While the terms juche (spirit of self-reliance) and songun (military first) are relatively well-known to a broad audience, a fresh concept that has taken shape under the young North Korea leader is a novelty. Let’s take the opportunity now to fill the reader’s possible gap in knowledge by trying to briefly explain the meaning of the new term ‘byungjin’ which can be translated as ‘parallel development’.
First, a little history lesson. The period between 1995 and 98 was an ‘arduous march’ for North Korea when natural disasters and famine were followed by formal anarchy, since Kim Jong-il observed the mourning for his father. A state of emergency required extraordinary measures, culminating in the policy of ‘military first’. In his book “The Line of the Songun revolution – it is a great revolutionary line of our era, the conquering banner of our revolution”, Kim Jong-il officially transcribed this concept as “methods of revolutionary leadership and management of socialist policies that involve considering military matters to be the most important state affair and allowing citizens to protect their homeland, revolution, socialism, and increasing the pace of construction of socialism in general by relying on the inherent revolutionary traits of the People’s Army’.
What were the reasons for the new course? The author has in mind an analogy with the activities of Y.V. Andropov, who was going to stop the degeneration of the administrative-command system and solve structural problems through limited development of the economy coupled with the strengthening of labor discipline and ideological control. However, while the former Chairman of the KGB USSR tried to rely primarily on KGB staff, the Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army, Kim Jong-il, decided to rely on the military. There were several reasons for doing so.
First, the North Korean military, especially the officer corps belong to the elite. For all the lack of material resources, a considerable part of them is directed at the needs of the army, focused on critical areas. Perhaps because of this North Korea continued to maintain its military industry, military education and science at a fairly high level, and representatives of the army personnel were aware of the situation in the world. Therefore they had a better understanding of the urgent need to bring the country out of the crisis as quickly as possible.
Second, for a long time now the North Korean army has been engaged in economic activities. In the face of a deteriorating economy the army had been increasingly used for plugging holes in industry, construction and agriculture. This hardly contributed to improving North Korea’s combat readiness, but it also meant that its representatives have experience in “civil” administrative activity and due to this fact they were less likely to be incompetent than the military randomly thrown into managing the economy without necessary training.
Third, in contrast to the civil party elite “infected with doublethink and materialism”, the army was able to almost completely avoid all these defects or in any case was hit by them to a much lesser extent. The military, especially in areas less burdened by personal property, is capable of living, to put it in North Korean terminology, a public, not private life. Moral incentives for them still play a more important role unlike for the bureaucracy which has ‘lost its revolutionary spirit’. This seemed very important, since the fall of the Soviet Union, according to the North Korean press, did not take place because of economic backwardness, but rather it can attributed to the expansion of bourgeois ideology.
Fourth, it is easier to control a military structure rather than a civil one. The military methods are characterized by a clear system of subordination with a smaller intermediate in the decision making process. In North Korea there is no such thing as simultaneously submitting to multiple same-level authorities often issuing conflicting orders, but rather a strict system of personal responsibility is in operation and there is a specific order from a superior officer that most certainty must be executed.
In addition, military personnel starting to play an active role in politics in a sense has changed the appearance of the regime: the army dictatorship (as interpreted by the West) seems to be more understandable and easier to interact with than a communist dictatorship of the ‘internal party’ or a government dominated by the special services.
But almost 20 years have passed since then. Much has changed. First, the generation of leaders has changed. Many young supervisors and middle managers have taken the reigns and this is less relevant for Kim Jong-un. The new generation is made up of people with a slightly different background. Second, although problems remain, North Korea has adopted a set of measures to develop the economy, and the amount of food needed, which North Korea receives as humanitarian aid, is reducing every year. Third, nuclear and missile programs have already developed to a level where they cannot be ignored when planning military action against the country.
In addition, one can make note of a certain degeneration of the military elite. While the first steps of songun resembled Andropov-like attempts to create a healthier society, relying on military discipline and less dependence on material goods, during Kim Jong- il’s time at the helm the military has managed civil society for so long that they have picked up all the advantages and disadvantages of civil servants. In addition, the need for emergency measures began to wane.
One can also draw attention to the fact that the young leader quickly changed the top military leadership. A heated debate broke out in the Defense Committee about what to do if a fatal crop failure happens again. The military offered to tighten spending similar to the “arduous march”, and the young Kim seemed to oppose such actions. This will ultimately undermine the masses’ confidence in the government because it will be the second time when it is forcing its citizens to survive and get out of this bind on their own. Now the country is completely different and has different people. It’s time to look for other solutions.
Be that as it may, the first characteristic of byungjin is the established balance between civilian and military forces as party structures have become more powerful, really squeezing out the Kim Jong-il’s dominant military. Joong Ang Ilbo, a South Korean newspaper, reports research conducted by a parliament member, Yoon Sang-Hyun, from the ruling party called Senuri. He analyzed the involvement of the most influential figures in the North Korean elite with different groups of power. “At present, 25 of the 30 most influential politicians in North Korea hold positions in the Political Bureau of the Central Committee,” – said Yong, while under the late Kim Jong -il, only 8 held posts in the party.
