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Prior to yesterday’s landmark Korea summit, Kim Jong-un announced that North Korea would stop launching missiles and halt its reactor tests, instead shifting its focus to economic growth. Amid all the talk of denuclearization, that line went broadly unnoticed.
If Kim is serious about building North Korea’s economy, Deng Xiaoping would be the most telling example. He followed Mao Zedong as China’s supreme leader and ushered a series of market-oriented reforms starting in 1978, lifting his country out of industrial backwardness and onto the global stage.
Truly following the Chinese model would be quite visionary for someone as young as Kim, who is between 34 and 36, depending on who you believe. He rules an isolated state that he inherited from his grandfather. In all likelihood, with his yachts and private islands, Kim has not experienced any personal hardship due to the decisions of his family.
Deng, by contrast, was 74 years old when he assumed power. It came after a lifetime of turmoil that included having his eldest son thrown out of the window of a four-story building at the height of the Cultural Revolution, leaving him paralyzed. Deng was very familiar with the suffering his party’s policies inflicted on his people.
If Kim was to attempt to follow in Deng’s footsteps, he would have to embark on a system of massive economic change like the so-called Four Modernizations, a huge undertaking to transform China’s agriculture, science, and technology sectors to put the country on par with the West. Deng gave power to individuals, not knowing whether it would work, to “cross the river by feeling the stones.”
North Korea is still a command economy, and a war economy at that. It has an annual GDP of around $1,700 per person, roughly a tenth of China’s. Any attempts to integrate it into the world’s economy would be even more risky than what China tried.
Following Deng’s reforms would also involve doing what North Korea’s leadership has never done: admit it can be wrong. Almost immediately on taking power in 1977, Deng allowed the criticism of the Cultural Revolution and the disastrous Great Leap Forward, famously saying that Mao was “70% right and 30% wrong.”
North Korea has an analogous disaster—조선기근, or the Arduous March, a state-induced famine in the 1990s that killed up to 10% of the population (paywall). But it’s impossible to imagine Kim repeating that phrase, or ever allowing anyone to blame his father for that nightmare in public.
Then again, it was impossible only a few months ago to imagine Kim eating cold noodles with South Korea’s leader, all warm smiles and handshakes, or to imagine him sitting down with a US president at a meeting of equals.—Kabir Chibber (with contributions from Zheping Huang)
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Our best wishes for a relaxing but thought-filled weekend. Please send any news, comments, robot boyfriends, and space food to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow us on Twitter here for updates throughout the day, or download our apps for iPhone and Android. Today’s Weekend Brief was edited by Kira Bindrim and Kabir Chibber.