[Viewpoint] Coevolution by the North and South

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[Viewpoint] Coevolution by the North and South


How will North Korea be able to survive the era of globalization? Is giving up its nuclear arms program the way it can do so? Will survival come automatically after opening up its country and reform? And, will the North inevitably develop into a normal state once it secures its survival?

In short: What should be the development strategy for North Korea in the 21st century?

These are questions that North Korea observers - both policy makers and scholars - need to contemplate. They do so not because they love North Korea, but because the future of the North will be the future of the South. Unification of the two Koreas after the North becomes a normal state is also more desirable than unification after the North’s rapid collapse.

While considering the questions, I had an opportunity to meet with Professor Ha Young-Sun of the Seoul National University, a veteran scholar of foreign affairs. At the time, the transition team of then-President-elect Lee Myung-bak was up and running, and our conversation covered a wide range of topics. Ha’s policy recommendations came from different points of view than mine, as the professor was an international politics specialist in his early 60s and I was an economist in my late 40s.

But as we continued discussions over drinks, we noted that we had once agreed that the Unification Ministry should shut down, and then changed our views and said it should remain. We had also once agreed that North Korea policy must follow public opinion, and then changed our positions, holding that policy must lead the public opinion.

We agreed clearly that a solid strategy for the North’s future is necessary for our national interest. The next day, we began working to form a research group. We selected several fields to be included, ranging from politics and the military to science, technology and human rights. Because development in the 21st century is a complex process involving intertwined issues, we agreed that normal survival is impossible when only a couple of changes are undertaken.

In 2002, I worked for the Korea Development Institute, overseeing research on North Korea’s economic development strategy. The project aimed at creating a realistic economic policy, taking into account the North’s specific nature at home and abroad. A so-called “island-mainland” policy was proposed in which the North would separately operate the islands of a market economy - special economic zones - from the mainland of its planned economy and gradually link them together.

We, however, were aware that the plan was insufficient in itself. Economic development requires political and diplomatic changes to succeed, but a systemic analysis of such changes was beyond an economist’s abilities. Therefore, we had no choice but to conclude our research by pointing out that the North needs to first improve its foreign relations and secure reliable leadership.

I was, therefore, thrilled to begin the research with Ha and others. We were excited to have inclusive research in which different fields would be organically connected. There was no reward, but our academic passion moved the project forward.

It was not easy. Two years have now passed, but we see no end to the project. The North’s reality is dark and it has proven difficult to weave together the different specialties both horizontally and vertically.

We still reached some conclusions. First, to secure its future, the North must give up its “military-first” policy. Unless its policy changes into “economy-first” and “people-first,” the North will not be able to escape crisis. Even if it gives up nuclear arms and receives security assurances, the continuation of a military-first policy will only lead the North to collapse.

Second, the North needs coevolution. Originally a biological term, coevolution means “the change of a biological object triggered by the change of a related object.” For example, a moth’s auditory sense evolved so that it can dodge a bat, while a bat evolves so that it can generate ultrasonic waves to detect the location of a moth. Coevolution also takes place in a cooperative relationship, as well as the relationship between natural enemies. Plants and animals evolved together, as did minerals and living organisms.

The North’s change should be in line with change in the South. Only then, will the changes have meaning and prompt further changes in the North. Until now, we only talked about how the North should change, while playing down the significance of South Korea’s changes. While we demand denuclearization and openness in the North, we have not had enough discussion about how the South will respond when the time comes. We had proposed to provide assistance to increase the North’s per capita income to $3,000 over the next decade, but failed to look at how the South’s economy will grow during that period. “Mutual survival and prosperity” was a great title, but it did not include the South.

President Lee recently proposed a “grand bargain” - a one-shot deal to swap the dismantlement of the North’s nuclear program for assistance from the South. The proposal is going in the right direction, but we also need to begin preparations for a coevolution strategy for the two Koreas in a post-denuclearization era.


*The writer is a North Korea studies professor at Ehwa Womans University.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.


by Jo Dong-ho
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