[Column] North Korean munitions factories now used for economic development, Kim Jong-un’s shift from military-first to economy-building is clearly demonstrated

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North Korean leader Kim Jong-un makes a speech on Feb. 8, the 71st anniversary of the establishment of the North Korean military, at the Ministry of People‘s Armed Forces. (Yonhap News)

If the North Korean munitions factories meant for weapon production were being used to make agricultural or construction machinery, could we believe it? It’s difficult to imagine.The first image that comes to mind when we think of North Korea is a belligerent military. The North Korea we have known to date is a state that prioritizes its military, a garrison state that espouses a Songun (“military first”) policy approach. North Korea’s military has grown abnormally large amid its longstanding antagonisms with the South and the US. Weapon production at its munitions factories has become sacred ground, an area that cannot be stopped under any circumstances. It has been impossible to imagine such a North Korea using its munitions factories to produce goods for the people’s economy rather than tanks or cannons. This would signify a fundamental change in what we know primarily as a military state.

Yet this unbelievable development is actually coming to pass. Looking back on 2018 in his New Year’s address in January, leader Kim Jong-un declared, “The munitions industry, in hearty response to our Party’s militant call for concentrating all efforts on economic construction, produced a variety of farm machinery, construction equipment, cooperative products and consumer goods, thereby giving an impetus to economic development and the improvement of the people’s living standards.” He was praising the factories for producing items for development of the national economy, rather than weapons.He also called for the industry’s support in developing the private economy, declaring it as a task for 2019 to “on the one hand, steadily raise the national defense capacity to that of the world’s advanced countries” and “on the other [. . .] actively support economic construction.

” Showing a level of enlightenment that had experts questioning their own ears, Kim’s pronouncement shows that North Korea’s munitions factories have, for the first time in their history, been subordinated to development of the people’s economy. This marks a change in the priorities of North Korean national strategy.The munitions industry is not the only place this is happening. Recently, the focus for the North Korean military has been on its playing the role of “vanguard” for national economic development, serving to “create miracles and great achievements” rather than training to intensify combat capabilities.

The military’s slogan has become “let us assume responsibility both for protecting the fatherland and for building the socialist economy.”During a visit to the Ministry of People’s Armed Forces on Feb. 8 for the 71st anniversary of the People’s Army’s establishment, Kim Jong-un summoned together the leaders of its corps, divisions, and brigades to tell them, “People’s Army must play its role strongly in what will be a pivotal year in executing the five-year strategy for national economic development.

”Under a supposedly “military-first state” model, unimaginable things are taking place in North Korea today. To be sure, these developments are measures to bolster the success of the national strategy, which was shifted in April 2018 from the parallel development of nuclear weapons and the economy to the full-scale concentration of resources on economic development.Weakened stature of North Korean military under Kim Jong-un regimeWhat we should take note of, however, is that the new currents in North Korea’s defense sector also spell a shift in internal power relations and a weakened stature for the North Korean military.

By dramatically weakening an overgrown military in the interests of shifting the military-first governance focus and channeling energies into economic development, Kim has created an environment where the military can exist as a docile presence, even when weapon factories are being used to produce farming equipment.Kim Jong-un appears to have come to the conclusion that his vision of a normal state centering on the party and Cabinet, and of accelerated economic growth though a focus of national capacities on economic development, cannot be achieved without laying to rest the legacy of the Kim Jong-il era’s “military-first” policies, which responded to extreme economic hardship and isolation in diplomatic and security terms by assigning military pride in place of the state and society. Since coming to power, he has repeatedly purged the military of “Songun-era” officials invested with excessive authority and influence and brought in new figures in their stead; he has forcibly demoted officials as a way of reining in “grade inflation” in the military, with its grand marshals, marshals, vice marshals, and generals.By Feb.

2016, Kim had created a system where the military was utterly obedient to the Workers’ Party of Korea. Consequently, the North Korean military of today is no longer exercising a leading role over the party, state, and society, but exists simply as a unit acting on the WPK’s directions. Even when the military is assigned a large role in economic development, it is purely as a means of implementing the policies of the party and leader.

The measures Kim Jong-un has taken to remove authority from the military are evident in the shifting stature of its command within the WPK-led politburo. Over the past decades, the People’s Army Political Bureau director – the figure occupying the highest position in the People’s Army command hierarchy – has traditionally been appointed a member of the politburo’s presidium. As recently as a year and a half ago, the Political Bureau director was a presidium member, while the Chief of the General Staff and Minister of People’s Armed Forces were members of the politburo. Currently, all of these key command officials hold the status of politburo “candidate members.”

Lee Jong-seok, former Unification Minister

In the final analysis, the fact that North Korea’s weapon factories are producing agricultural equipment signifies an attempt to declare an end to military-first policies and the garrison state. It also shows that Kim Jong-un is moving beyond the prevailing practices of achieving the defense and development of the North Korean regime by reinforcing military stretch, attempting instead to achieve it through economic advancement and international security cooperation. From this, we can gather that his commitment to denuclearization is not a matter of tactical deception, but a strategic concept in conjunction with changes in the approach to national development.By Lee Jong-seok, former Unification Minister and senior researcher at the Sejong InstitutePlease direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]