[Viewpoint] Cracking the North Korea paradox

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[Viewpoint] Cracking the North Korea paradox

The North Korean issue is like a brain-wracking equation. Through the six-nation talks, South Korea and the United States had hoped to end the North’s nuclear weapons problem with security guarantees and move toward modernization through opening and economic aid. We thought we had provided the best possible solution for the poverty-stricken country, but we came to a dead end. What we overlooked was the clear difference between what is best for North Korean society and its people and what is best for its absolute ruler Kim Jong-il.

Kim’s test was to improve the impoverished living conditions of North Koreans and at the same time maintain his regime. Until the 1980s, he managed both. Factories rolled out industrial products and trading with other Communist countries fed North Koreans and kept them warm.

But when its external trade window closed following the collapse of the Council of Mutual Economic Assistance, the trading network between Eastern Europe and Soviet Union, the North was confronted with opening to non-Communist nations, a change in policy that would put the regime at risk.

The North opted for isolation, which brought about extreme poverty and dire economic straits, a direct threat to the regime’s authority. Since then, Kim has been battling this vexing problem. To sustain the regime, he needs economic development, but that will only take place if Kim throws open the doors to the secluded state. This choice is risky, though. Reform and open borders will certainly jeopardize the regime. It’s like an equation where you only have the relationships between variables to work with. To solve this problem, the Kim regime tried “restricted opening” by allowing international tourist programs to its scenic sites and industrial joint venture in Kaesong. It also resorted to less honorable dollar-raising through counterfeit money and drug trafficking, and made itself a nuclear threat. But none has been a lasting solution.

Meanwhile, the South’s challenge is to work with the recalcitrant North toward peaceful coexistence and, ultimately, reunification. It must muster international support and understanding throughout this process. Peaceful coexistence means engaging the Pyongyang leadership and regime while unification must be bred on universal values like equal human rights, an open society and democracy. The fact that the two are incompatible was the downfall of the “Sunshine Policy” and the cause of the dilemma in the South’s North Korea policy.

At the bottom of this dilemma lies the paradoxical regime under the Kim Jong-il dictatorship. Without a significant change in Pyongyang’s current leadership, we can only try to find the best possible solution within current limits. We cannot solve the problem if we work toward definitive answers like denuclearization and reform. It is unwise to expect a reasonable move from an unreasonable regime. Therefore, it would be better to work with the relationship we have and try to find the answer in the process instead of determining the solution first and trying to fit the relationship to the equation.

In order for South Korea to gain the upper hand in inter-Korean affairs in case there are changes in North Korea’s ruling system, it is important that the North Korean people bear good feelings toward their neighbors across the border. We can also raise our voices about issues involving the peninsula when the economic partnership between the two countries is solid, which can be achieved through increased dialogue and exchange. If we try to fight and discipline the North, our relations will not stretch beyond the old ideological, antagonistic boundaries. The climate around the Korean Peninsula and the world has changed. The governments of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun may have been overanxious for results and slightly careless in protecting universal values and principles, but right in their direction on North Korea policy.

We need a common stand with the United States, but this relationship shouldn’t be overemphasized. Washington approaches the North Korean problem as one of its many global security challenges, while to us, it is more about its people living just a few dozen kilometers away from our capital, Koreans with whom we share the same history and hopefully the same future. Our position and strategy on North Korea should naturally differ from that of Washington. If the U.S. disagrees, we must work to persuade it to see the situation from our point of view, and the same goes for China.

Our top priority in diplomacy must center on solving inter-Korean problems successfully and earning international support for our efforts. Our North Korea and diplomatic policies should be one. We cannot dream of unification or perpetual peace without gaining the trust and respect of the international community.

To achieve this, the Foreign Ministry has to ensure that its North Korea policies are strong and consistent, no matter who comes to power. Consistency is the most important factor in any policy. The government stresses practicability and flexibility in domestic affairs.

The same approach should be applied to North Korea affairs.


*The writer is the head of the Sogang University Graduate School of International Studies.


by Cho Yoon-je

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