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     Dec 15, 2012

Kim Jong-eun should fear Sunshine
By Andrei Lankov

Whatever policy towards North Korea will be chosen by the new South Korean government following the December 19 presidential election, it seems clear that it will be significantly softer than that followed by the Lee Myung-bak administration.

Right now it appears that Park Geun-hye, the candidate of the moderate right, has better chance of winning, but it is unlikely that she will continue with the hardline policy of her predecessor.

This looming dovish turn is likely to annoy some people on the political right in South Korea. They often vilify aid to, and cooperation with North Korea as "appeasement", and they point to the obvious lack of reciprocity in North-South relations. It is stated that the money earned by Pyongyang through exchanges

with the South is used to strengthen North Korean leader Kim Jong-eun's rule.

These accusations have within them a kernel of truth. In few, if any, cases have interactions between North and South Korea been equal. Much of these interactions are officially termed "economic exchanges", but in most cases they are heavily subsidized by the South Korean government. To be blunt, without direct or indirect subsidies neither the Kaesong industrial complex, nor the now defunct Keumgang and Kaesong city tours would be viable economically.

It is also true that the North Korean government takes the lion's share of all the "profits" from such "economic cooperation" projects, then re-distributing this income as it sees fit. It is indeed likely that many secret police in North Korea have been paid indirectly by the South Korean taxpayers.

However, things are not so simple as all that. Economic exchanges do not merely fill the coffers of the regime, but also introduce dangerous knowledge about the outside world to North Koreans who are involved.

A North Korean seamstress in a Kaesong textiles factory has a South Korean manager to whom she has to talk every day. When the Kaesong city tours were in operation, the entire city of Kaesong could see busloads of South Koreans whose behaviour and dress clearly demonstrated that they were not merely the enslaved, downtrodden pawns of US imperialism. The same can be said about virtually any interaction between North and South Koreans.

For decades, the North Korean government has insisted very shrilly that North Koreans "live lives without envy worldwide" and enjoy extraordinary material prosperity. The outside world was alleged to be a living hell, a veritable inferno of human suffering, with South Korea the worst of this world. These claims were important because the North Korean government justified its right to rule through its alleged ability to deliver material prosperity and economic growth.

Unfortunately for the North Korean elite, this is exactly the area where their failure has been most spectacular.

Once the most industrially advanced region of continental East Asia, North Korea is now a basket case, hopelessly lagging behind its neighbors. Therefore, knowledge of the outside world and foreign lifestyles is understandably very dangerous politically, and the North Korean government has gone to great lengths to hide from its citizens the scale of the economic successes of the outside world (especially, tremendous economic success of South Korea).

However, spontaneous inter-personal exchanges - an unavoidable product of the economic interactions - are undermining this policy of enforced ignorance about the outside world.

The spread of dangerous knowledge is something that we, of course, should welcome. If the common North Koreans and, especially, lower strata of elite (those with no vested interest in keeping the present system going) learn about the yawning gap between the North and South, they are highly likely to demand massive changes.

This may mean revolution, but it may also create internal pressure for reforms among lower levels of the elite, thus pushing Pyongyang towards abandoning its current anachronistic system. Either way, the spread of information will put North Korean decision-makers under considerable pressure from within, and this is the best way to ensure that North Korea will start changing.

It might be argued that information might be pushed into the country through various means (for instance. through broadcasts, leaflets and the like). Though such information operations are already being undertaken, they are part of what is termed "psychological warfare" and are likely to be seen as such by North Koreans themselves as well. When a North Korean sees a leaflet, she understands that this leaflet was sent to influence her mind, and this understanding (combined with ingrained mistrust for all propaganda) makes her somewhat skeptical about leaflet content. Thus effect is less pronounced than the impact of spontaneous and uncontrolled exchanges which result from personal interactions day-to-day.

This author grew up in the Soviet Union of the 1970s, and nearly everyone around me listened to foreign radio broadcasts, but exposure to other kinds of Western information was quite limited (it was a largely working class social milieu, after all). News from foreign broadcasts was discussed and taken rather seriously, but it was still widely understood that we were dealing with propaganda meant for us, not with some impartial news source.

At the same time, stories told by those few Soviet people who had had interactions with Westerners were the object of much interest, and were treated as more reliable and authentic source of information about the outside world. There is little reason to believe that North Koreans react to a similar situation any differently.

In some cases, unintended consequences follow on even from events planned and micro-managed by the North Korean authorities themselves. A perfect example is the 1989 visit of Im Su-gyong to Pyongyang (then she was a prominent radical Left-wing student activist, and now she is a member of the South Korean National Assembly). Im Su-gyong went to North Korea in defiance of the South Korean National Security Law in order to take part in the International Youth and Student Festival (then being held in Pyongyang).

Im was, and judging by her recent controversial remarks perhaps still is, a moderate sympathizer of the North Korean regime. Therefore she proved herself willing to follow the scripts produced by the North Korean agitprop for her. But her unrestrained and spontaneous enthusiasm and her unusual (by the then North Korean standards) style of dress was fascinating and indeed shocking (in a very positive way) for common North Koreans.

Many North Korean refugees have told me that Im's visit was the first event that seriously made them reconsider the officially sanctioned image of South Korea as a near starving colony of the US. If such an impact could be produced by a zealous leftist activist in her early 20s, what are the results of interactions with far more normal and mature South Koreans.

Thus, contrary to what is often stated, economic cooperation between North and South Korea is not merely a way to appease Kim Jong-eun and to line the regime's pockets with the hard-earned won of South Korean taxpayers. The actual impact is far more ambivalent than such rhetoric leads one to believe.

The South-North cooperation means exchanges, and exchanges are creating ferment for change which in due time might bring a radical transformation to the long-suffering land of North Korea.

Therefore, this correspondent hopes that in the next few years we will see a revival of the economic interaction and interpersonal exchanges between two Korean states. This will be good for the common Koreans, and not that good for the Kim family and their close henchmen.

Dr Andrei Lankov is a lecturer in the faculty of Asian Studies, China and Korea Center, Australian National University. He graduated from Leningrad State University with a PhD in Far Eastern history and China, with emphasis on Korea, and his thesis focused on factionalism in the Yi Dynasty. He has published books and articles on Korea and North Asia. He is currently on leave, teaching at Kookmin University, Seoul.

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