Friday, February 12, 2010

North Korea's 'Great Apology': A Slowly Collapsing State?

Kim Yong-il
Premier of North Korea
(Image from One Free Korea)

Readers will remember some recent posts on North Korea's great currency debacle, which triggered both economic and social chaos -- and gave rise to actual protests by ordinary people, a thing unprecedented in the North.

The problems, and especially the protests, have triggered something else unprecedented for the North, a public climbdown and abject apology by the government, voiced by Premier Kim Yong-il, a rather significant, remarkable event since the man is officially the third most powerful figure in the regime's "power hierarchy after autocratic leader Kim Jong Il and Kim Yong Nam, president of the Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly," according to reporter Kim Hyung-jin, writing as an AP newswriter for the Washington Post in his article "NKorea's premier apologizes over currency revamp" (February 10, 2010).

As premier, Kim Yong-il is responsible for economic policy, so he's certainly the logical choice to make an apology, but the buck really stops upstairs where it started, with Kim Jong-il, as the people in the North certainly realize, so when the premier apologizes, we know what that means: blame shifting by 'infallible' leader Kim Jong-il. Here's the regime's 'sincere' apology, articulated by Premier Kim Yong-il:
"Regarding the currency reform, I sincerely apologize as we pushed ahead with it without a sufficient preparation so that it caused a big pain to the people."
The significance of this is that the pressure of public opinion has finally forced the North's government into a very public climbdown and apologetic promise to reverse some policies. People will again be allowed to use foreign currency and trade in private markets. More important than the specific details are the ramifications, as Joshua Stanton points out in his blog entry on this issue, "North Korean Premier Apologizes for Great Confiscation," over at his fine blog, One Free Korea:
[I]n a system where power is a zero-sum commodity, for the first time, people fought the system and lived to fight again. To a lot of people used to being under the heel of absolute power, an apology is going to look like weakness. It will invite more challenges.
I think Joshua is right, though where this will lead is anybody's guess, for so much depends upon China, which has an interest in not allowing North Korea to fail . . . though the Chinese government would perhaps be happy to be rid of the Kim family that rules the North and be able to deal with a government in the North more oriented to economic reform.

But times are certainly getting interesting on the Korean peninsula.

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