[Outlook] Soup topples an empire

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[Outlook] Soup topples an empire

A South Korean businessman who operates a factory at the Kaesong Industrial Complex in North Korea told me recently that their North Korean workers look much healthier after working there for one month than when they arrive. Their dark, unhealthy faces get brighter, thanks to the meat soup served for lunch at the factory.
Besides lunch, the factory serves them instant noodles as a snack between meals. But the North Korean workers prefer bread or confectioneries like Choco Pies because they want something to take home to share with their families. Although they only earn $60 per month, they now know how to make money and stretch the benefits they receive from working at the factory.
They also understand they have an incentive called overtime allowance if they work beyond their regular hours. Incentives like this give them vigor and make their faces shine brighter. This kind of story about North Koreans touches our hearts. But there is no inspiration to be found from the scenes of hundreds of thousands of North Korean youths participating in a mammoth mass game, or in the faces of hundreds of thousands of Pyongyang residents welcoming a visiting South Korean leader with identical red floral bouquets.
The first stories capture the experiences of human beings while the others seem to feature automated dolls. The first kind of story rings true, but the second is full of gestures that are empty of genuine feeling.
It seems, however, that the North Korean leadership has a different opinion from ours regarding the Kaesong Industrial Complex. After the summit meeting with Kim Jong-il, President Roh Moo-hyun banned the use of the words “reform” and “open-door policy” by saying, “We South Koreans say that North Korea will be reformed and induced to open its doors to the outside world through the Kaesong Industrial Complex. But it is careless to make such remarks to the North.”
He banned the use of those kinds of words because North Koreans dislike them. North Koreans even worry over minor changes that may take place among their workers at the Kaesong Industrial Complex. If that is the case, will any change take place in the North even if additional industrial complexes are created at Anbyeon, Nampo and Haeju? Plans to establish complexes there were included in the declaration following the South-North Korean summit meeting last week.
The North Korean leadership wants to make money at these places after isolating workers from the rest of North Korea as if the complexes were islands. The same is true of the Mount Kumgang tourism project. South Koreans expected that the North Korean system would change when inter-Korean economic cooperation projects take root. But North Koreans, at least those in leadership positions, have only thought about strengthening their system with the money they make through inter-Korean economic cooperation projects.
Since South Korea adopted the Sunshine Policy toward the North, Pyongyang has tried to strengthen its political system rather than changing it through reform and open-door policies. The North has already tested a nuclear weapon and fired missiles. While South Korea provided the North with one-sided grant-type economic aid, China increased its two-way commercial trade with North Korea.
A report that says China is the only country actively trying to bring about change to North Korea was published recently. It is called “North Korea’s External Economic Relations,” by Stephen Haggard and Marcus Noland. According to the paper, “China treated North Korea thoroughly as a partner in business deals.”
It also points out that “while Chinese businesses that operated under the communist system behaved as they were capitalists, South Korea, a capitalist country, has gradually increased the amount of free aid to North Korea, which was typically a socialist diplomatic gesture.”
Chinese businesses withdrew from a market without hesitation when they decided they could not make money there.
“Although the Chinese behavior will have the effect of bringing change in North Korea, the South’s will do the opposite,” the paper added.
This means that South Korea has become a donor country that has contributed to the consolidation of the North’s communist system.
President Roh has ordered us not to even mention words like reform and open-door policy. In that case, does his policy toward North Korea aim to strengthen the North Korean socialist system?
Even if Kim Jong-il does not like it, our North Korea policy should be focused on changing the communist system there. It is more for North Korea’s sake than for ours. If North Korea does not change in line with the era of the global economy, it can not survive in the international community.
There is a limit to South Korea’s capacity to provide free aid to the North. We must teach the North Korean leadership the work ethic so they know they cannot survive if they don’t work. We must also let them know the point of business is to make a profit. An old saying goes, “Give me a fish and I eat for a day, but teach me to fish and I eat for a lifetime.” We must teach the North how to catch fish and the rules of a market economy.
Some progressives in the South, who emphasize welfare and equal distribution, believe that the government should support people’s livelihoods even if they don’t work. These people, therefore, consider it natural that the South Koreans provide free aid to the North, which is also made up of Koreans.
They should, however, know that the money comes from tax money paid by people who earned it with sweat and toil.
The North Korean leadership refuses to change but they want economic assistance. Even if the scope of inter-Korean economic cooperation is expanded, the North will still try to consolidate its socialist system.
In South Korea’s position, economic cooperation that cannot change North Korea is meaningless. We cannot expect changes to come from above. To effect real change, the role of politics and the government should be reduced, and the role of businesses and businesspeople should be enlarged.
Inter-Korean economic cooperation should be promoted not according to political logic but by business logic. Instead of making empty declarations, we should start taking small steps that can be easily implemented. As was mentioned earlier, even North Korean workers who are mobilized to make money needed to prop up the North Korean system are changing. That is the trend of history. Although it is belated, we cannot but expect changes to come from below.
In the meantime, unification will come unexpectedly, like a stray cat that wanders in out of the dark.

*The writer is the vice publisher and chief editor of the editorial page of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Moon Chang-keuk
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