In 1948 an election was held in US occupied Korea under the dominant influence of the reactionary leader Syngman Rhee. The elections were marred with violence and were subsequently described as unsatisfactory by many international observers. For the next two years, Syngman Rhee consolidated his strongman rule by violently repressing ever more frequent popular rebellions against his rule. Then on June 25th 1950, the forces of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) crossed the border in attempts to aid the fraternal freedom fighters in the South. This was the beginning of what Pyongyang calls The Fatherland Liberation War and what is more widely known as the Korean War.
During the course of the war, every major DPRK town and city was destroyed but nevertheless, the DPRK was able to preserve its existence and recover from the war with remarkable speed. While South Korea is today the more materially wealthy of the two Korean states, it was not until the 1970s that Seoul broadly overtook Pyongyang in terms of overall development.
Today marks the 70th anniversary of the founding of the DPRK by Kim Il-sung and while the Korean peninsula remains divided, a greater impetus for reconciliation exists today than at any previous era of post-Armistice Korean relations. The present inter-Korean peace process which will see South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in travel to Pyongyang later this month for further meetings with Kim Jong-un will represent another major step forward in a process which aims to secure the signing of a peace treaty to formally end the war in Korea.
It is against this backdrop the festivities which took place in Pyongyang to mark the 70th anniversary of statehood tended to emphasis peace, Korean unity and advanced economic development more so than in previous years where the themes of resistance and military readiness were more heavily stressed. DPRK parliamentary leader Kim Yong-nam opened the day’s celebration with a speech centred around the themes of peace through prosperity. After his remarks the DPRK leader Kim Jong-un took his seat and watched a lengthy parade beside Chinese envoy Li Zhanshu, the Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress.
While the parade featured highly choreographed and precise marching routines, patriotic music displays, tanks, multiple flyovers and missiles, notably absent were the intercontinental ballistic missiles that were proudly displaced in previous parades. This along with the rhetorical emphasis on economic development and cultural unity has been interpreted as a sign that as part of the ongoing peace process, the militarily defiant nature of past parades has given way to a demonstration of strength combined with a broader olive branch.
Shortly after the Singapore Summit in June of this year when Kim Jong-un became the first DPRK leader to meet with a sitting US President, visitors to Pyongyang began noticing that public artworks depicting anti-Seoul and anti-American images were being rapidly replaced with public art emphasising Korean solidarity, hard work and peace.
North Korean propaganda changes its tune!
This poster calls for an easing of tension to counter "the danger of war" pic.twitter.com/GWxheFG3yz
— Breaking News (@Breakin67275821) June 22, 2018
With imagines of doves replacing images of missiles and images of barbed wire being steamrolled replacing imagines of DPRK warriors slaying enemy soldiers, it has become clear that the DPRK’s government has been preparing the people to psychologically embrace what Kim Jong-un called a “new era” during his Singapore meeting with Donald Trump.
While literally dealing with symbolism, the replacing of old anti-American art with new pro-peace and pro-cooperation images is more than just symbolic. It instead hints at a new official mentality that Pyongyang’s leadership seeks to convey to its people. The message overtly suggests that an atmosphere of openness and optimism for the future has replaced decades of mistrust, caution and anger.
If the DPRK somehow planned not to fulfil its commitments to peace, openness and de-nuclearisation as some have suspected, there would be no reason for the country’s authorities to so rapidly change the nature of public political art. Instead, the rapid change of tone as conveyed in official symbolism is indicative of a wholesale reformation of public discourse in the country. Furthermore, this shift is clearly reflective of the new mentality among the nation’s political leadership.
Today’s parade replete with speeches shying away from the issues surrounding militarism and the notable absence of nuclear capable missiles makes it clear that the commitment to peace that the DPRK has repeatedly emphasised is genuine and forms a key component of the nation’s future political and geopolitical trajectory. But while public symbolism is an important indicator of the official mentality of the DPRK’s leadership, the statements from and clear long term developmental goals of Kim Jong-un also indicate that the contemporary focus of Pyongyang is on economic progress rather than military confrontation.
Under the leadership of Kim Jong-un, the DPRK’s generally under-reported economic expansion, infrastructural boom and improvements to social infrastructure have made it clear that the country’s young leader has pursued reformist measures in the domestic sphere even before embarking on an historic peace process with South Korea and the United States. In spite of sanctions, the DPRK economy has widely expanded in recent years and the medium term goal of lifting sanctions in-line with the peace process has lead to Kim thinking about the next steps that should be taken to improve the material condition of the people.
One of the biggest breakthroughs in industry in the last decade has been the increased automation of factories through the use of robotics informed by artificial intelligence (AI). China is fast becoming a pioneer in both as the Made in China 2025 drive along with President Xi Jinping’s desire to pivot the country’s industrial base towards AI and away from manual labour looks to open up new avenues of entrepreneurialism as part of the wider Created in China project.
Crucially, unlike in neo-liberal economic systems where an increase in robotics tends to lead to unemployment in otherwise well paid industrial workforces, under the Chinese market-socialist model, the profits generated by the human hand or by a robotic hand will ultimately be re-invested into the same sources, namely public infrastructure, housing, education, health, culture and further industrial research and development.
In this respect, the Chinese model is well-equipped not only to effectively manage the coming AI/robotics revolution in industry but it is able to rapidly take advantage of this by opening up new opportunities for a workforce whose future vocations will be aided by the profits generated by machines. As Kim Jong-un has already introduced some rudimentary economic reforms which hint at an early stage pivot towards a Juche version of the Chinese Market Socialist model, it is only natural that Kim should look to the robotics/AI revolution as a means of modernising the DPRK’s industrial infrastructure and in so doing, pave the way for a radically different economic future for his nation.
During a very recent tour of a factory in Sinuiju near the Chinese border, Kim Jong-un stated,
“It is important to completely eliminate manual labour and modernise production processes”
The clear implication behind this statement is that Kim looks to emulate China’s forward looking automated drive and duplicated it in his own nation. Seeing as the DPRK has a much smaller population than China, it is now conceivable that over the next decade, the DPRK’s industrial economy could become among the most highly automated in the world.
Without having to gradually modernise the country’s industrial infrastructure, the leadership in Pyongyang can instead set an agenda for a wholesale change in the country’s industrial development, one which aims at fully automating all existing and future factories based on the latest, most sustainable technologies. As a revitalised partnership with China looks set to expand as the current peace process continues, there is every possibility that the use of Chinese technology combined with home-grown research could help to make the DPRK a future economic pioneer – thus representing a radical departure from the current state of affairs where North Korean industry tends to lack the technological innovations present in South Korea, China and Japan.