[VIEWPOINT]Engaging the North made it strongerOn July 22, 1994, I wrote an article titled “North Korea will open its doors to the outside world earlier, if it prospers economically” in the JoongAng Ilbo. In the article, I insisted that North Korea’s economy had to improve before the country opened up to the outside.
As models for my hypothesis, I used countries that developed from military dictatorship to democracy and Eastern European countries that had experienced the breakdown of socialism.
The similarity between these countries was that they started to enter the road to democratization when they achieved a certain level of economic development. Spain, Portugal, Greece, Romania and Hungary were such examples. The situation in each country was different, but these countries, in general, experienced changes in their political system when their economies reached the stage of achieving a per-capita income of between $1,000 and $3,000.
I also had heard from an unidentified source that people’s expectations could jump explosively after continuous development of the economy. This, then, provides a clue to changes in the national political system.
On the basis of this theory, I dared to write that, “Although there is no guarantee that economic development will lead to democratization, it does have a decisive effect on the breaking down of a dictatorial administration.”
However, a political scientist who helped me with the article said, “Saying that economic development leads to democratization might make a good article, but it cannot be established as a theory.”
He meant to say that it does not make sense scientifically, but he wouldn’t pick a fight with an “ignorant” journalist. I ignored him and wrote the article anyway with a feeling of unease.
When our government began its engagement policy toward North Korea, I had a humble hope that changes in the North Korean dictatorship might come if the economic development brought with it internal pressure to open up North Korea.
However, on hearing the news of North Korea’s nuclear test, I keenly felt how naive my perception of reality had been, not to mention ignorant.
I want to believe the engagement policy toward North Korea started with the goal of easing tension on the Korean Peninsula and eventually to lead North Korea to reform its system toward openness and democracy.
The government still claims that the direction of the engagement policy is right, even after North Korea’s nuclear test, because it clings, perhaps, to the idea that the intention of the policy was pure.
But let’s take a closer look at it. They say that three dimensions are often used in a confused manner when we refer to a country.
The narrowest dimension is the political force in power. Second is the government and regime itself, regardless of the force currently in power. The last and most comprehensive dimension is the nation itself ― made up of the land, people and sovereignty.
Accordingly, the country of North Korea can be defined as the Kim Jong-il group, the regime and North Korea as a whole.
Judging from the outcome of the engagement policy toward North Korea, it could be said that the major beneficiary of the engagement policy was Kim Jong-il and his followers.
Our government must have had either an illusion that it was aiding North Korea as a country, or window-dressed it on purpose to make it look that way, even though it knew the truth.
In addition, the government says that the money South Korea provided to the North for the North’s economic development has not been diverted to development of nuclear weapons. It is pointless to question the purpose of the money, however, since the government provided funds to the Kim Jong-il group, which developed nuclear weapons.
Of course, creating a mood of reconciliation between South and North Korea, and contributing to the economic development of North Korea can be counted as policy achievements.
Nevertheless, the engagement policy only helped further strengthen the Kim Jong-il group, far from creating a critical point for changes in the North Korean regime.
On top of that, if we take the power dynamics of North Korea into consideration, the recent nuclear test has had an effect similar to a coup d’etat staged by the Kim Jong-il loyalists, because there is a possibility the Kim Jong-il group will strengthen the grasp of power of hard-liners.
Maintaining the basis of the engagement policy under such circumstances or claiming its justification is the same thing as declaring support for the Kim Jong-il group.
If the government, nevertheless, wants to stick to the policy, it should first think hard about how it will separate the North Korean people from the country’s forces that are stubbornly loyal to Kim.
* The writer is the deputy head of the economics news team at the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Nam Yoon-ho