N. Korea revises constitution to include Kim Jong-un’s reform-oriented approach to economy

Posted on : 2019-07-12 16:27 KST Modified on : 2019-07-12 16:27 KST
Amendment shifts from party-centric collectivism to responsible management system for socialist corporations
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un ahead of the second day of the first session of North Korea‘s 14th Supreme People‘s Assembly in Pyongyang on Apr. 12. (Yonhap News)
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un ahead of the second day of the first session of North Korea‘s 14th Supreme People‘s Assembly in Pyongyang on Apr. 12. (Yonhap News)

The publication of the full text of North Korea’s constitution, which was amended back in April, reveals that language about the “Taean Work System,” its traditional party-centric method of managing the economy, has been replaced by language about the “Responsible Management System for Socialist Corporations,” which increases the autonomy of managers at production sites and introduces market elements. This creates a constitutional basis for Kim Jong-un’s reform-oriented approach to the economy. The amended constitution also adds an expression about the chairperson of the State Affairs Commission “representing the state,” which effectively constitutes a formal declaration that Kim Jong-un, as chair of the State Affairs Commission, is the “head of the state.” The constitution was amended during the first session of North Korea's 14th Supreme People's Assembly, on Apr. 11, but the full text wasn’t released to the outside world until now.

The full text of all 171 articles of North Korea’s revised “socialist constitution” was released on Naenara, a North Korean foreign propaganda outlet, on July 11. Article 33 of the constitution says that “the state shall execute the Responsible Management System for Socialist Corporations in economic management while ensuring the correct use of economic spaces such as production costs, prices, and profitability.” This replaces language in the previous version of the constitution that read, “The state shall execute a self-supporting accounting system in line with the demands of the Taean Work System while ensuring the correct use of economic spaces such as production costs, prices, and profitability.” The key change here is a shift in the state’s economic management method from the Taean Work System to the Responsible Management System for Socialist Corporations. The constitutional amendment also adds language to Article 33 about “decisively increasing the role of the cabinet” in the management of the economy.

The Taean Work System was the result of an order given by former North Korean leader Kim Il-sung during an “on-the-spot guidance” at an electrical equipment factory in Taean in December 1961. This is a method of economic management in which the ultimate authority and responsibility for managing and operating a factory lies with the party committee at the factory. This is one of the pillars of North Korea’s party-centric collectivist approach to economic management, along with the principle of uniform and detailed planning.

In contrast, Kim Jong-un has stressed the Responsible Management System for Socialist Corporations since coming to power in December 2011. The crux of this system, which was first formalized as a sub-category of the “economic management method with North Korean characteristics” during the 7th Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea in May 2016, is institutionalizing the market and harmonizing it with central planning. One way this works is by allowing businesses, once they’ve satisfied the production quota allotted by the state, to make money for themselves by manufacturing products and selling them on the market to meet demand. The addition of language to Article 32 of the revised constitution about “firmly holding to the principle of guaranteeing actual profits” creates the constitutional grounds for individual economic agents to act independently to secure their sustainability. Kim’s pet project of boosting scientific and technological knowledge among the populace was also made explicit in Article 40, while a phrase about foreign trade (“protecting credit and improving the trade structure”) was added to Article 36.

Amendment confirms Kim’s goal of economic development, regardless of sanctions

“The deletion of the Taean Work System from the constitution and its replacement by the Responsible Management System for Socialist Corporations is a major change, both symbolically and substantively. This means that Kim Jong-un intends to maintain and bolster his reformist stance in economic policy even if sanctions continue in the long term,” said Yang Mun-su, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies and an expert on the North Korean economy.

In addition, Article 100 of the revised constitution now says, “The chairperson of the State Affairs Commission of the DPRK is the DPRK’s supreme leader, the person who represents the state.” The final phrase (“the person who represents the state”) was added to this section, which previously said, “The chairperson of the State Affairs Commission of the DPRK is the DPRK’s supreme leader.” In short, the chair of the State Affairs Commission is the head of state.

However, Article 116 of the revised constitution retains language in the previous version (Article 117) that states, “The president of the presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly shall accept credentials and summonses from the envoys of other countries as the representative of the state.” According to the revised constitution, that is, there are two individuals who “represent the state”: the chair of the State Affairs Commission and the president of the presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly. In effect, the constitution accounts for the current reality in North Korea, in which Kim Jong-un, as chair of the State Affairs Commission, is the de facto head of state, while Choe Ryong-hae, as president of the presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly, is the ceremonial head of state, with limited responsibility in such areas as diplomatic protocol.

While the amended constitution deleted language from the preface about “songun politics” and “songun ideology” (songun meaning “military first”), it retained language about “a country with strong political ideology,” “a nuclear weapons state,” and “a strong country with an unrivaled military.”

“This revised constitution is transitional in nature. When the negotiations with the US are finally concluded, the final version of the state envisioned by Kim Jong-un will be codified in the constitution,” said a former high-ranking official in the South Korean government.

By Lee Je-hun, senior staff writer

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