Dealing with North’s harsh reality

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Dealing with North’s harsh reality


Tom Coyner

While reading Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se’s essay “Preparing for Reunification” in the Feb. 13 edition of the Korea JoongAng Daily, I felt both empathy and frustration. But in the end, I can understand why diplomats continue to make seemingly ludicrous, even quixotic, demands of North Korea.

The minister’s column reminded me of a white paper I recently edited for a major Korean research center. The white paper summarized extensive investigations by think tanks of the six-party talk nations, with the exception of North Korea. The shared study looked at nation rebuilding in a reintegrated Korea. Each contributing think tank considered what would need to be done within Korea and what would be the costs and benefits to its own nation as Korea reunified.

To cut to the chase, the paper almost unintentionally detailed how disruptive the DPRK is by its very existence. DPRK is the acronym of North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. It detailed how not only the Koreans, but also the greater international community, including China and Russia, will substantially benefit, in their own self-defined terms, by Korean unification. As may be expected, the independent research teams’ national interests naturally fell into two groups: China and Russia versus the other nations, particularly regarding the post-reunification ROK-U.S. relationship. On the other hand, all five nations found major benefits from reunification. In other words, all the research groups concluded the ensuing costs from a post-DPRK soft landing would make for good long-term returns.

To us in the West, it’s obvious the North Korean government’s isolationist practices forces South Korea to behave more like an island nation than a peninsular one. What is less apparent to us is how much the DPRK acts as a brake on the development of northeast China and southeast Russia. Both neighbors are required to place otherwise needless military allocations in those regions to address North Korea-related smuggling and illegal fishing as well as creating a defense for possible refugee inundations should the Pyongyang government fail. Particularly in the case of China, North Korean refugees have long been a regular source of civic disruption and international censure. Clearly, this is one problem the Chinese would love to see go away.

As former Communist nations, North Korea’s neighbors feel obligated to support their wayward ally, if only to counter what they perceive as U.S. hegemony. Yet, in supporting Pyongyang, large areas tangential to the DPRK borders remain economically underdeveloped compared to the rest of their nations. These neighboring regions are relatively isolated when, in fact, they could be major crossroads between the Pacific region and the rest of their national economies.

So, given all of the latent economic potential surrounding the DPRK in a post-unified Korea, one could naively think that in due time economic factors will triumph and the two Koreas will become one. And that is where the frustration comes in.

Even by Communist standards, the DPRK is essentially a political state with occasional economic tendencies. Recalling the quiet denouement of the cold war, we may argue that what happened was not so much the result of capitalism’s triumph but communism’s demise by self-inflicted wounds. The Soviet bloc’s political dogma ran roughshod over practical economics. Meanwhile, other Communist nations began making major adjustments that allowed capitalism to develop, albeit under Communist monopolistic rule. That is, all but one - North Korea.

The problem remains that the Korean Workers’ Party has ruthlessly and effectively governed a relatively small geography for more than six decades, resulting in the direct and indirect deaths of millions of people from political and economic mismanagement. As a result, the ruling oligarchy must be anxious about retribution by the masses once the big lie becomes widely known. Any change, even for the potential better, is scrutinized in terms of possibly setting off a cascade of events that may weaken the oligarchy’s total control. At the same time, by most accounts, virtually all North Koreans support and identify with their leadership in facing the supposed threat by the surrounding hostile powers, led by the United States. As such, harsh political measures that come at the expense of economic well-being are accepted by the North Korean masses as being inevitable, given the perceived external perils.

In other words, not only the ruling oligarchy, but also the rank and file of North Koreans are political actors with minimal economic interests. Meanwhile, the overall regional community increasingly recognizes the economic drag of the DPRK on this part of the world. But that is of little concern to the North Koreans, given their dedication to continue within their created political paradigm.

For these reasons, reasonable demands for Pyongyang to denuclearize and to become economically integrated with its neighbors are pure nonsense in practical terms. It really should not be so, but that is actually the case - no matter how reasonable political and economic leaders may suggest otherwise.

But the outside world still needs to make sensible yet impractical calls for North Korea to take measures to denuclearize and to liberalize its market. We have no choice. For the international community to recognize North Korea’s overly political rationale for the status quo, including a necessity to hold on to its nukes, etc., would require the world to succumb to DPRK’s warped definition of reality.

Dealing with the DPRK is very much like being Alice in Wonderland. If one thinks in accordance with Wonderland madness, ultimately one loses one’s integrity - and possibly one’s sanity. And yet the Wonderland denizens cannot accept any other reality. Diplomacy does not get any more frustrating than that.

*The author is the president of Soft Landing Consulting, a sales-focused business development firm, and senior adviser to the IPG Legal group.

By Tom Coyner
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