10 February 2006

North Korea: Crossing a River Blind

China's official People's Daily online edition ran an article in the Opinion section Feb. 9 about North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's recent visit to China. The article, titled "Opening up" message revealed by Kim Jong Il's China visit, was republished from the Communist Party of China magazine Ban Yue Tan (China Comment) and written by Ren Libo, the magazine's reporter in Pyongyang.

It is mostly predictable in its content, highlighting Kim's recent and previous visits to China (dating back to 1983) as exploratory trips to discover and study economic examples that could be applied in North Korea. The article does, however, point out that Pyongyang has had to adapt economic programs to North Korea's conditions, and adds that "The introduction of market and competition mechanism, however, can trigger problems such as social wealth gap and inflation."

In the end, it concludes North Korea is cautiously moving forward with reforms, though the analogy it uses - that of one "gropingly crossing a river" or "one with internal hardship and toughness outside" - add a cautious note. This is not a glowing review of North Korean reform efforts, or even a praise for Kim's trips to China. Instead, it paints a dangerous path North Korea's leadership is treading, like people stumbling from slippery rock to slippery rock across a rushing river, all while blindfolded.

It is interesting that an official Chinese Communist Party magazine, with a Pyongyang-based reporter, produces such an open and not-entirely-reassuring picture of North Korea and its leadership. It is an altogether more realistic assessment (at least in the final analogies) than most others I have seen, and raises a very interesting question: is China concerned that North Korea will fail in its experiment? Is this Beijing raising a warning flag, or trying to pressure Pyongyang to pay more attention to China's guidance?

Either way, there is a clear note of caution and a sense that, even from big brother China's perspective, North Korea is facing some tough times ahead, and instability may be one tiny slip away.

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