Confusion on North Korea

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Confusion on North Korea

We have experimented with North Korean policies under liberal and conservative administrations. It is hard to credit success to any of them in view of the state of the inter-Korean relationship and the advances made by North Korea in its nuclear weapons program and development of missiles.

The biggest factor was dramatic changes in our North Korea policy by a new administration. Inconsistency in policy has failed to draw meaningful change from the North and made the issues around the Korean Peninsula vulnerable to diplomatic battles by global powers. Moreover, our North Korea policy was taken hostage by our enduring ideological schism. The delayed solutions and escalating problems could one day explode and push the Korean Peninsula to the brink of crisis beyond repair.

The North Korean policy of the incoming administration is bound to fail if it is confused. The new policy must be based on a complete consensus of both the conservatives and liberals. To do this, the current policy should be scrutinized. The conservative governments prized denuclearization over cooperation and exchanges with North Korea. Denuclearization is an essential goal since the country’s security is at risk as long as nuclear threats from North Korean endure.

But it did not produce any effect. President Lee Myung-bak’s tit-for-tat doctrines promising aid and cooperation to help North Korea achieve a per capita income of $30,000 in return for its denuclearization and opening up under different slogans drew ridicule and scorn from the Pyongyang regime. Nor did the sanctions imposed since the fatal shooting of a South Korean tourist on Mt. Kumgang in 2010 humble North Korea. The North Korean economy grew 1.1 percent annually from 2011 to 2014.

The hard-line policy failed because the administration focused on its reasoning more than efficacy. It was naïve to believe that unilateral sanctions by South Korea would devastate North Korea when it could freely trade with China.

The next administration under President Park Geun-hye should have made amends by learning from the mistakes of her predecessor. The government could have found its biggest opportunity in its early stages. Seoul should have proactively accelerated the opening of North Korea. But Park’s policy dithered. Seoul lost the initiative over the North Korean issue to Washington and Beijing after Pyongyang carried out its fourth and fifth nuclear tests.

The Park Geun-hye administration has left the incoming government one option. The U.S. would disallow an inflow of cash to North Korea at a time when the regime threatens to fire long-range missiles with nuclear warheads as far as the U.S. mainland. Seoul would be inviting a showdown with Washington if it returns to an engagement policy towards Pyongyang when the new administration of Washington considers North Korea as big a threat as Islamic militants. Our options are few unless North Korea changes its attitudes in a fundamental way.

The direction of the Sunshine Policy under the liberal governments was right. Economic aid and cooperation helped improve the well-beings of North Koreans and accelerated the opening up to a market economy. North Koreans were able to learn the principles of capitalism through joint ventures on Mt. Kumgang and in the Kaesong Industrial Park.

But it fell short. The innocent belief that the dictator would give up nuclear weapons if there were economic interactions should be cast away. Politicians that insist on inter-Korean cooperation regardless of progress on denuclearization are foolish.

A North Korea policy should be directed at engagement, but the means must be advanced, diversified and refined. We must look through the telescope for the right path to arrive at our destination of a peaceful union.

The best way to reach that is economic integration based on a market economy. When the society and economy revolves around a market economy, the governance style inevitably would change. It cannot withhold market pressure for long.

At the same time we must apply microscopic scrutiny through a precise and cool-headed understanding of current affairs. At the current standing, there is no better option than the sanctions led by the UN Security Council. The effect of the sanctions hinges on toughness and speed. Rigid international sanctions have a better chance at success than the May 24, 2010 unilateral sanctions by South Korea.

Humanitarian aid, especially for children, must continue. The Ministry of Unification was right to approve the Eugene Bell Foundation’s request to ship medication for tuberculosis to North Korea. It is paradoxical to call for improvement in human rights in North Korea while neglecting its humanitarian troubles. The cost of unification would fall if more North Koreans stay healthy.

Peace and unification will not come as a windfall. It is a byproduct of hard work among all the people on both the conservative and liberal sides.
Translation by the Korea JoognAng Daily staff.

JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 2, Page 27

*The author is an economics professor at Seoul National University.

Kim Byung-yeon
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