’s comparative disadvantage in agricultural production. We know that North Korea has abundant natural resources, that these are a potential source of hard currency and that a smart strategy would be to process these resources before exporting them. Read the rest of this entry »

An Atmosphere of Departure and Two Speeds, Korean Style: Where is North Korea Heading? by Ruediger Frank

[CanKor Brain Trust member Ruediger Frank has once again returned from a tour to North Korea. In the following article, first published by our partner-site 38North, Frank delves into what he sees as changes that have occurred in North Korea since his last visit in April. Please follow our link to the current article on the 38North site. –CanKor]

South Hwanghae, September 2012 (Photo: © Rudiger Frank)

The Country Is Changing

Not that it has ever been static, but within the few months between my travels to North Korea in spring and autumn of this year, the country has changed to the degree that even a foreign visitor cannot avoid noticing. While in April, everyone seemed to be somewhat tense and edgy, unsure about what would happen under the new leader and torn between hope and concern, by September, the atmosphere was almost upbeat and optimistic. It is even now clear which is the new standard badge (the big red flag with the two leaders), and everyone is waiting patiently to receive his own. Admittedly, the season is nicer in the fall than in the spring: the temperature is warmer, the landscape greener, and food from the new harvest is on the table, while hard manual labor in the fields and the cold of winter are still a few weeks away. But there is more. Read the rest of this entry »

North Korea’s Ideology after April 2012: Continuity or Disruption? by Ruediger Frank

[Earlier this year we alerted readers to a “Political Tour” to the DPRK, which was to include Economy Professor Ruediger Frank as a guide. CanKor Brain Trust member Ruediger Frank has now returned from that tour. The following article, first published by our partner-site 38North, includes some of Frank’s initial impressions, these having to do with what might be signs of an ideological shift. Find more articles by Ruediger Frank here. Please follow our link to the current article on the 38North site. –CanKor]


Until the death of Kim Jong Il in December 2011, the big question affecting nearly every aspect of North Korean affairs—domestic or international—was who would be his successor. Now that this issue has been resolved by the selection and promotion of Kim Jong Un, the focus has shifted to the nature and sustainability of the new leadership. The four mega-events in April 2012 were supposed to provide insights: a Worker’s Party Conference, a session of the Supreme People’s Assembly, a missile/rocket/satellite launch, and the long-prepared celebrations of Eternal President Kim Il Sung’s centenary birthday. We could indeed observe dramatic changes, particularly in the DPRK’s ideology—a field that Kim Jong Il in 1995 described as the key frontier in the defense of socialism (Korean style).

This article is based on my personal observations during a visit to North Korea from April 10-16, 2012, as well as official DPRK material, and addresses the question: Are recent ideological changes just a regular progression in a linear, continuous development, or do they mark a major disruption?

New Developments in Ideology

It did not take long to notice the first of these seemingly dramatic changes when I arrived at the Sunan Airport in Pyongyang. I am not talking about the new terminal(s) or the masses of foreigners who flooded into the hopelessly overwhelmed country. Rather, it was the badges worn by North Koreans that caught my attention. These badges portraying a smiling Kim Il Sung have long been a subject of curiosity and, at times, ridicule by foreigners. Questions about their shape and size (do specific badges indicate importance?), rules for wearing (do they even put them on their swimsuits?), and availability (they can’t be bought, they can only be bestowed upon you) have been the subject of many tourist conversations, in particular over beer in the evening. But for someone like me who has been to North Korea frequently since 1991, I hardly notice the badges anymore. Neither do the North Koreans. For decades, the badges have been a part of the system’s iconography, just like the various Kim Il Sung statues in Pyongyang and across the country.

Figure1: North Korea's New Leadership Badge (photo by Rudiger Frank)

Figure1: North Korea’s New Leadership Badge (photo by Rudiger Frank)

And now this: an unusually large badge with not just one, but two faces! Father Kim Il Sung and son Kim Jong Il, happily united against the background of a dynamically flying red flag. This theme—father and son replacing what used to be reserved for Kim Il Sung only—repeated itself on numerous occasions throughout my journey. Among the most widely noticed examples were the two statues on Mansudae Hill in Pyongyang, unveiled in a grand ceremony on April 13. Read the rest of this entry »

North Korea in April: Defining the Future Under Kim Jong Un by Ruediger Frank

[From time to time CanKor alerts readers to papers published by our partner-site 38North. The following article is authored by CanKor Brain Trust member Ruediger Frank. Find more articles by Ruediger Frank here. Please follow our link to the current article on the 38North site. –CanKor]

April 2012 promises to be an interesting month for North Korea and its observers, with at least four mega-events. The long announced celebrations to mark the 100th birthday of the country’s late founder Kim Il Sung will be held on the April 15. Two days before, the annual session of the Supreme People’s Assembly (the North Korean parliament) will convene. The fourth Conference of the Korean Workers’ Party (KWP) will take place on the 11th. Last, but not least, around the same time a rocket launch that has been criticized by the West as a missile test is set to take place.

April 15, 1912 was not only the day the Titanic sank. In a small village near Pyongyang, a boy with the name Kim Song Ju was born. Later, much like Lenin (Uljanow) and Stalin (Tschugaschwili), he adapted an alias. In October 1945, by then called Kim Il Sung, the 33 year old youngster was presented to the wondering population by the Soviets as the liberator of the country from the Japanese. Hardly anybody took the young man seriously back then, neither his Soviet protectors nor his much more numerous, senior, powerful and experienced domestic political competitors. They were wrong, as they later learned the hard way. By building and breaking alliances, first the Christians and then rival factions within the Korean Communist camp were eliminated or assimilated, until Kim Il Sung and his Kapsan guerilla faction had acquired a monopoly of power within the KWP.

