Thursday, April 24, 2014
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A New Approach to North Korea

SEOUL – The long-delayed meeting of North Korea’s ruling Worker’s Party is now underway, and comes at a time of severe tension between North Korea and the international community. It is widely expected that Kim Jong-il’s third son, Kim Jong-eun, will be appointed to a key position and be publicly announced as his father’s successor. There are also hints that a reshuffling of important positions within the Party will take place, allowing the presumed heir to form a new power base.

Whatever happens, and whoever turns out to be the new leader, North Korea most likely faces an unstable future. The cost of maintaining internal order will continue to rise as the system’s fundamental defects force the new leader to confront stark new challenges. Moreover, responsibility for managing that potential instability extends far beyond the leadership in Pyongyang.

North Korea’s fragility is suggested by the fact that even such an important political event as the Worker’s Party conference, held for the first time in three decades, was abruptly postponed earlier in September. One cause for the delay could be a schism within the ruling elite, a group that “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il himself cannot control as effectively as before. Moreover, Kim’s health problems might have worsened much faster than outsiders guess, further complicating matters.

“Enough is enough,” a mid-level North Korean government official recently uttered in a private conversation with a South Korean visitor to Pyongyang regarding Kim Jong-eun’s likely succession. Ordinary North Koreans, too, evidently seem to view this succession differently from that of Kim Jong-il’s inheritance of power from his father, Kim Il-sung.

Moreover, there is no hope that any new leader, whoever it may be, will get any breathing space to establish unquestioned control, given the economy’s utter state of decay, as last year’s failed bid to reform the currency demonstrated. The regime is under growing pressure from those at the bottom of North Korean society, and recognizes its own inability to handle the situation. For example, for the first time, North Korea’s prime minister publicly apologized for a policy error – the failure of the currency redenomination.

For the dynamics of the relationship between North Korea’s people and its rulers seems to be changing fundamentally. One troubling aspect of this change is that the new leader may feel the need to resort to brute force more frequently in order to suppress popular resistance. And, at a time of domestic hardship and diplomatic isolation, North Korea’s leaders, their confidence boosted by their possession of nuclear weapons, might try to distract their public through audacious, and possibly destructive, acts abroad. The attack on the South Korean naval ship Cheonan earlier this year may be a grim sign of things to come.

Indeed, the North Korean threat nowadays derives more from the regime’s internal weaknesses than from its aggressive external posture – the latter being the authorities’ fearful response to the former. Unfortunately, however, most international efforts have sought to ameliorate the symptoms rather than cure the underlying disease.

Of course, in order to pressure North Korea’s government to give up its nuclear option, the current international economic sanctions, which target WMD-related products and luxury goods, probably should continue. But, at the same time, the international community should place greater emphasis on policies aimed at inducing North Korea to launch serious economic reform.

At a time of increased tension between North Korea, South Korea, and the United States such a policy may seem impossible to undertake. Yet a road map for a peaceful transition can be designed.

If, say, North Korea is willing to respect international standards of economic behavior, it could be invited to join the International Monetary Fund. Western governments also could permit charitable foundations to provide North Korean officials or students with scholarships to study abroad and learn how to run a market economy. Of course, any assistance to North Korea would have to be monitored closely to prevent it from being diverted for military or other political purposes.

The international community would lose nothing by trying this approach and testing the regime’s will to reform. In fact, following the recent currency fiasco, North Korean leaders may have become more open to economic reform than ever before. Such an approach is also compatible with Chinese policy, which has been to pressure North Korea to adopt its model of economic reform.

To be sure, North Korea’s regime is not the only obstacle to international engagement. Conservatives in both the United States and South Korea may argue that North Korea must first move toward denuclearization before any kind of economic assistance is offered.

But there is no reason why international efforts to ensure North Korea’s denuclearization must preclude policies aimed at bringing about domestic reform. We need not assume that these goals cannot be pursued simultaneously. On the contrary, it may be impossible to win North Korea’s assent to denuclearization in the absence of far-reaching domestic change.  

The past two decades have shown that “politically correct” decisions do not produce the “right” results, even in the long run. As North Korea grooms a new leader, the world needs to groom a new policy for North Korea.

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