SPEAKING FREELY An Austrian deal for North Korea
By Ronnie Blewer
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
Vienna's post-war independence may point the way to a grand bargain in Asia.
Everyone is contemplating the end of the Kim era. While a change would greatly improve the long-term prospects of the North Korean people, there is fierce disagreement about what a new North Korea should look like and how it can get there. With so many clashing interests, and so little trust between the players, many view the Korean problem as insoluble.
So, why look at Austria? Like Germany, Austria was occupied
after World War II by the Soviet Union, the United States, and other nations. Unlike Germany, which was torn in half and divided into communist and non-communist sections, Austria had the great fortune to regain its independence and prosperity.
The road to this outcome was hard. At the end of 1945, Austria had fought and lost its second world war, and sat divided at the front lines of a new Cold War. It could not be allowed to threaten its neighbors again. Likewise, the clashing interests of the new superpowers had to be balanced.
The bargain reached to achieve Vienna’s independence was built on political independence from Germany, the US and the USSR, and its military neutrality.
Because of the strategic location and nuclear threat status of North Korea, a similar bargain struck between Beijing, Seoul and a reformed Pyongyang would make the most sense for all involved. The price for a new North Korea would be:
Guaranteed political independence from China and South Korea, with internal stability built on economic openness, and not violent coercion.
Military neutrality: Not only must North Korea not threaten its neighbors, it also must not host other nations' armed forces.
The stakes for North Korea's neighbors
Although the Korean people share a common language and cultural heritage, and that bond creates a strong natural attraction, Seoul is conflicted on the reunification question. A fully modernized, unified Korea would be a formidable international economic power, and the wounds from 60 years of separation could finally heal. However, reunification also would require hundreds of billions of dollars over decades to bridge gaps of economic, civil and political development.
China does not want to see a unified Korea, and neither Seoul nor Beijing wants the other to dominate Pyongyang.
Chinese dominance of Pyongyang would greatly upset the regional balance of power. If that were to occur, then South Korea and Japan would almost certainly withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and develop nuclear weapons.
A strange relationship thus exists where the DPRK regime has been kept isolated as possible, but not allowed to implode. It is kept on life support, mainly by China, to prevent a full collapse. A regime failure evokes fears of widespread looting, violence, and millions of desperate refugees on the move toward South Korea and China.
But China's interests are not entirely humanitarian. When it masses troops at the North Korean border, those troops could be used to control refugee flows, or to seize control during a regime collapse.
What does China want?
It is said China uses North Korea as a buffer zone and fears a Korea unified under a government in Seoul. But Beijing is motivated by more than fear. After all, what would a rising, nuclear-armed superpower of a billion people fear from a single Korea that would number only 75 million, and which would be weighed down with civil and economic development issues for decades?
Some possible answers include:
(i) Distraction: Seoul's military has one focus – containment and defense against North Korean aggression. A unified Korea would not only be relieved of this pressure it would be a regional counterweight to Chinese naval dominance, and bases in the north would greatly complicate the picture for China in territorial and commercial disputes.
(ii) Nuclear proliferation: China does not want South Korea to "inherit" North Korean nuclear weapons.
(iii) Access to the Sea of Japan: China has not enjoyed direct access to the Sea of Japan for a century. Direct military access would dramatically affect its strategic position relative to Japan and South Korea. Some also argue that elements of China's leadership would rather control North Korea entirely, and would attempt to invade during a collapse to install a puppet regime.
The complication for Beijing is that it wants a withdrawal of US military forces from Korea. Unfortunately, this is possible only if North Korea denuclearizes, and if its withdrawal does not evoke nuclearization by Seoul or Tokyo. North Korea's present government won't denuclearize without guarantees of economic aid crucial to its survival.
This equation has held an uneasy peace for 20 years since the end of the Cold War. But advances in the DPRK's weapons programs have broken the balance of deterrence. Japan and South Korea have begun to talk about nuclear weapons and Beijing realizes the North Korean nuclear program now risks a larger arms race in Asia.
Beijing realizes North Korea must change: with or without the help of the Kim dynasty. Political independence is impossible without stability.
1945 Austria was a shambles. The transformation from total ruin to viable nation took several years. Like the DPRK, post-War Austria was a very weak nation surrounded by powerful neighbors. It also had a strong cultural bond with Germany.
For North Korea to attain lasting independence, it must counterbalance similar outside pressures. It currently cannot do so, because the Kim regime is neither economically nor politically viable.
The Kim dynasty's survival is made possible only by Chinese aid. The government has been careful to isolate and minimize Chinese political influence. It has also proven untrustworthy and highly resistant to reform.
An example can be found in the recent shutdown of the Kaesong Industrial Complex by the Kim regime. What was a large, successful example of cooperation and detente fell hostage to Kim's extortion efforts. China also has fallen victim, as seen in the seizure of China's Xiyang Group's mining interests in late 2012. Beyond the immediate economic damage, such behavior discourages all forms of external aid and cooperation.
