Don Kirk has some straightforward observations about scholars in Washington, who, remarkably enough, are still debating how North might reform its economy, as though the decade-long Sunshine experiment had never happened. Kirk saves his most acerbic observation for one of the participants in a recent seminar:
Probably no Washington think-tanker has been quite so divorced from reality of late, at least in public utterances, as Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution.
In a recent commentary he held up Vietnam as an example of “what might a reformed North Korea look like”. North Korea today “is about where Vietnam was in the late 1970s”, he wrote, but “that former US enemy has restructured its economy and begun to open its society and politics while retaining communism as official dogma”.
O’Hanlon did not find it necessary to mention that Vietnam did not begin this process until conquering South Vietnam in a protracted war. Nor did he show any awareness of the immense economic power of capitalist South Korea – or the fears engendered among South Koreans by the idea that unification might happen on any terms remotely acceptable to North Korea. [Asia Times]
Nor did O’Hanlon mention Hanoi’s decades-long debates and purges over economic reform, the very suggestion of which is more likely to get you sent to a prison camp in today’s North Korea than to start any kind of discussion. North Korea’s society and economy do appear to be changing, but probably as a result of rising corruption and the fact that people simply can’t live off the state anymore. Even so, the regime has not lost its ardor for reimposing state control where it can. Just as emotions lead some people to believe in believe in horoscopes, they lead others to see reform in these developments. No real evidence supports such a belief. North Korean officials don’t even like the word “reform” (see footnote 36). Yet myths can have great persistence when they lend themselves to solutions that analysts are eager to offer.
“Vietnam has proved that a more gradual path to reform can work for all concerned, including the US and its regional allies,” O’Hanlon wrote. [Asia Times]
The comparison really suggests that O’Hanlon knows very little about Vietnam or North Korea. (O’Hanlon has given us much more realistic analysis — backed by exhaustive research — on Iraq, but no one can be a jack of all trades.)
This entire discussion can remind you of medieval alchemy. It took centuries of misspent wealth for mankind to conclude that at a molecular level, lead is just lead. The same seems destined to happen with Washington’s wishful analysis of North Korea. Ironically enough, reality is taking hold in the South Korean government. The Sunshine experiment now seems to be ending almost as quickly as the life of Park Wang-Ja did.
South Korea plans to suspend shipment to North Korea of material needed for agreed-upon inter-Korean projects, as well as government-level humanitarian aid, a source here said Friday. The move comes in retaliation for Pyongyang’s refusal to cooperate in the investigation into the recent killing of a South Korean tourist by a North Korean soldier, the source added. [Yonhap]
South Korea may shut down its remaining tours to North Korea following the recent shooting death of a female tourist in the communist state’s high-profile mountain resort, an official here said Friday.
President Lee Myung-bak convened his first National Security Council (NSC) meeting earlier in the day to discuss last week’s killing of a South Korean woman by a North Korean soldier on Mount Geumgang. The incident led Seoul to immediately halt the decade-old tour, a symbol of reconciliation between the divided countries. [Yonhap]
The murder of a South Korean citizen, for which North Korea refuses to answer is more than a justification for this. It’s an imperative if North Korea can’t guarantee the safety of South Koreans on the territory it occupies. And if the end of this largess means including more of the North’s elite in the misery currently experienced by the rest of its population, so much the better to hasten the regime’s extinction. Failing that, none of our problems with North Korea will ever be solved anyway.
In place of Sunshine, a new experiment just might be taking shape. What happens now that South Korea insists on some mutuality for once, for the first time since North Korea has acquired a degree of dependence on South Korean aid? Under any circumstances, it’s exceedingly difficult to extract any responsible, transparent, or civilized behavior from North Korea, but Lee Myung Bak probably has as good a chance as anyone.
(Lee will still find it convenient, from time to time, to talk with the North Koreans, and to pretend that he has reduced tensions by doing so. That gambit is such an established part of South Korean politics that cynical voters call it “the North wind.”)
This may be an unsporting occasion to say, “I told you so,” but North Korea still wants nothing to do with “engagement” as past South Korean administrations have sold it. North Korea will tolerate engagement only on its own terms — terms that are antithetical to any meaningful contact between its subjects and the outside world. North Korea’s engagement is a means of preserving the unreformed system by seeking enough outside aid to compensate for its inefficiencies.
Participants in scholarly discussions in foreign capitals have the luxury of believing otherwise. But then, how many of them would be willing to test their theories under the more realistic conditions under which Park Wang-Ja did? It is fitting that this experiment ended in such a modest reaction of inverse alchemy: never in human history has any nation expended so much gold for the ultimate return of a two lead bullets. That is not to say that the alchemy is necessarily complete, of course, given the potential yields of plutonium and uranium.
Related: I don’t know whose asinine idea it was to bring McDonald’s to a nation that appears to be in a worsening famine, and in any event, it’s doubtful that the regime would have gone for it. After all, they have their priorities.