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Social Change, North Korea’s Transition, and the U.S. - North Korea Summit

Photo credit: Kim Won-Jin | AFP | Getty Images

Following the breakdown of talks at the North Korea - U.S. Summit in Hanoi, the communicative flow between Pyongyang and Washington concerning denuclearization, dialogue, and the door of diplomacy appears to have opened. However, the situation faced by Kim Jong-un and Trump in Korea is far from simple. While the domestic criticism faced by both sides at the Hanoi Summit encouraged the hope that compromise and negotiation would prevail, after the collapse of talks between Pyongyang and Washington, discussions surrounding denuclearization appears connected to domestic concerns, and is likely to be complicated moving forward. Before, there was the opportunity for both sides to recognize their mutual needs internally and externally. However, while things appear positive, the continuing exchange of words by each party appears to resemble a lecturing situation. This continuation of tabled negotiations should be cause for concern.

Some believe that “because the U.S. and North Korea are so far away, this time the door for dialogue will not close”, and that “President Moon’s role as helmsman will be further strengthened.” Ongoing discussion at the time cautiously predicted that any written agreement would not be sustained. Differing sources at the time advanced the story that North Korea must be more proactive than the U.S. in the ongoing bilateral dialogue. The reason given is that North Korea’s role in the international community and its transition into a “normal nation” made Pyongyang’s foreign policy status quo unsustainable in the face of social change and variables within North Korean society. This may be the results of globalization over the last decade in North Korea. While North Korea is a secluded country, it is known that its status as a socialist state has long since lost its relevance, that partial adoption of market systems known as ‘jangmadang’ has precluded a complete adoption of free markets and helped to overcome crises surrounding national governance. There are many North Koreans who are looking forward to market development, with many Workers Party cadres looking to accumulate wealth through them. Predictions indicate that the resulting proliferation of an elite class is contributing to social changes throughout North Korean society.

Among the theories explaining such social movements is the ‘Relative Deprivation’ theory posited in 1970 by Ted Gurr. Under relative deprivation, the ‘perceived disparity’ between ‘value expectation’ and ‘value ability’ is the catalyst and cause of social movements. Where a state of absolute poverty exists in society, the reasons behind circumstances where the inability of a revolution to arise, and result in a transition out of absolute poverty. This leads to a situation where the value expectations are large, but the ability to satisfy such expectations cannot be met in the process. Here materializes three stages of deprivation under relative deprivation. Where the value expectations of a group remain relatively constant, ‘decremental deprivation’ arises when one feels they have lost the value ability. Where the public aspiration level increases, the value ability remains at a certain level, and people are not able to meet their new expectations – ‘aspirational deprivation’ occurs as the people feel angry following a sudden socio-economic recession. Where there experiences a sudden gap between the expectations and abilities of people, ‘progressive deprivation,’ the feelings of anger experienced, constitute the theory of relative deprivation.

If you consider those who have benefited and accumulated wealth in the process of North Korea’s governance crisis, these people have easier access to power than ordinary citizens. The relatively simple depreciation theory can appear as a result of complaints from these citizens. That is, the circumstance can be explained by the relative deprivation between the ordinary citizens and elites of North Korea. However, relative deprivation between the elites and ordinary citizens can not lead to social change. While a socialist state does not work where it is not able to provide ‘boiled rice and beef soup’ to its citizens, and North Korea has a history of sustaining societal power in circumstances of crisis and absolute poverty, this prediction does not appear convincing. This theory of relative deprivation can be explained as the division between the ordinary citizens and the elites - departing from the idea of division and separation within the elites.

The theory that North Korea will become increasingly desperate as they continue their negotiations with the U.S. requires explanation, as North Korea has long ago lost the ability to enact capitalist and market reforms on a national level due to its status with the international community. However, North Korea has already been affected by a wave of globalization. Its government is not only in touch with contemporary culture, but in fact North Korea has a new governmental developmental model which has overcome its crises. However North Korea’s unprecedented development of newly emerging partial market models is not immune to collapse. The reason lies within China’s deteriorating position within the power confrontation between itself and the U.S. and China. If a situation arises in which China does not sacrifice its opposition to America’s status as the global superpower to protect North Korea, then North Korea’s self-sufficiency, including its newly formed Jangmadang market model, will be threatened. If this is the case, then only those who have accumulated wealth will be able to survive.

The social factors which give rise to relative deprivation are those which raise expectations, and those that determine value capability. When trade is stopped and sanctions strengthened by states which have accumulated their capital as a result of international trade, domestic dissatisfactions arise within regimes unable to afford sanctions. Those in North Korea who accumulate capital through capitalism and seizure have committed themselves and their families to their ability to provide in the future, and will face despair and anger when inequitable sanctions reduce their opportunities. The erroneous policies of the North Korean government and its leaders mean that their ability to sustain the lives of their citizens in the future is diminished. Their degree of anger is real and can be directed against North Korea’s leadership and system. The spread of 6 million mobile phones across North Korea and 20% of the population accessing the internet creates the ideal conditions within which discontented sentiments can rapidly spread like an infection. North Korea is already transforming into a governance structure and undergoing new market experiences that force it to consume a lot of fuel, while exposure and experiences of foreign cultures have resulted in social changes.

What North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and the upper elites are concerned about are unsuccessful reforms or failures, where the growth of the government brings about an era of change and revolution which results in the collapse of the regime. This phenomenon poses a more serious risk than external threats. In fact, it appears virtually impossible to survive through any means except the new road of reform and economic growth, and the sanctions targeting North Korea and its elite have made economic growth essential factors in the well-being of the regime. If so, what does this enable? Perhaps North Korea – U.S. dialogue will stop or backslide. North Korea appears more desperate than Trump and the U.S. and can become more aggressive. The fact that North Korea removed its missile launchers at the Tongch'ang-dong Space Launch Center can be interpreted as the leadership holding out their hands to opening talks regarding sanctions. Realistically, North Korea may also choose to return to the past. North Korea possesses strong self-esteem and may choose annihilation in order to protect its pride – this being the most dangerous scenario. Because to give up everything is a matter of survival for North Korea, accepting when North Korea feels that trust is breaking would be a difficult card to read. Overcoming internal opposition from hardliners makes it difficult for leaders to find the correct answer.

The U.S. holds the key to easily solving this issue by spreading its influence worldwide. From the American perspective, complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization (CVID) is inevitable. If that is so, can allowing North Korea to retain its pride bring them back to negotiations? For the time being, the choices are limited. It is necessary to prepare an answer which can satisfy both the U.S. and North Korea.

***The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the opinions of NKR or Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies.

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