Inside Story

Is real change underway in North Korea?

We ask if Pyongyang’s new leadership is shifting from its military-first approach to a new emphasis on the economy.

A rare session of North Korea’s parliament ended on Tuesday with no mention of rumoured economic reforms.

Stories of changes reportedly being pushed by Kim Jong-un, the reclusive state’s new leader, have been circulating for months.

Agriculture is not the real crunch issue for North Korea. It’s industry. The industrial reforms back in the same period a decade ago really didn’t work … if you don’t have reliable electricity or raw material .… The key issue is going to be industry.”

– Glyn Ford, a former member of the European parliament

The second session of the 687-member Supreme People’s Assembly, which usually meets only once a year, has fuelled speculation about drastic reforms to come under Kim.

He has made several public statements on the need to improve living standards. And there have also been signs of policy changes, including incentives for workers and farmers to boost productivity.

But at the close of the meeting, state media reported only a decision by the assembly to add one extra year to compulsory schooling in the country, as well as a minor reshuffle in the parliament’s standing committee.

Kim took power in December last year following the death of his father Kim Jong-il. Believed to be in his late 20s, Kim has been named “the Great Successor” and North Korea’s new supreme leader.

I’m skeptical that Kim possesses the supreme power …. [Changes] are going to require a lot of players in Pyongyang to give their assent, which may be why we’re seeing a second meeting of the parliament and why we don’t have any obvious change in policy.”

– Doug Bandow, a foreign policy expert

In July, North Korea named Hyon Yong-chol as the new military chief – one day after his predecessor, Ri Yong-ho, was removed from all his posts.

The state news agency said Ri was relieved of his duties because of illness, without giving further details. Days later Kim was appointed Marshal of the Republic, the highest military rank in the country.

Inside Story asks: Is real change underway in North Korea and is Kim the man leading the way?

Joining the discussion with presenter Shakuntala Santhiran are guests: Andrew Leung, an economist and political commentator; Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute specialising in foreign policy; and Glyn Ford, a former member of the European parliament and the author of North Korea on the Brink: Struggle for Survival.

“North Korea is trying to learn from the Chinese formula starting with agricultural reform. Don’t forget that when China opened up it was through the agricultural responsibility system that later led to industrial reform. This kind of change takes time.”

Andrew Leung, an economist


  • For decades North Korean farmers were required to sell all their crops to the state, at a fixed low price, for public distribution
  • Under the new rules they would reportedly be allowed to keep half of their produce to barter or sell at their own rate
  • The move will give farmers the incentive to grow more, thus boosting productivity
  • The changes would mimic reforms in China in the 1970s and 1980s
  • According to the UN World Food programme, 1/3 of all North Koreans are malnourished. The UN has appealed to other countries to donate grain to help feed the country