North Korea Table of Contents

Foreign economic relations have been shaped largely by chuch'e ideology and the development strategy of building a virtually autarkic economy. These factors have led to an inward-looking and import-substituting trade policy, which has resulted in a small scale of foreign trade and a chronic trade deficit. North Korea's main trade partners have been communist countries, principally the Soviet Union and China, and Japan has been a major trading partner since the 1960s.

Although still adhering to the basic principle of selfreliance , P'yongyang is flexible in its application whenever the economic need arises. After the Korean War, North Korea received a substantial amount of economic aid from communist countries for reconstructing its war-torn economy. In the early 1970s, the country accepted a massive infusion of advanced machinery and equipment from Western Europe and Japan in an effort to modernize its economy and to catch up with South Korea. By the late 1980s, P'yongyang had moved towards making exporting a priority in order to garner foreign exchange so as to be able to import advanced technologies needed for industrial growth and to pay for oil imports.

The most recent and important manifestation of a flexible and practical application of self-reliance--prompted by severe economic difficulties--is the gradual move toward an open-door policy. This policy shift, which involves North Korea's attitudes toward foreign trade, tourism, direct foreign investment, joint ventures, and economic cooperation with South Korea, has the potential to significantly change the country's foreign economic relations.

The importance of trading with Western developed countries was expounded by Kim Il Sung as early as 1975. The origin of the open-door policy, however, was Kim Il Sung's 1979 New Year's address, in which he mentioned the need to expand foreign trade rapidly in order to meet the requirements of an expanding economy. Kim publicly alluded to some serious problems impeding North Korean exports, exhorting the population to adhere to a reliability-first principle: improving product quality, strictly meeting delivery dates, and expanding harbor facilities and the number of cargo vessels. In his 1980 New Year's address, Kim repeated this theme and announced that foreign trade had increased 30 percent in 1979 over 1978. This speech marked the first time in a decade that trade statistics had been made public--even in this limited and relative form. Unexpectedly and uncharacteristically, North Korea joined the UNDP in 1979 and accepted US$8.85 million in technical assistance. This action was further evidence of a small opening to outside economic involvement.

The year 1984 was the benchmark in officially launching the open-door policy. The Supreme People's Assembly's policy statement, entitled "For Strengthening South-South Cooperation and External Economic Work and Further Developing Foreign Trade," stressed the need to expand economic relations with the developing world as well as to promote economic and technical cooperation with advanced industrial countries. The document also repeated the export bottlenecks listed by Kim in his 1979 and 1980 New Year's addresses. North Korea indicated its readiness to accept direct foreign investment by enacting a joint venture law in 1984. And, since 1986, the country has begun to encourage tourism by accepting some tour groups from the West.

The most far-reaching change in foreign economic relations occurred in 1988 when North Korea began to trade with South Korea. Inter-Korean trade has grown rapidly, and by 1993 the two Koreas expanded into joint ventures and other forms of economic cooperation. North Korea's readiness to open its economy to the West and to South Korea is, no doubt, prompted by its need to import sophisticated Western industrial equipment, plants, and up-to-date technologies in order to modernize and jump-start the economy, and to catch up with South Korea. Given its sizable foreign debt, sagging exports, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, its largest trade partner, North Korea does not have much choice and recognizes the need to revise its trade laws so as to encourage foreign investment.

Economic Assistance

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress