[Seri column]North Korea is no longer a priorityThe Lee Myung-bak administration has yet to unveil explicit plans for dealing with North Korea. However, we do know it will not make North Korea its highest foreign policy priority and that the Sunshine Policy of the last two administrations will be thoroughly reviewed.
Lee has criticized the Sunshine Policy for failing to spur any significant changes in the North and for being too one-sided at the expense of the South. His comments suggest he will consider future economic assistance and cooperation with the North on a quid pro quo basis. In other words, the free ride that his two immediate predecessors gave Pyongyang is over. The Lee administration will want something in return.
To understand the new administration’s expectations, it would be useful to consider how North Korea has handled its internal political and economic affairs. In a nutshell, they have been modeled on a J-curve theory.
The accompanying graph shows the extent of changes in the system, with two axes labeled “stability” and “openness.” A nation located to the left of point A is a closed, despotic country, while a country to the right of point A is a democratic nation. Virtually no country has ever succeeded in development without passing point A. The graph indicates that North Korea, located at the point of the star, is seeing increased instability along with increased openness to the outside world.
If the Kim Jong-il government promotes openness, the country will pass point A and develop increased openness again. Passing point A, of course, will require North Korea to denuclearize and to open itself to the international community.
The Lee administration believes the time is ripe for the North to move toward the right side of A. However, the problem (at least from the perspective of North Korea’s leadership) is that such changes are inevitably accompanied by political instability and challenges to the established authority.
The Soviet Union and its Eastern European bloc suffered major unrest in the transition from communism, a fact not lost on the North Korean authorities. Kim will not want to take the risk of pushing his country beyond point A.
In addition, the Lee administration believes it should minimize the “de-synchronization effects” and apply the law of congruence to the North. De-synchronization effects refer to the North being alone on the left of point A while the South and other countries develop on the right, widening the gap in development. This is why the law of congruence is necessary. To narrow the gap, the North needs a regime that can pursue change and development in the same manner as the outside world.
South Korea’s North Korea policy over the last 10 years was based on the expectation that providing assistance would encourage the North to pass point A on its own.
At the same time, South Korea hoped that it would be possible to induce reforms in the North without passing point A. However, the Lee administration, in contrast to previous administrations, believes that if the North does not pass point A (either on its own initiative or compelled by circumstances), the Sunshine Policy will only make it easier for the North to remain on the left of A.
The new administration’s reordering of priorities arises from Lee’s belief that the North is essentially irrelevant to improving South Korea’s economy and achieving its economic goals. Against this backdrop, the North Korea policy will be pursued only at a maintenance level. With a foreign policy focused on helping the South become an advanced economy, the policy on North Korea will be required to conform to similar requirements.
If the North denuclearizes, this will confirm its genuine intent to join the international community. A belligerent, nuclear-armed North Korea that continues to defy the international community, however, cannot realistically expect to maintain any viable economic relationship with the South.
However, even if North Korea denuclearizes and engages in some rapprochement with the international community, this does not automatically entail broader economic cooperation with the South.
Here the expression “open” is vital. Only when North Korea moves toward reform and genuine opening will it attain the confidence of the international community and secure access to international capital.
If these conditions are fulfilled, South Korea and the international community will be able to help North Korea achieve $3,000 per capita national income.
*The writer is a research fellow in the Global Studies Department of the Samsung Economic Research Institute.
by Dong Yong-sueng