“Accelerated” Development: The Mallima Movement and the Political Economy of North Korea

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SPee battles (속도전) Or limited in time, mass socialist building campaigns have been a recurring feature of North Korean political economy from the very beginning. Their centrality in the regime is measured by the constitutional importance attributed to them. While the regime launched such “battles” until Party Congress 2021it is interesting to reflect on the impact of such a recent “speed battle” which purported to trigger a “new apogee of socialist construction», the Mallima Movement.

Soviet shades

These “speed campaigns” imitate the Stakhanovite movement of the Soviet Union of the mid-1930s. Named after a worker Alexey Stakhanov [who was known to mine 102 tonnes of coal in just 5 hours 45 minutes (14 times his quota)], it was believed that if trained in the “right” political ideology, no physical limitations could limit human abilities. Moreover, it reflected the “superiority” of the socialist economic system over the profit-based capitalist system, provided that the former was “ideologically liberating” while the latter was seen as the source of all malaise. Workers are not paid because the idea is to replace material incentives with moral and ideological incentives where people would voluntarily contribute to the socialist economy without any expectation of monetary return.

This Soviet influence is understood in combination with Kim il-Sung’s idea of ​​Juche (주체) or “self-reliance” which forms the main ideological fixation of the regime.

Such campaigns are intended not only to act as catalysts for economic growth, but also to strengthen internal cohesion and affinity with the leadership and the Party.

Constitutionally speaking

Article 19 of the Constitution of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) defines North Korea as a “national and independent economy”. Article 13 claims to follow the “mass line approach” in production where the state and rulers are obligated to include the opinions of the masses in making decisions that should reflect the common good. Under Articles 13 and 14, the Constitution mandates the state to launch mass movements in order to “maximize the acceleration of the construction of socialism”.

The Rise of Mallima

The Mallima Movement (마리마 운동) was started in 2016 by North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un. During his visit to the Pyongyang Kim Jong Suk textile factory, Kim fondly remembered the “great achievements of the Chollima movement” and encouraged workers and party members to “work and struggle with the spirit of Mallima”.

It is similar in orientation and objectives to Chollima Movement launched under Kim Il-Sung’s regime in 1953.

Like Chollima (천리마), Mallima (만리마) refers to a mythical horse that is believed to fly at an incredibly fast speed. While Chollima could fly 1000 kilometers per day, Mallima possessed 10 times the strength and is said to fly 10,000 kilometers per day. The workers and peasants should imbibe this spirit and accelerate the development of the socialist economy. It was believed that Mallima overlooked the economic problems of the time and even left Chollima behind.

Economic turmoil

The North Korean economy has been hit hard by several factors. While the Stalinist socialist economic model failed to deliver economic growth, punishments and trade embargoes imposed by the United States and the UN because of Pyongyang’s nuclear development program not only isolated it but also impoverished whatever little has been achieved in earlier periods.

In 2015, a year before the launch of the Mallima movement, the North Korean economy fell the hardest in 8 years when real gross domestic product (GDP) fell 1.1%, the first drop since 2010 and the biggest drop since 2007. All sectors except construction fell.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, China has been North Korea’s biggest trading and aid partner. The Mallima movement presented itself as an attempt to stimulate self-sustaining economic growth.

Goals

Mallima became part of Kim’s five-year economic plan which was launched at the 2016 Party Congress, the first five-year plan over the past 36 years.

Kim enlisted the objectives of the plan as follows: development of infrastructure, railways and metallurgical industries; the export of minerals like magnesite (without any plans to escape harsh sanctions); a shift to renewable energy sources such as hydroelectricity to counter the impending energy crisis and engage in the international economy while respecting the Juche ideology.

“Mallima” has therefore become the common chant in all industries, from steel mills to cement factories.

How far could the Mallima fly?

The movement has resulted in some remarkable achievements. The following year, on April 17, 2017, Ryomyong Street was unveiled. Covering an area of ​​900,000 square meters, the street is home to several high-rise buildings with over 70 floors and dozens of kindergartens. According to South Korea’s Land and Housing Institute, it employed about 8 million workers, 30,000 of whom worked double shifts every day. The 8-lane street, which stretches 3 kilometers from the Kumsusan Sun Palace to the Immortality Tower, has been called by the regime a “miraculous creation”.

Moreover, in 2016, the North Korean economy reached a 17 years of strong growth gross domestic product (GDP) climbing to 3.9%.

However, this breakneck speed has cost ordinary people dearly. The haste of construction does not allow the cement or concrete to dry and strengthen, which could lead to accidents, including recent example being the collapse of a newly constructed residential building in Songhwa County, South Hwanghae Province during the Mallima movement.

Moreover, it also led to the depletion of the population. The main source of work is the Speed ​​Battle Youth Assault Troops, a force of young people who are expected to actively participate in socialist construction campaigns. Students, soldiers and ordinary people are also expected to work. Those who cannot contribute physically must provide monetary or material assistance. Such campaigns are not only physical exploitation, but also distract people from their personal goals and ambitions which also remain limited by tight central control.

Dusk is falling, once again

The achievements of the Mallima movement could not last long. In 2021, Kim Jong Un accepted that his economic policy, including the five-year plan, had “failed in almost every way”.

Even though Pyongyang claimed to have not reported a single case of coronavirus, the pandemic has had a crippling effect on its economy as strict nationwide lockdowns and border closures for trade and travel have been imposed. The lean 0.4% the growth that had been achieved in 2019 was reversed. South Korea’s central bank, the Bank of Korea (BOK), which publishes the most reliable data on the North Korean economy, reported that Pyongyang’s GDP contracted by 4.5% in 2020 while industrial production fell from 28% to 5.9% and agricultural, fisheries and forestry production decreased by 7.6%.

North Korea is also on the brink of the worst food crisis in its history. Before the pandemic, 40% of the population suffered from hunger and malnutrition. According to United Nations reports, the situation has worsened since the pandemic. Many have lost their jobs and more 60% live in absolute poverty. In April 2021, Kim noted worsening the situation by calling on citizens to “prepare for another arduous March”, referring to the long period of recurring natural calamities, famine and food crisis of the 1990s.

The sharp drop in foreign trade has also led to a price increase in fuels and foodstuffs. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 68% of the average North Korean diet consists of grains, tubers and roots, none of which were imported last year from China, which constitutes 90% of Pyongyang’s international trade. The food shortage was rising to 860,000 tons in 2021.

The path to follow

Although “speed battles” such as the Mallima movement led to piecemeal advantages, they failed to close the cracks that developed in the Stalinist economic command structure. In order to shake off the inertia of the moribund economy, the North Korean regime must introduce drastic reforms and gradually open up the economy. In addition, North Korea and the United States and other nuclear states must reach an agreement to implement confidence-building measures and achieve denuclearization in a gradual but determined manner, because the lifting of sanctions is important for that Pyongyang integrates into the international economy and ensures a better life for its citizens.

[Photo by Lǔbān / Wikimedia Commons]

Cherry Hitkari is a postgraduate student in East Asian Studies at the University of Delhi, India. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.


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