Worse, North Korea's own people are treated as enemies. Kim's nomenklatura cannot continue to run the nation as a prison camp, and expect the inmates to do anything but try to escape or revolt. It is simply impossible for the nation to stabilize if it is at war with itself. Long-term stability and economic prosperity require economic freedom. To compete effectively, it must also allow those people to communicate and interact with the outside world.
China’s economic reforms, begun in the 1980s give an example for how this could be accomplished. In that model, economic freedoms were progressively expanded, but the government's final authority over political questions was left intact.
This sounds great in theory, but in practice there is little to be optimistic about. The North Korean regime has shown no willingness to reform in ways that would allow its people freedom from theft and predation by the ruling class. In the case of Austria, although the government was largely powerless in the face of its occupiers, it remained focused on economic development to fuel its political stability.
Today the US military presence in South Korea exists not to defend Seoul from conventional attack. Its modern purpose is to deter the North's development, threats and proliferation of nuclear weapons technology, and to prevent the nuclearization of South Korea and Japan.
South Korea would easily defeat the North in a conventional war. The South has twice the population, and over 10 times the per capita GDP of North Korea, with a defense budget to match its economic power.
And even if Pyongyang had no nuclear weapons, Seoul would never invade the North absent a regime collapse. China would not allow this.
The true purpose of Pyongyang's nuclear program is to blackmail Japan, South Korea and the US in exchange for aid to the regime. The pattern has been to make wild threats, gain concessions, and re-threaten later.
But the nuclear weapons Kim touts so loudly now work against both Pyongyang and China, because the US’ willingness to protect the South and Japan is in question. As a Chinese general put it, "In the end, you care more about Los Angeles than you do about Taipei." This statement could easily apply to Seoul or Tokyo.
Thus, politicians in both Japan and South Korea have begun to talk increasingly about the need for nuclear weapons.
Beijing is now alarmed, and it has begun to quietly impose its own sanctions against the Kim regime. At this point the only viable nuclear option Pyongyang can now exercise to its profit would be its disarmament.
North Korea’s neighbors would pay dearly for such an effort. But unlike previous false starts, the project would have to actually be completed, with the majority of aid contingent on its completion and also tied to tangible economic and human rights reforms on the part of the Kim regime. Disarmament without real reform would benefit no one.
To ensure its security, a trusted outside party would need to conduct the work, preferably a nation with experience in nuclear disarmament. Russia would make a good candidate to oversee this activity.
In the case of post-War Austria, the occupation forces maintained military control over their respective sectors until the deal for independence was finalized. These forces departed in May 1955. Later that year Austria codified permanent neutrality in its constitution:
"In all future times Austria will not join any military alliances and will not permit the establishment of any foreign military bases on her territory."
Japan, China and South Korea do not want to see the others' military bases in North Korea. Chinese military bases on the Yellow Sea would be especially alarming to Seoul and Tokyo, and trigger the nuclear arms race everyone fears. Even the recent lease to China of commercial shipping facilities in North Korea at Rajin caused a stir throughout the region. Beijing also does not want South Korean military forces so close to its heart.
Guarantees of territorial and military sovereignty by Seoul, Beijing and Japan would relieve the external military pressures on North Korea. That said, the military is the foundation of the Kim regime’s power and a key enforcer of its rule.
At some point the country’s leadership must derive legitimacy from its stewardship of economic growth and openness with the outside world. If it cannot, or will not, there can be no such bargain.
The party behind the Kim dynasty understands its nuclear extortion efforts have backfired. The dilemma is best summed up in the name of a recent article in The Strategy Page, titled "North Korea and the Threat of Derisive Laughter":
"Even with the presence of some nukes (of questionable effectiveness) the North Korean rants no longer terrify. This time around, the reviews have become dismissive and the North Korean leaders are facing a major internal crisis if their bellowing results only in derisive laughter."
Regardless of their seriousness, these threats triggered serious military responses from the US, Japan and South Korea. Beijing does not like this, and has begun to impose serious sanctions on the North Korea. These are intended to tell the regime to moderate, but fall short of forcing a regime crisis. But as the fall of Eastern Europe’s communist governments proved one cannot predict when a collapse will occur. Pyongyang is now a ticking time bomb.
It is now in Beijing and Seoul’s interests to find areas of agreement, and not allow themselves to be manipulated. Pyongyang can and should be an essential partner in its revival, but absolutely can no longer remain an obstacle.
It will not be easy or cheap, but an Austrian framework could offer hope not just for peace in Korea, but the future of its people as well.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
Ronnie Blewer is an IT security and systems management professional . He has degrees in the Russian language and political science from Louisiana State University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.