According to Rossiyskaya Gazeta, Kim Jong-un brought his own large team to the Political Bureau of the Central Committee, a number of figures from the party were appointed to key positions in the army to maintain control over the military, which began to be “pushed back” from the controls and making money off of currency abroad. The practice of holding regular congresses and other meetings within the party structures has been resumed, including at the lowest levels. Amendments adopted to the Party Constitution and the Constitution of the Political Bureau of North Korea in the last few years have given the party new powers.
It would be a mistake, however, to juxtapose the party and the army. In the same way as songun gave priority to not just the military (but to military bureaucrats too) over civilians in general, and Party officials, today, Kim Jong-un is correcting the situation. The military will engage in military affairs, while civilians will perform civilian tasks.
Usually byungjin has been translated as “parallel strategy” when Pyongyang is trying to achieve economic growth while increasing nuclear arsenals. Officially the new policy means just that. According to the North Korean leader, the strategic party line will be to “simultaneously carry out both economic reconstruction and strengthening in the quality and quantity of military nuclear power for self-defense“.
Heading for parallel development of the economy and a nuclear program may seem strange, but in fact it is necessary to remember that in North Korea the threat of military intervention is seen as being very real, and the strengthening of military capabilities is believed to be necessary. However, the overall balance of forces dictates an unexpected asymmetrical response compared to the global rearmament of the army with conventional weapons. Investing in the nuclear industry is much cheaper than in conventional weapons, especially as the level of high technology is spreading. Neither South Korea, nor especially the United States are capable of catching up with the volume of North Korean investments in high tech. But this nuclear shield allows North Korea to engage more resources in other sectors of the economy whose problems the authorities do not seek to address, but rather they put them on par with measures to ensure the security and sovereignty of the country.
Note that such “parallel construction” is perceived as a developmental course for the simultaneous development of economic construction and defense of the 1960s, which was made a reality by Kim Il- Sung and Kim Jong -il – “Keep your weapon in one hand, and a hammer and sickle in the other!”
Informally byungjin is understand to be some recognition of the phenomenon which in the works of some Russian scholars on the East is called the “parallel economy”. The system created by Kim Il -Sung showed the wonders of endurance, but its lifespan is almost exhausted, and the North Korean elite is looking for other more modern options for the development of their country. The scale of the changes and differences from the canonical models of the 1980s in contemporary North Korean society is such that since 2003 the majority of historians agree that the ideal dystopia there is long gone, and it is a “natural death of Stalinism” or “creeping perestroika “(a term coined by me in articles written in 2004-2005).
The daily life of the average North Korean is poorly visible from the outside, but if propaganda horror stories are not taken at face value, but rather interviews of experts are considered, a situation emerges in which the difference between a totalitarian form and its real content is much higher than in the Soviet Union in the years of perestroika. Illegal economic relations permeate the whole society, a significant number of state-owned enterprises are in fact private, officials and security forces are the not the ones supporting illegal economy activity, but they are the actual businessmen themselves. However, technically all of these structures exist illegally, and occasionally they fall under the repression of those who have become overindulgent, or those who have tried, while abroad, to go into politics.
The mechanism of the relationship of the “new Koreans“ with the authorities is similar to the military and financial industrial groups in the south under Park Chung-hee, although what happened in the South in the interaction between business and government in the North takes place in the framework of cooperation between business and a government structure. The government provides the “capitalist “with a most favorable environment, and the former in response executes a strategic task of this structure and shares the profits.
As noted by respondents who recently visited Pyongyang, ‘primitive accumulation of capital’ is in full swing. City residents are better dressed, expensive restaurants have appeared as well as new shops selling foreign-made goods from Argentina to Singapore (although mainly from China). New blocks of apartment buildings in Pyongyang are virtually indistinguishable from Busan ones. Both qualified employees and residents of demolished houses that have been in this place before live in these new houses. There are a lot of local products on the market and the “requisitioning replacement tax in kind” has led to the fact that the economy began to intensify for the sake of personal gain. There is even an association of Chinese and European businessmen.
The feeling that unofficially it is allowed ‘to become richer’ is what one can call the third dimension of byungjin. The parallel economy remains officially unrecognized, but it is developing alongside with the official one.
Thus, formally and informally, the new course of the young North Korean leader can be defined by three variants of “parallel”:
• Parallel development of military and civilian / party branches;
• Parallel development of military and civilian branches of the economy – ensuring sovereignty at the expense of the nuclear shield;
• Parallel development of the formal and informal economy.
Will this course be successful and how successfully will it establish and maintain a balance — only time can tell, but what is important is that as in the case of the last transfer of power, North Korea is not staying the same, as it is constantly changing and looking for new ways for development.
Konstantin Asmolov, Candidate of Historical Science, Senior Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies, Institute for Far Eastern Studies, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.