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War & Peace on the Korean Peninsula

This undated picture, released from Korean Central News Agency on June 11, 2008, shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Il (L) inspecting Korean People's Army unit 958 at an undisclosed location. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

This undated picture, released from Korean Central News Agency on June 11, 2008, shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Il (L) inspecting Korean People's Army unit 958 at an undisclosed location. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

Reduced as we are to the crude application of the dwindling arts of classical Kremlinology to try and make sense of the political composition and policy orientation of the North Korean leadership, the overall conclusion seems to be that North Korea's conservative military leadership have a strong grip on political power. A recent paper by Choi Jinwook in fact suggests that the National Defence Commission itself may well be in the process of taking over from the Politburo as the highest decision making organ within the DPRK - the Party not having held a formal Party Congress since 1980, nor a plenary session of its Central Committee since December 1993, both in complete defiance of the Korean Workers' Party Constitution. But then again the North Koreans are scarcely sticklers for form.

This conservative grip on power seems also to have been reflected in policy. Starting in 1993 there had been some experimentation with domestic economic reform along the lines long advocated in Deng Xiaoping's China. This, of course, was before Kim Il Sung's death.

However, by 1996, the experiment seems to have been concluded. From that time on, we saw the abolition of a number of reformist organisations that had earlier been established within the state apparatus. And, much more critically, the purge of a number of economic reformers themselves. North Korea's only special economic zone, located in the north of the country, launched several years before with considerable public fanfare, while technically still in existence is no longer actively promoted by the regime as a central part of its future economic policy. At best, the regime appears to pay lip service to its role - in stark contrast to the Chinese experience where China's four Special Economic Zones were vigorously promoted by the entire Chinese leadership from Deng Xiaoping down. Indeed, questions that I posed while in Pyongyang about the importance of the SEZ seemed to be met by an almost embarrassed silence.

Analysts argue that some reformist elements continue to exist within the North Korean power elite - located in discrete parts of the formal apparatus of the Party and the State. If this is the case, then they were certainly kept well hidden during our visit to Pyongyang in May, although a number of those we did meet were plainly less ideologically strident than others.

The importance of the sheer physical isolation of the DPRK cannot be overstated. The absence of any sustained exposure to international news media, the absence of any regular stream of visitors from mainstream OECD economies, together with a virtual dearth of foreign investment (and the exposure to international business norms to which such investment gives rise), means that what we are dealing with is a brittle political elite presiding over a crumbling economy, reinforced by one of the most impressive security apparatuses anywhere in the world.

Of course, none of this would matter all that much if the rest of us could all be confident that the regime's military arsenal is obsolescent or that the regime itself would simply one day collapse from within. However, despite three or four years of intense economic deprivation during which time between 300,000 and 3,000,000 North Korean civilians are estimated to have died from the affects of malnutrition, and despite a period of unprecedented political instability within the DPRK as Kim Jong Il consolidated his political leadership, there is no real evidence anywhere to suggest that this regime is about to fall apart any time soon. In fact, following the conclusion of the Tenth Supreme People's Assembly last year the reverse may in fact be the case.