SPEAKING FREELY Leap of faith needed on North Korea
By Zhiqun Zhu
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The international community has tried two different approaches in dealing with North Korea: South Korea's Sunshine Policy and the West's sanctions and isolation. Both have failed to achieve their objectives. It is time for the international community to be more creative and develop different strategies.
North Korea designated six more special economic zones (SEZs)
in July in areas across the country, including the capital, Pyongyang. The number of SEZs in North Korea has reached 33. Is North Korea opening up economically? How should the international community respond?
Experts disagree on the state of the North Korean economy. Some think North Korea's economy is highly unstable, with growing corruption, a widening income gap and chronic food shortage. Others argue that the problems such as corruption and income inequality may be signs of growing pains as North Korea begins to open up. Optimists such as Professor Dongho Jo of Ewha Womans University estimate that the North Korean economy may be growing at a 5 percent annual rate.
Many wonder whether North Korea is following in China's footsteps in reforming its economy. According to Professor Zhao Hujie, a Korea expert at China's Central Party School, transformation of political philosophy and national security guarantee are the two preconditions for opening up, and North Korea does not meet either condition.
However, Kim Jong-eun is trying to do something his father and grandfather had not been able to achieve: economic growth and nuclear development simultaneously, or the byungjin line. The objective remains the same: turning North Korea into a kangs ng taeguk (strong and prosperous nation).
China has followed a "two Koreas" policy since 1992, when the Republic of Korea established diplomatic ties with China, although China has remained the most significant supporter of the North Korean regime.
In recent years, China has developed a much closer relationship with the South, as evidenced by Xi Jinping's trip to Seoul in July without ever visiting the North. Kim Jong-eun, who has not visited China yet after succeeding his father in December 2011, is exploring various options to decrease his regime's heavy reliance on China, including reaching out to Japan, Russia and Southeast Asian countries.
Kim Jong-eun faces a dilemma: for North Korea to open up, it has to change its political ideology, which will weaken the regime's basis of legitimacy. But if it does not open up, its legitimacy may also be weakened due to the poor performance of its sluggish economy. That's perhaps why so many questions remain unanswered. Is Kim a potential reformer? Does he have a firm grip of both the military and economy? After the execution of his uncle, Jang Song-thaek, who is in charge of the economy?
Too many issues are competing for the attention of the United States, the only global power today. The United States has largely outsourced the North Korea problem to China and South Korea and put the North Korea issue on the back burner. As Kenneth Bae complained, the US government seems to have abandoned him despite the US Department of State's claim of persistent efforts to seek his release. Bae, an American citizen, was imprisoned by North Korea in November 2012 and sentenced to 15 years in a North Korean labor camp in spring 2013.
Optimists think that Kim Jong-eun is young and malleable, and more cosmopolitan than his father - due to his teenage years in Switzerland. This Western experience may shape his world view to be more pragmatic and less ideological, just like Deng Xiaoping, who studied in France as a young man, was different from Mao Zedong, who never ventured beyond the former Soviet Union.
The problem is that we do not know what exactly is in Kim Jong-eun's mind. If we give him more time, he may be taking advantage of it to improve North Korea's weapons system. As the nuclear talks remains deadlocked, the human-rights conditions continue to deteriorate in North Korea.
The UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) on human rights in the DPRK released a report in February documenting human-rights violations in North Korea and calling for urgent action by the international community to address the situation in the country, including referral to the International Criminal Court.
Michael Kirby, chairman of the COI, called North Korea "a dark abyss where the human rights, the dignity and the humanity of the people are controlled, denied and ultimately annihilated".
Among wide-ranging recommendations to the international community, the commission called on the UN Security Council to adopt targeted sanctions against those who appear to be most responsible for crimes against humanity, stressing that these should not be targeted against the population or the economy. However, it is not clear how such sanctions will not affect the population or the economy.
On the other hand, if diplomats come to the conclusion prematurely that Kim is just another dictator and continue to isolate him, there is a risk of losing the opportunity to influence his decision-making and integrate North Korea into the international system. As North Korea expert Marcus Noland noted, it would be a mistake to characterize North Korea as unchanging or completely opaque.
Different signals from North Korea, especially positive ones such as the establishment of SEZs, warrant more international attention. South Korea and China are the two biggest stakeholders of North Korea's future and must take the leadership role in the new approach.
Building upon President Park Geun-hye's policy of incremental trust-building process, South Korea and China can develop a policy called "principled engagement": continue to engage North Korea and leave the door open for further cooperation, but provocations from North Korea must be countered firmly.
The success of joint South Korea-China efforts to bring about North Korea's soft landing requires strong support from the United States. If the United States can alleviate China's security concerns in a post-Kim Korean peninsula, such as promising to withdraw or significantly reduce US troops on the peninsula, China will be ready to change its policy and even cut its economic aid to North Korea.
After all, China is no longer solely an ally of North Korea and not the South, as many mistakenly believe. North Korea-China relations are being transformed from a party-to-party relationship to a more normal state-to-state relationship in which national interests prevail over ideologies.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Zhiqun Zhu is a professor of political science and international relations at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania and a POSCO visiting fellow at the East-West Center in Hawaii.