Look to your backyardChoe Tae-bok, chairman of the Supreme People’s Assembly of North Korea and a member of the Politburo of the Workers’ Party, has begged for food aid in his latest visit to the United Kingdom. Choe said that the North may face a critical food shortage in one or two months. Aside from that piece of news, a North Korean delegation consisting of 12 economic bureaucrats recently struggled to learn how the market economy works on an Econ 101 tour of the U.S., which included stops at Google and Bloomberg News. All of those developments appear to be aimed at improving people’s standards of living ahead of 2012. The North is supposed to become, in its own words, a “strong and prosperous nation.”
We are far from sure that such moves will bring about a substantial enhancement of livelihoods up North. Pyongyang has aggressively sought food aid around the world since January, but to no avail. The latest visit to London by Choe, one of the most powerful men in the North, may be a signal of desperation. Such an approach, however, will most likely fall short of feeding the hungry masses as the government will need about one million tons of grain to overcome its food shortage. The North may be missing the days of the two previous South Korean administrations, which provided 300,000 to 500,000 tons of food and fertilizer to the North annually.
The same skepticism applies to the North’s technocrats’ study of the U.S. economy. It’s been striving to nurture so-called “red capitalists” by dispatching economic bureaucrats to China and the West since the early 2000s. This time, of course, it may have gone to the U.S. with some special purpose. But when it comes to the market economy, South Korea would be a better place to start, as a Northern economic delegation clearly understood during a visit here in 2002. At the time, a delegation led by Jang Song-thaek, Kim Jong-il’s brother-in-law and current vice chairman of North Korea’s National Defense Commission, learned how we achieved remarkable economic growth through market economics and exports. If North Koreans wanted to see how industry and academia cooperate with each other during their tour of the U.S., the South could have shown them countless examples of such cooperation.
If the North only changed the way it thinks, it wouldn’t have to go to the U.K. or the U.S. to ask for aid. The North may think its continued military threats will eventually land it substantial support from the South. But that’s a misjudgment. It should give up any expectation of economic aid as long as it sticks to the preposterous claim that the Cheonan sinking was a fabrication by the South. The North must keep in mind that only its cousins in the South can genuinely help with food aid or lessons on capitalism. But it must first genuinely apologize for the Cheonan sinking and the Yeonpyeong Island attack.