What hope for North Korea?

Author: Peter Drysdale, Editor, East Asia Forum

American disarmament expert, Paul Carroll, recently observed that Woody Allen’s aphorism that ’90 per cent of life is showing up’ is an apt strategy for dealings with North Korea.

The ‘lion’s share of making progress with North Korea is consistent presence’, he says; staying engaged with the DPRK is essential to preserving the peace. There is far more promise for eventual change by engaging and negotiating with Pyongyang — and staying in the loop with Beijing, as well as Seoul and Moscow on that — than not.

Victor Cha, the American official with responsibility in the George W. Bush administration for North Korea policy, reckons that that since 1984 right through to 2011, ‘Never once in the entire 27 year period was there a period in which the DPRK [engaged in provocative behaviour] in the midst of negotiations involving the United States’. His point is crystal clear: although not perfect, the historical record shows that, while the governments are interacting and negotiating, the environment of engagement has a record of alleviating crises. During these periods of relative calm is when progress can be made on implementing concrete and comprehensive arrangements that might eventually take us out of the ‘state of war’ in which the DPRK and the United States are still technically and psychologically locked.

Simply being engaged is obviously not enough though: as Carroll argues it’s the nature of the engagement upon which the prospect of changing the status quo of the past 60 years and more that matter.

There has long been an element in the US policy community who anticipated that it was only a matter of time before the North Korean regime collapsed under the weight of United States and United Nations sanctions. That was never a good call. Quite apart from the weakness of internal opposition, there was little prospect that China would let that happen if it could possibly avoid it; not because of Chinese malfeasance but because, as it has declared quite openly and with reasonable justification, its fundamental interest has been precisely to prevent that outcome, and its consequence of larger, destabilising refugee flows across its north eastern borders.

‘If there is one thing all observers can agree on’, Carroll says, ‘it is that the Kim family regime and its inner circle in Pyongyang has survival as its core motivation. Sanctions alone — no matter how severe — are not likely to end their dynasty’. Indeed, the leadership transition in the North is another compelling reason to stay engaged with North Korea even though it may appear unpalatable to do so. There have only been two leaders of North Korea since its foundation — Kim Il-sung, who ruled from 1948 until his death in 1994, and his son, Kim Jong-il, who took over until his death in December 2011. Today, the third generation of the Kim dynasty, the young Kim Jong-un is less than a year into his rule and, only thirty-something, is unlikely to fade from the scene soon.

There has been no official American interaction with Pyongyang since the beginning of 2009. Australia, which had a modest but helpful program of engagement in building capacity for economic reform, made its unthinking exit earlier. The US only began re-engaging late in 2011, on the eve of Kim Jong-il’s death.

This week Tessa Morris-Suzuki and Ben Ascione reflect on the stirrings of change in North Korea since Kim Jong-un’s ascendancy.

Morris-Suzuki notes that ‘ever since its formation in the 1950s, the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, which represents pro-DPRK members of Japan’s ethnic Korean minority, has sent lavish gifts to North Korea to mark national celebrations. The choice of gifts is deeply symbolic — a delicate matter involving much discussion and negotiation. As well as being suitably generous, the presents should accord with the current policies of the North Korean government. In 1972, when North Korean leader Kim Il-sung celebrated his 60th birthday, the main gifts were a textiles factory and a glassworks. In 1992, for his 80th birthday, the present was the Mangyongbong 92, a passenger ferry, which plied the seas between Japan and North Korea until the imposition of sanctions in 2006. In April 2012, when North Korea celebrated the centenary of Kim Il-sung’s birth, the principal gift was more modest, but no less symbolically significant. It consisted of a long train of mobile food stalls, which can be moved around the streets of Pyongyang and used to sell various fast-food favourites. They are, by all accounts’, she says, ‘very popular’.

Morris-Suzuki notes that many signs of change since Kim Jong-un came to power have been symbolic rather than substantive. The greatest challenge for the new leadership is North Korea’s overwhelming problem of rural poverty and malnutrition. Here, too, there is some evidence of change. The new leadership is reportedly drawing up reforms allowing farmers to keep and privately sell part of their crop, but these changes have yet to be put into effect. Agricultural reform has for decades passed North Korea by and the prospect of something akin to China’s early household responsibility system would represent a significant shift.

The task of reforming and opening North Korea’s moribund economy is enormous, and it remains to be seen whether the new leadership has the expertise or the will to set the country on a new course. Analysts who contemplate the possibility of reform are frequently cast as even more naïve than those who anticipate collapse of the regime. What incentives could there be to court instability, open the prospect of challenge, or cede a millimetre of authority or power? Courting reform would prompt a backlash, it’s argued, from the military and party elites identified with non-productive sectors of the economy and lead to a crisis of legitimacy. Andrei Lankov, for example, portrays a contest of legitimacy between North and South to rule the entire Korean Peninsula, and knowledge of just how much richer the South is poses a deep danger to North Korea.

Ben Asione points out that the movement toward economic improvements and raising the standard of living for ordinary North Koreans was visible in the latter days of Kim Jong-il’s rule. Since Kim Jong-un took power, he has indicated that he is serious about improving the economy and the standard of living of ordinary North Koreans.

It is still early days. There is no comprehensive enunciation of an economic reform plan and those that have been announced, in agriculture, are only experimental and could be easily reversed. ‘The pace of reform is likely to be frustratingly slow given the need to maintain a balance between continuity and change’, Ascione concludes. But, as Carroll advises, the time for engagement with carrots as well as sticks has arrived.

Peter Drysdale is Editor of the East Asia Forum. 

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