[Outlook]Believing in changeOn a recent visit to Pyongyang, I heard the following comment from an official of the North Korean regime: “It looks like the United States could have an African-American president. The United States has been changing significantly.”
I didn’t respond, however, because I didn’t want to get involved in another argument.
The day before, I had said that North Korea must change; that change cannot be resisted.
I had complimented them on the fact that old equipment in North Korea’s factories had been replaced with new Italian or German-made devices, and this led to a long argument.
“North Korea must not try to do everything on its own,” I said. “It has to cooperate with the world.”
As we exchanged opinions about change, he got upset.
“We will survive on our own. We have overcome the arduous march on our own!”
Even though he was negative about change in North Korea, he mentioned change in the United States as if it was something amazing.
As I looked into the country and its economy during the trip, I got the impression that there is a discrepancy between ideals and reality in North Korea. While the state emphasizes survival and development on its own strength, at an exhibition of foreign products the North Korean boasted that foreign investment was increasing.
Although North Korea says it has a planned economy, its citizens have been unable to survive without markets. A ship repair plant in Yongnam and a textile factory in Sunkyo were expecting cooperation with the South. North Korea is keeping its ideal of socialism, but the realities of its economy are changing.
The question is how the North Korean authorities reflect the real-world economic changes into their policies.
It is natural to be afraid of change, but without it there is no development.
China, with its “black cat-white cat” policy, and Vietnam, with doi moi, have achieved their current economic growth through change. The key to the change was becoming a part of the world economy.
Entering the world economy doesn’t mean becoming subordinate or dependent. Instead, stubbornly remaining isolated will lead to subordination. At the end of isolation, all that awaits is either collapse or becoming an economic colony. In order to survive, an isolated country needs to send an SOS to the outside world, and as a result it will be dominated.
China and Vietnam have become members of the world economy. They confidently speak their opinions in the global marketplace and they are rising as destinations for foreign direct investment. Meanwhile, North Korea obstinately remains on the fringes.
Looking at the South Korean government’s North Korea policy, there is a discrepancy between principles and interests. Principles are important, of course. However, they should guarantee actual benefits.
Pragmatism is the main philosophy of the incumbent administration, but its North Korea policy only contains strict principles. The goal of a North Korea policy is not only to check North Korea. It should also include scolding Pyongyang when it misbehaves, and educating it on how to develop correctly. This is a duty of the South Korean government.
It is irresponsible to think that we should always have good inter-Korean relations, but nothing can be done if that is not the case. We should make efforts to find points of contact where the purposes of the North and the South meet. When we do, we’ll achieve harmony between principles and interests. That is pragmatism in its truest sense.
Besides, there is a possibility that South Korea will be passively providing aid to the North if North Korea-U.S. relations improve due to progress on the nuclear issue. Thus, the South Korean government must take more interest in inter-Korean economic cooperation as a pre-emptive move.
One option worth considering is using 1 percent of the state budget to build infrastructure in North Korea and improve the standard of living of North Korean citizens. This will support South Korean companies operating in North Korea, which will in turn help revive South Korea’s economy and reduce the costs of reunification.
On the day I was leaving North Korea, I said to the North Korean official: “Barack Obama can become the president. If that happens it is because he used the slogan ‘Change.’”
Now more than ever, fundamental changes in North Korea and fine-tuning of South Korea’s policy are desperately needed.
*The writer is a professor of North Korean studies at Ewha Womans University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Cho Dong-ho