[VIEWPOINT]Saturate, don’t isolateThe United States has completed another round of talks with North Korea and other interested countries aimed at resolving the crisis over the North’s nuclear weapons programs. With both the United States and North Korea putting forth proposals that would essentially trade the North’s nuclear weapons program for security assurances, there exists the chance for a temporary solution to the current crisis on the Korean Peninsula. Given the potential volatility of the area, the Bush administration is right to ease pressure on the North Korean regime, but there is an overriding problem: the United States lacks a long-range strategy to resolve the peninsula’s tensions.
Lurching from crisis to crisis as the United States has done previously is not a long-term strategy. For over a decade we have been expecting North Korea to collapse and yet it has survived. Indeed, North Korea under Kim Jong-il may survive for another 20 or 30 years.
A long-term strategy must focus either on violent change or peaceful change. The risks of promoting violent change are very high. Fifty years of successful deterrence shows we can contain the North Korean threat. But a strategy of economic engagement that saturates North Korean citizens with capitalist ideas and slowly changes their mindset while raising their living standards is the best strategy for the United States to pursue.
In 1992, North Korea was the most closed society in the world. Since then it has abandoned its centrally planned economy and now allows supply and demand to set prices. The North has made initial steps toward creating a modern financial system by creating a commercial bank and capitalizing it at $14 million. South Korea has rapidly increased its relations with the North: South-North trade was $340 million in the first six months of 2003, and trucks on a road that goes through the Demilitarized Zone carried some of that trade. Over 100,000 South Koreans have visited North Korea in the last two years. Furthermore, there is currently $1 billion in U.S. currency in circulation in North Korea. To cap all of these developments, Kim Jong-il finally admitted last September ― after three decades of denials ―that the North kidnapped Japanese citizens in the 1970s. The United States should encourage these trends and such candor, not retard them with a policy of pressure and isolation.
Focusing on economic change is the best strategy for the United States to follow because it is transforming, gradual, and peaceful. Capitalism is a powerful force, and when it is unleashed, it is very difficult to turn back. This will also transform the mindset of all North Korean citizens, not just the leadership. Give North Koreans a taste of economic freedoms and outside ideas, and the next generation will view its own leadership and the outside world in different terms. Engagement is also gradual, and allows us to bring North Korea slowly back into the world. Economic transformation is also peaceful.
There is widespread skepticism that North Korea either wants to reform or can reform without having total collapse first. Kim Jong-il will never relinquish power, but the United States should be more concerned with affecting the younger generation of North Koreans who will matter after he dies. The United States could choose to isolate the North for another two decades. As has been shown, isolation and coercion have little effect on the regime, and it also puts the United States in a reactive mode. As to whether any reform is possible, moving the North along the path towards capitalism ― even if it will provoke an economic collapse at some point before real growth can occur ― is still a policy that will ultimately benefit North Korea and the United States. More importantly, internal collapse because North Korean citizens are becoming capitalists is better than forcing regime change that could prompt a nationalistic backlash.
The Soviet Union and China ultimately changed not through a war, but because their systems could not keep up with the dynamism of the West. Don’t forget that it was President Nixon who first engaged China, not the other way around. Furthermore, China did not make an instant transition to capitalism in 1978. China’s opening to the world has been a decades-long process of gradual reform and opening, but it has also been successful beyond anyone’s hopes. The United States engaged these nations precisely to moderate the potential for conflict and in order to expose their citizens to capitalism and democratic ideas.
We may have no choice but to live with Kim Jong-il’s North Korea for another 20 years. If that is the case, facilitating market reforms in North Korea is both the most effective ― and most humane ― strategy for the United States.
* The writer is an associate professor of government at Tuck School of Business. He is the author, with Victor D. Cha, of “Nuclear North Korea, A Debate on Engagement Strategies,” published last fall by Columbia University Press.
by David C. Kang