Kim Il Sung smartly used the badly failed Korean War (1950-53) not only as a welcome occasion to eliminate some of his influential political foes. He also converted Korea into one of the hot spots of the Cold War and was thus able to force the Soviet Union and China to provide much more economic, military and political aid than either of them had originally intended. The costs for Mao Zedong included his eldest son Anying, still buried in North Korea. Even my home country East Germany, laying in ruins after World War II and the post-1945 demounting policy of the Soviets, and facing fierce competition from West Germany which prospered under the Marshall Plan, felt compelled to rebuild North Korea’s second largest city, Hamhung, at an enormous cost. Read the rest of this entry »

38 North: North Korea after Kim Jong Il: The Risks of Improvisation by Rudiger Frank

[From time to time CanKor alerts readers to papers published by our partner-site 38North. The following article is authored by CanKor Brain Trust member Rudiger Frank, Professor of East Asian Economy and Society at the University of Vienna. Please follow our link to this article on the 38North site. –CanKor]

Kim Jong Il’s death was announced less than three weeks ago. But the world is surprisingly quickly getting used to the new leadership in North Korea, as if there were no concerns left at all. To provide a counterweight to this amazingly complacent mood, and the many speculations about a stable North Korean future (including my own), I’d like to play devil’s advocate and ponder a relatively pessimistic scenario based on my reading of some developments that should be watched carefully.

We do have reason to believe that the current course of events related to succession in North Korea is more of the improvisation type than the outcome of a long-term strategy. In the end, it might indeed work and Kim Jong Un and the system will survive, but this is by no means to be taken for granted. Read the rest of this entry »

Political Tours: Visit North Korea with Professor Rudiger Frank

[How will North Korea change after Kim Jong Il’s death and the rise of his son Kim Jong Un? Will changes become visible to the casual observer traveling to Pyongyang during celebration of the 100th anniversary of DPRK founder Kim Il Sung this coming April? The British organizers of  Political Tours will take a group of not-so-casual tourists to see for themselves. They will be accompanied by CanKor Brain Trust member and economist Rudiger Frank in what is sure to be a fascinating educational experience. Although exact details are still being worked out, CanKor encourages its readers to consider joining this unique opportunity at an especially critical period of North Korean history. To do so, please get in touch with us, or register through the Political Tours website. Make sure you let them know you heard about it from us. –CanKor]

Political Tours – North Korea Tour – April 2012

In the wake of Kim Jung Il’s death, and questions hanging over the country’s future direction, Political Tours is organizing a tour to North Korea this April. The visit is being led Professor Rudiger Frank, head of Korean studies at the University of Vienna, and one of the world’s leading experts on North Korea.

It also coincides with the 100th anniversary celebrations of the birth of the country’s founder Kim Il Sung, an event that will have added importance following the death of his son at the end of December. Read the rest of this entry »

38 North: The Syrian Litmus Test by Rudiger Frank

[From time to time CanKor will alert our readers to papers published by our partner-site 38North. The following article is authored by CanKor Brain Trust member Rudiger Frank, Professor of East Asian Economy and Society at the University of Vienna (also an Adjunct Professor at Korea University and the University of North Korean Studies, Kyungnam University, in Seoul). Please follow our links to this article on the 38North site. –CanKor.]

North Korea’s Strategic Outlook on Northeast Asia: The Syrian Litmus Test By Ruediger Frank

The Libyan story seems to be over, at least for now. We do not exactly know who is going to rule that country next and with what consequences. There is room for experience-based pessimism, but only time will tell. So it is now worth looking closer at another of the anti-dictatorship uprisings in the region. What is the meaning of Syria for North Korea?

The case is particularly interesting if we consider the international debate about its resolution. A few countries felt uneasy about intervening in Libya; however, in the case of Syria, one country is outspokenly against any international interference. That country is Russia, a long-time ally of Syria and a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Two decades after the end of the Soviet Union, dissatisfaction and disillusionment on the individual level in Russia combines with nostalgia and translates into a deeply hurt national pride and an enormous anti-Western nationalist undercurrent in public opinion. The latter matters because, despite doubts about the nature of Russia’s democracy, political leaders there must consider the will of the masses if they want to get (re)elected. …Read More

Food aid diversion: Why it does NOT matter by Rüdiger Frank

[Dr. Rüdiger Frank is Professor and Chair of East Asian Economy and Society, as well as Deputy Head of the Department of East Asian Studies at the University of Vienna, Austria. – CanKor.]

Donated food in a Chonnae nursery (photo by Erich Weingartner)

One of the things I have, for years, been having difficulties to understand is the discussion of (staple) food diversion. It is of course an important political issue if we consider that donors like to give their resources for a specified purpose and discontinue donating if it cannot be proven that everything went as promised. Fair enough.

But from an economic perspective of feeding North Koreans, food diversion does not matter much.

Let me explain.

  1. Most importantly, food aid is not the only source of food in North Korea. It is only supposed to cover a gap between demand and supply. If “non-deserving groups” get no food aid, they will take their share from the other sources such as domestic production or regular imports, thus reducing the food amount available for deserving groups. In the end, it is a zero sum game. What matters is the total amount of food available in North Korea. If it is high enough, the poor will eat. If it is not, they will be the first to suffer. It’s as simple as that. Read the rest of this entry »

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