[Viewpoint] North Korea on a highway to crisis

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[Viewpoint] North Korea on a highway to crisis

The North Korean regime could come down like its football performance - in sudden and extreme form. In its first World Cup appearance in 44 years, the North Korean football squad gave an impressive performance in the first half of the group matches, allowing just one goal ahead of its own in the first match against the world’s No. 1 football nation, Brazil. In the first half, it held its ground against the football powerhouse Portugal despite the latter’s opening goal. The bottom-ranked football team with little overseas experience, representing the world’s most oppressive and closed nation, had the look of leaving an extraordinary mark on World Cup history.

But it was just not that easy. After giving up another goal just minutes after the second half whistle, the North Korean team began to crumble. Their toughness and intrepidity were instantly wiped away. The stout and well-organized defensive line of the previous half -hour was nowhere to be seen, and five more goals were scored in the following minutes. The mystifying North Korean football team lay devastated.

There is no knowing when the undaunted North Korean regime will collapse in such an epic way. The insular Hermit Kingdom has lasted more than 60 years, even when the walls of the Cold War crumbled elsewhere, barely surviving as a tiny communist island in the vast sea of capitalism. It may not collapse quickly. But the world is becoming a more hostile habitat for the rare species known as North Korea.

The state needs to undergo a radical metamorphosis and evolution if it wants to maintain its heritage. It must do so before the social cracks become too wide to fix. Silent fissures could bring down the lofty walls around the regime in an instant, resembling the rapid collapse of the football team once its vulnerability and weaknesses had been exposed.

The North Korean regime is already insecure. It announced it will hold a meeting of delegates of the ruling Worker’s Party - the first in 44 years - in September, suggesting something out of the ordinary is in the making. The surprising currency revaluation and attack on our naval ship the Cheonan may be ominous harbingers. The move to crown Kim’s twentysomething third son with absolute power, with his uncle established as his patron, reflects the instability of Kim Jong-il’s health and leadership.

We therefore must be prepared. First of all we must ready ourselves for the inevitable and imminent collapse of the familiar North Korean regime. We may be in the eye of a storm, or in the first half of the match against Portugal.

In this current stage, we can help North Korea avoid a catastrophic fall, which would be in our own national interest, and lessen the suffering of the North Koreans. We must map out a delicate strategy to usher North Korea toward reform, becoming an open society receiving respect and regard as a global community member.

We can start down this path by deserting our past ambition of building “bridges” to North Korea. The policies on North Korea of the past liberal governments and the Lee Myung-bak administration may differ most on the method of establishing ties between the Koreas.

The Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun governments wanted to extend as many bridges as possible. They believed bridges of brick, wood or cement would lead the way to North Korea and its people. They built the bridges for free and obsessed over making more.

The incumbent Lee Myung-bak administration stresses the quality, not the quantity of the bridges. It wants to build at least one lasting bridge out of steel for perpetual coexistence. It also wants North Korea to shoulder a part of the construction cost. The bargain is that we will do the financing, while the North opens its market and goes nuclear-free.

But for a comprehensive future plan, bridges are not enough. We must start building interchanges and overpasses to allow intricate traffic and networking. Under current conditions, the Cheonan crisis and normal inter-Korean relations cannot move beyond this bottleneck. The Korea-U.S. alliance alone cannot provide a catalyst for a breakthrough. We cannot even expect condemnation from the United Nations without the support of China and Russia.

We must break ground for roads allowing traffic from North Korea to its neighboring four nations and overpasses for transport to other parts of the world. The current road infrastructure needs fixing and widening as well. We don’t need to be upset by China’s coolness. It was our own fault for lacking the right approach. We must take the initiative in building various channels for inter-Korean interaction. Fretting and bargaining over the bridges by making new ones or cutting old ones won’t prompt any of the desired changes in North Korea. We need a more complex traffic infrastructure so that we will be less shocked and damaged by the inevitable fall of the North Korean regime.

*The writer is a professor on North Korean studies at Ewha Womans University.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Cho Dong-ho
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