Growth of ‘knowledge economy’ in the Kim Jong Un era

Institute for Far Eastern Studies (IFES)

According to a report published by the Science and Technology Policy Institute (STEPI), since the beginning of his rule, Kim Jong Un has clarified the ‘knowledge economy’ as important as he actively restructures the science and technology system, promotes the high-tech industry, expands education, and boosts the morale of scientists and technicians.

The report, entitled ‘Changes and Implications of the Science and Technology Policy in the Kim Jong Un Era,’ noted that in contrast with the extensive purging of key officials like Jang Song Thaek and Hyon Yong Chol, North Korea’s scientific world has received considerable preferential treatment and is heading the development of the North Korean-style ‘knowledge economy.’

Since coming to power, Kim has pursued a number of projects favoring scientists, including Unha Scientists Street, Wisong Scientists Residential District, and Mirae (‘Future’) Scientists Street. He has also provided private housing to teaching faculty at Kim Il Sung University and Kim Chaek University of Technology.

As a result, more and more researchers are receiving significantly more than just their salaries. At the same time, North Korea is restructuring the R&D system, establishing research centers, extending on-site support for production, and creating for-profit companies.

The report also explained that the regime is continuing efforts pursued during the Kim Jong Il regime, such as the five-year technological development plan, the expansion of computer numerical control (CNC), and the use of the Internet. As it does so, it is pushing forward new endeavors like the establishment of the ‘Science and Technology Hall,’ cyber education, cyber healthcare, and the expansion of electronic payments. Thus, it is improving the level of informatization in North Korea.

“Like the science and technology-centered politics of Kim Jong Il, the Kim Jong Un regime has stressed science and technology in its pursuit of a knowledge economy because it recognizes the importance of this field in building a strong nation and solving the energy and food problems facing the country,” the report claimed.

In particular, around the 60th anniversary of North Korea’s National Academy of Science in December 2012, the regime embarked on an extensive reorganization of the academy. Major targets of the reorganization included the biotechnology and energy fields (critical fields to solving the food issue); high-tech fields like information technology (IT), nanotechnology, and automation; as well as the environmental sector and high-return sector.

In addition, in the beginning of 2015 North Korea dissolved its top software development agency, Korea Computer Center (KCC), leaving only the organization that develops the ‘Red Star’ computer operating system and reorganizing the whole agency as a profitmaking organization. Moreover, in the 4th Five-Year Plan (2013-2017) for scientific and technological development, solving the food and energy issues was emphasized more than in the past.

The report also mentioned the development of tablet PCs and the spread of electronic commercial transactions. In the summer of 2012, North Korea launched three tablet PC models called Samjiyon, Arirang, and Achim. Since then, more models like Woollim, Ryongheung, and Noul have been rolled out. Regarding electronic payments, the use of debit cards like the Narae card, which requires a 4-digit pin number and can be recharged at various shops and hotels, is spreading rapidly.

In regards to these changes, the report stated, “Kim Jong Un’s science and technology policies reflect North Korea’s industrial setting and private demand and are more rational as they correspond with international trends.” However, the report argued that support for key industries is shrinking, and their ability to survive on their own is insufficient. Given the difficulty of establishing a virtuous cycle of investment and profit calculation under the current policies, it concluded that the sustainability of these policies is low.

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