|March 10, 2001||atimes.com|
Festering Pyongyang endangers all of Asia
By Francesco Sisci
Is anybody prepared for the collapse of North Korea?
The reportedly huge number of refugees fleeing from the country to China raises the possibility of the collapse of the Pyongyang regime. The 300,000 North Koreans said to have left the country in the past four years represent well over 1 percent of the population. Putting this number in context with the active measures against their flight taken by North Korea's neighbors, including and foremost South Korea, and the fact that the refugees are at great risk if caught, then we can conclude that the Pyongyang regime has serious internal problems if so many people still want to flee.
In Eastern Germany, despite the active measures of the West encouraging the flight of refugees, there wasn't such an large exodus in so short a time before the fall of the Berlin Wall. If China, Russia or South Korea were to encourage flights from the North, possibly millions would leave the country, bringing about the collapse of the Northern regime.
Yet, South Korea doesn't want the fall of the "wall", arguably also because of the German experience. The collapse of the Pyongyang regime would mire the South in decades of economic difficulties. This in turn would affect the Japanese economy, already suffering from a decade of crisis. In fact, in 1997 Japan was drawn into the financial crisis by the fall of the South Korean won. It is highly unlikely that Tokyo would be willing to let North Korea fall apart, see the South Korean economy in chaos and, as the richest country in the region, face having to cover part of the bill.
China has somewhat similar feelings. With the collapse of the Pyongyang regime, Beijing would experience highly unwelcome chaos at its borders. The Northeast of China has a 2 million-strong ethnic Korean minority, is home to some of its worst performing State Owned Enterprises, and its cities "boast" near 40 percent unemployment. Chaos could just too easily spill over the border, or, in the "best-case" scenario, China would also be asked to foot part of the bill for the reconstruction of North Korea.
China, South Korea and Russia are pushing for reforms in the North that could stop the tide of flights, but have met with with little success so far. The only tangible progress is the work on rebuilding the rail and road links between North and South. But these could hardly bring about the welfare needed to stem the flow of refugees.
Then there is the Theatre Missile Defense (TMD) system. As Asia Times Online Bush to Kim and Between a rock has already noted, the TMD puts South Korean President Kim Dae-jung on the spot: it is unclear why the North should carry on with the peace process with the South if it will get pushed around by the American TMD.
Certainly, that the TMD is actually aimed at China and North Korea is a fig leaf, nevertheless, Pyongyang would bear the brunt of the pressure. The message of the past American administration to China was "keep North Korea under control or we'll go on with the TMD"; the present US message is "we'll go ahead with TMD no matter what happens in North Korea". In other words, as it is presented now, the TMD further complicates the North Korean predicament without contributing any solution to the crucial problem: the flight of refugees and the welfare of the North Korean people.
Of course, in all this there is a conundrum: to stop the flight of refugees the world should buttress, with aid, one of the most horrible regimes in the world. In other words, the money that we are throwing to the North now actually helps the regime survive by feeding its starved police, who in turn hunt down the people who want to flee the country.
Conversely, if we take the TMD in its cruder consequences, we have harsh confrontation with the North, thus harsher living conditions there, more flights, the weakening of the regime and, arguably, its collapse, which is something its neighbors certainly don't want to see.
Japan is for the TMD but against the collapse of the Northern regime. China is both against the TMD and the collapse of the Northern regime. This leaves Tokyo and Beijing with one alternative: discussions with each other on their own security. The US should also be involved in this discussion, which should draw the lines of a new, reasonable security framework in Asia after the eventual collapse of the Northern regime. This means looking at Northern Asia in 20-30 years, which is the time that Seoul needs to build an economy strong enough to absorb the North.
This in turn will need a sophisticated, nuanced and hard-nosed coordinated policy on North Korea, not wet sentimentalism. The purpose is to save millions of starving North Koreans without endangering millions of its neighbors and the welfare of all of Asia. This coordinated approach should force some stronger reform measures on the North. Without it, Pyongyang could carry on festering, until the time comes when it will pass along its ills, as well as its refugees, to its neighbors.
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