[Seri column]A new path for Pyongyang

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[Seri column]A new path for Pyongyang

Experts have been arguing these days that North Korea is dropping the Chinese model of economic reform and open-door policies and adopting the Vietnamese approach.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il had expressed keen interest in China’s path before, having visited Shanghai and the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone.

But at the end of 2007, Kim signaled an intention to employ the Vietnamese model, and there is growing speculation that he will visit Vietnam soon.

Nong Duc Manh, General Secretary of the Vietnamese Communist Party’s central committee, and North Korea’s Prime Minister Kim Yong-il have already exchanged visits last year.

The reason why the North has an interest in the Vietnamese model is that it focuses on introducing economic changes without political changes.

Since there is a growing possibility that the North can improve relations with the United States, Pyongyang may be attracted to how Vietnam’s Doi Moi, or “reconstruction,” policy has flourished since the nation’s rapprochement with Washington in the early 1990s.

The fundamental difference between the Chinese and Vietnamese models is starting capital.

When China began economic reforms, it had considerable reserves and vast numbers of overseas Chinese ready to invest, not to mention foreign companies who have always dreamed of tapping the huge China market. Moreover, China was able to open gradually, using neighboring Hong Kong as a gateway.

In contrast, Vietnam, which lost its economic support when the Soviet Union collapsed, had no choice but to turn to international financing.

Its open-door policy was subject to international scrutiny and it had to adopt an all-out approach. Still, political reform was kept out of the process.

Whether it is the Chinese model or Vietnamese model, it is gratifying that North Korea is exploring ways to end its seclusion and improve the livelihood of its people, as both models prioritize economic growth.

The North can be transformed into a new regime which doesn’t ignore or make political use of its people’s hunger, but actively welcomes the market economy and outside capital in order to improve livelihoods.

In fact, the North could use both styles.

Like Vietnam it could utilize the resources of international organizations and build on improved relations with the U.S. Like China, it could use investments from compatriots overseas, drawing on the generosity of South Korea.

Hopefully, the North will display its willingness to attract foreign capital by establishing better investment conditions than China and Vietnam.

If that happens, the North will naturally realize that the South’s capital for its development would be more advantageous than other sources.

Nearly every South Korean businessperson who visits the North says that workers in North Korean factories want to spend more time with them but North Korean guards try to minimize contact time.

Pursuing reform and opening policy - under the Chinese or the Vietnamese model - in such circumstances, where contacts are limited, may lead to failure.

The North needs to recognize that the mindset and attitude toward reform and opening of its doors is more important than the blueprint.

At the South Korea?U.S. summit in early August, both sides reaffirmed their commitment to improving the human rights situation in North Korea.

Seoul may feel uncomfortable mentioning the issue, but it can no longer ignore it. Pyongyang’s reproachable policy on human rights affects every North Korean, not just North Korean refugees, defectors and political prisoners.

In the post-Cold War environment, the concept of security has been expanded beyond military hardware to include human security. This means “freedom from fear and want.”

However, that is not the case for North Korean citizens. Pyongyang often brainwashes its people to believe that the outside world is putting military pressure on the North to thwart its ruling regime. As a result, the average citizen is bound to be resistant and even hostile toward the outside.

If the North tries to reform and open its economy, that will be an opportunity to improve human rights.

But Pyongyang will have to adjust its mindset and rhetoric.

Espousing xenophobia while opening its doors won’t push the economy very far.

The Sunshine Policy of the past two South Korean administrations focused on winning over the North, but, so far, there is little evidence of any payoff.

Instead of being persuaded to reform, the North took advantage of the policy to solidify its regime.

A carrot-and-stick approach is now needed by South Korea and all other countries to prompt reforms in North Korea.

Pyongyang has models for changing its economy. It has to look into itself to change its thinking.


*The writer is a research fellow in the Global Studies Department at Samsung Economic Research Institute. For more SERI reports, please visit www.seriworld.org.

by Dong Yong-Sueng

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