Hints of change in North Korea

Unusual choices at Pyongyang’s film festival and possible agriculture reform suggest the country is slowly changing.

They might seem unrelated, but the two big events in Pyongyang this week, in their own ways, offer rich pickings for the clue-hungry North-Korea watcher.

The second meeting in a year of the rubber-stamp legislative body, the Supreme People’s Assembly, would seem to offer the more red meat. (And in due course, maybe actual, as well as metaphorical foodstuff.)

According to the official state media it approved the extension of the school system from 11 to 12 years, “to drastically improve and strengthen secondary general education”. That’s interesting in itself. Does it as some speculated recently, signal a modernisation – a move away from time-consuming teaching of revolutionary history? 

The SPA also sanctioned “organisational” changes. Essentially they seem to be new appointments to relatively senior positions.

There was no mention though, of what many had thought would be centerpiece of the event – economic refoms, focusing on the agriculture sector. But that doesn’t mean they won’t happen. In fact AP’s Pyongyang bureau was recently given access to farmers preparing to adopt the new measures, which should allow them to keep 30-50 per cent of their produce to sell, perfectly legally, on the open market.

That would mark a major shift in official attitudes to private trade. It’s also a further acknowledgement of the deficiencies of North Korea’s food production system. (There was a frank admission of food shortages as a “burning issue” just a few days after Kim Jong-un took power.)  And some wonder whether it’s a sign that the young leader is interested in broader economic reform, along the Chinese model.

Certainly there’s been a renewed focus on the two industrial zones on the Chinese border: Rason to the east, and Hwanggumpyong to the west. Kim Jong-un’s powerful uncle Jang Song-taek was recently in China, apparently to discuss their development. China has long been urging reform and encouraging business partnerships. This year it allowed in another 20,000 North Korean workers on official training visas.

But change, if it’s really coming, won’t be smooth. One Chinese firm recently pulled out of North Korea altogether, taking to social media to lambast its local partner for alleged dodgy business practice. And the deeper question is whether a political system like North Korea’s could really survive if its people became freer and more prosperous.

There are two views. North Korea analyst Andrei Lankov has long argued that North Korea is not China: it has a prosperous twin just south of the border. Economic freedom would increase the flow of information from the South, undermining Pyongyang’s domestic legitimacy.  

The other view is that North Koreans by and large already know that the South has it better economically, and that if managed deftly, it might be possible to reform and retain control. 

Indeed, Kim Jong-un does seem more willing than his father to embrace some outside influences. And that brings us to Pyongyang’s other big event of the week, its International Film Festival.

Granted, this is a legacy of Kim the elder’s love of film – it’s been held every two years since 1987. And granted, too, there’s still no room for Hollywood here: American movies are banned.

But this festival is being held under the leadership of a young man who just a couple of months ago allowed himself to be filmed enjoying a concert featuring Disney characters and a Rocky montage, in the company of a glamorous woman, who’d soon be introduced as his wife. It was a clear message that not all things western are harmful.

And at this year’s festival, pride of place goes to a British/Belgian/North Korean co-production: Comrade Kim Goes Flying. It’s a tale of a young female coal miner who dreams of becoming an acrobat. As its British producer says, its individualistic storyline is a departure from the norm for Korean film studios that since 1973 have worked under Kim Jong-il’s instruction that film was for making people into better communists. 

Of course nothing in the public sphere in North Korea is free of politics. And a romantic comedy featuring happy, well-fed, well-dressed North Koreans certainly carries a message out to the world.

And the official fears of the messages coming the other way remains, Kim’s Disney night notwithstanding. Earlier this month the Rodong Sinmun, the state newspaper, railed against the “reactionary ideological and cultural poisoning” of imperialist countries, saying they were targeting a North Korean youth overly interested in music and amusements. 

So plenty to pick over, but as always, much of it contradictory. One thing to note, though. The film festival also features “The Decoy Bride”, a British rom-com about a picturesque, stuck-in-the-past Scottish island that gets besieged by the worst excesses of big business, modern media and celebrity culture. You can read something into that choice as well, if you wish. 

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