In a recent photo-montage of DPRK Leader Kim Jong-un’s recent visit to a farm in Sindo County that was first broadcast on domestic television, the head of state was photographed in the back seat of a compact Russian Lada car – a far cry from the large, ultra-modern Mercedes-Benz limousine that Kim has been chauffeured in during recent talks with both South Korean President Moon Jae-in and US President Donald Trump.
While the humble Lada known more for its durability and low-cost than anything approximating luxury is an unusual car for any head of state, the message Kim sent to the world by getting in the back of the Lada was very clear.
While the US has promised to ease sanctions on the DPRK once the de-nuclearisation process is complete, Washington officials have made it clear that no sanctions relief will come in the interim period in spite of the signs of good will which seemed apparent when Trump and Kim met face to face last month in Singapore.
While Russia and China have made their positions clear that they feel it is perfectly reasonable to begin a gradual sanctions relief process now, as was fully expected, the US is waiting to have the final say in the matter and crucially can is UN Security Council veto to bolster its position. In spite of this, it nevertheless seems as though a global lifting of sanctions on the DPRK is now a matter of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’.
While the prospect of opening the DPRK economy to the wider world was a clear motivation behind Pyongyang’s recent instigation of the current peace process. The country nevertheless remains proud of its ability to operate and continue to reform and modernise a functional socialist economy without the kinds of investment from the outside world that other countries have sought and received.
When contrasted with the nadir of the DPRK’s economic standing in the 1990s, Kim Jong-un’s time in power has seen the largely successful implementation domestic economic reforms which indicate Kim’s inclination for a version of China’s market socialist system with Korean characteristics. Likewise, the era of Kim Jong-un has seen a marked growth in the DPRK’s economy in spite of general geo-economic isolation. Likewise, the building of new infrastructure, particularly in Pyongyang has generally been seen as one of the most visible successes of the Kim Jong-un era thus far.
While the DPRK can clearly benefit from both fresh inward investment and new interconnectivity initiatives with its neighbours, the country also refuses to hide its record of recent economic success in spite of seemingly insurmountable odds.
It is for this reason that Kim was photographed getting into and riding in the back of a quintessentially socialist ‘every man’s car’ at a time when the DPRK may be on the verge of new economic avenues which could eventually make old Lada vehicles a thing of the past.
In this sense, Kim’s choice of ride was a symbolic statement that could be read as: ‘We’re on the verge of a new era of peace through prosperity but even if we were not, we can still get by with what we have’. This statement in no way seeks to undermine the potential for a new era in the DPRK, but nevertheless is an important signal that far from surrendering the socialist roots and traditions of Kim Il-Sung, the DPRK like China before it simply planning on building upon its history by embracing reforms that are in-line with its deeply cherished cultural characteristics.