A new frontier for prosperityNorth Korea is an isolated island floating in a sea of prosperity. Few things make this clearer than the literal island of Hwanggumpyong, located near China at the mouth of the Amnok River. In stark comparison to the high rises in Dandong, China, the North Korean island has been silent in the four years since the North broke ground on a special economic zone there.
China paid a large sum to build the Amnok River Bridge to the island, but the structure has not been used because the North has not linked any roads to it.
Although North Korea has created special economic zones for each province to attract foreign investments, even China - which made bold investments in Africa and in war-torn parts of the Middle East - has held off. It’s unfortunate that the North has failed to improve the situation. But during my recent 1,400-kilometer (870-mile) journey from Dandong to Fangchuan, I saw hope that the development of North Korea will be the growth engine of our economy for the next decades.
North Korea is the new frontier, and developing this secret territory into a world-class industrial and tourist hub will ensure that the Korean Peninsula becomes a strategic point linking Europe, Asia and the Pacific. It will create an opportunity for Northeast Asian economies to become even more competitive. Geopolitically, the peninsula can play a leading role in making Northeast Asia more peaceful. Unification is the only way to realize this grand dream.
During my six-day odyssey, discussions continued and many agreed that peace is more important than unification, and large investments and economic cooperation are needed to develop the North’s economy.
We cannot deny that North Korea’s economic development will reduce the cost of unification on the peninsula and stimulate changes in the North Korean people.
And yet, we must make some decisions before we lift sanctions or resume economic cooperation with the North. We must decide whether we are willing to give up our zero-tolerance policy regarding the North’s nuclear programs, and if we are comfortable supporting Pyongyang’s economy while it develops its nuclear capabilities.
If we help the North become more capable of fighting pressure from the international community to give up its nuclear ambitions, and if we throw away the bargaining chip of economic incentives in future denuclearization talks, we will be giving up on the dream of a nuclear-free North Korea.
What will be the consequences of this for our security? It would also signal the destruction of the international community’s cooperation to counter the North, and how will we handle that burden?
If the North once again tests nuclear weapons or fires a long-range missile under its space program, sanctions on Pyongyang will be strengthened. There is the possibility that any deal made with the North will be forbidden internationally. In this case, will we be able to protect our companies that made investments in the North?
The last resort to minimize the concerns of providing cash to the North while still supporting its economic development would be to use rice to settle trade between the two Koreas.
North Korean workers’ wages and the bills for North Korean imports can be paid with rice vouchers from the South Korean government. The North can use the vouchers as an alternative form of currency. The rice vouchers can resolve concerns that the rice will be used for military purposes in the North. And yet, it will still increase the North’s fiscal capabilities, hindering the effectiveness of international sanctions on Pyongyang.
Peace is not sustainable unless the North’s nuclear capabilities are removed. It would be a humiliating and risky kind of peace that would hinge on the whims of Kim Jong-un, and it would be a total illusion.
Can we completely trust the security of our 50 million people to the possibility of changing the North Korean leadership with only support and engagement, without actually forcing the North to give up its nuclear programs?
As long as the North possesses and improves its capabilities for massive destruction, peaceful coexistence is fundamentally impossible. That reality is limiting North Korea policy and strategies for unification
During my recent journey, I was assured that the biggest threat to the North Korean regime will come from China, its socialist brother, not South Korea, the successful model of democracy and a capitalist economy.
The supposed viruses from the South can be stopped by the four-kilometer-wide demilitarized zone, but the North will have a hard time explaining the mesmerizing prosperity of China that is clearly visible all along its 1,400-kilometer border.
Will the North Korean regime be safe, when most North Koreans become aware that their country’s anachronistic leadership was what ensured that their fate is so different from the Chinese?
As long as the North Korean leadership wakes up from its dream of receiving redemption via its nuclear weapons, there is no reason North Koreans couldn’t enjoy the prosperity seen in China or Vietnam in recent years.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff. JoongAng Ilbo, Sept. 8, Page 33
*The author is the chairman of the Korean Peninsula Future Forum and former senior presidential secretary of foreign affairs and security.
by Chun Yung-woo