Focus on the North’s economy
As the Park Geun-hye administration announced at the beginning of the Korean Peninsula trust initiative, the basic principle would be an evolving North Korea policy. The administration wished to proactively manage the situation on the Korean Peninsula by changing its policies according to how the situation developed.
While that principle was appropriate and fair, even the Ministry of Unification seems to have forgotten all about it. Instead, the government’s responses to North Korea have been passive. And we have missed many chances to operate the so-called trust process more fully.
In retrospect, the direction that Kim Jong-un’s North Korea is pursuing is obvious. They want to revive the country’s economy. But their priority was to establish a firm political foundation for the young and untested leader.
Three years ago, Kim Jong-un became the leader of North Korea. Due to the unexpected death of his father, Kim Jong-il, he assumed power even before he turned 30. Therefore, securing political stability was, understandably, his top priority. He needed to be acknowledged by the power elite of North Korea and couldn’t afford to care about foreign policy or the relationship with South Korea. Unlike his father, he took various high positions all at once. Also, he frequently changed party executives and promoted and demoted generals as he wished.
It was an effort to make clear that he was the highest leader of the country. The climax was the purge of his uncle, Jang Song-thaek. This served as a bloody announcement that he no longer needed a guardian - and a warning that no one should try to supplant or undermine him.
However, the foundation of a regime is not created by political stability alone. It must be supported by economic stability as well. A leader requires popular support as much as the loyalty of the elite.
In the end, economic recovery has to be a core task. As political stability was prepared in spring 2013, Kim Jong-un proclaimed the simultaneous pursuits of economic growth and nuclear development. As its security was not guaranteed, North Korea could not give up its nuclear program, but it also couldn’t neglect the economy any further. It was a North Korean version of President Park Chung-hee’s slogan, “Let’s build while fighting.”
Resolving the economic problem would prove that he became the leader because he is capable, not merely because he is the grandson of Kim Il Sung and son of Kim Jong-il.
However, the problem is capital. With little domestic capital, North Korea has to rely on foreign capital. As a result, seven additional special economic zones, in addition to the existing four, and three special tourism districts have been designated. Also, 13 economic development zones have been created and six more were added in July 2014. Foreign investors, it seems, are welcome all over North Korea. It is a big change from the mere four special economic zones around the border during the Kim Jong-il era.
However, countries are reluctant to invest in North Korea. The United States is ignoring the initiative, and the European Union isn’t much keener. Russia cannot afford to invest, and Japan still has the abductees issue blocking its investment. China is not very enthusiastic either. The political relationship has cooled down recently, and Beijing is more concerned about its own underdeveloped regions.
So while Pyongyang has made some progress, especially by signaling its intentions, it will take time before actual investments are made. In the end, South Korea is the only option.
Therefore, it is reasonable to interpret the visit of three key North Korean figures to Seoul on Saturday as an attempt to create a reconciliatory mood. In fact, their attendance of the Asian Games closing ceremony was not necessary. The purpose of their visit was to rekindle the relationship with Seoul to resolve the North’s economic problems. The use of Kim Jong-un’s private jet showed the seriousness of their visit. While Choe Ryong-hae and Kim Yang-gon wore suits, Hwang Pyong-so showed up in his military uniform, sending a sign that not only the party and the cabinet but also the military are willing to improve inter-Korean relations. On Sept. 27, North Korean foreign minister Ri Su-yong addressed the United Nations and emphasized the importance of economic development.
Our North Korean policy should now evolve. By using North Korea’s prioritization of the economy, we can reinforce economic cooperation in any direction we desire. Of course, there is the nuclear and the human rights issue. But Seoul cannot resolve these issues alone, and they should be approached from a multilateral and long-term perspective.
We need to pursue bilateral and multilateral relations simultaneously. Human rights and nuclear issues should be tackled while we pursue economic cooperation. We need to deviate from the both engagement policy of the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations and the enclave policy under Lee Myung-bak to entice North Korea from various angles. We should also encourage Pyongyang to focus more on the economy than on its nuclear program. That would be the core of an evolving North Korean policy and the direction we should pursue.
*Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 7, Page 29
*The author is the director of the Ewha Institute of Unification Studies.