North Korea

.. e system could unravel the DPRK, as happened to the socialist regimes of eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. For the Kim Il Sung regime, as one analyst put it, the lessons of history are unequivocal: to ‘reform’ is to die. 14 Soon the two Kims and their economic planners are bound to confront sobering questions: whether a cautious, controlled economic opening would help answer their prayer, or whether the opening should be substantial, analogous to the Chinese model, in order to bring in sufficient amounts of technology, capital, essential imports of machinery and oil and other needed goods, and to generate the exports to pay for much of those imports. 15 These questions clearly have implications for Pyongyang’s political, military, and nuclear policies.

Major shortcomings seen in Pyongyang’s economic future will likely remain unresolved unless the two Kims come to realize that their future lies in trade and at least some interdependence with neighbors and the rest of the world. SOUTH KOREA AND THE MAJOR POWERS Reconciliation with Seoul remains a central question for Pyongyang, but will be difficult, given the North’s long history of ideological disdain for its archrival. Kim Il Sung’s own dogma leaves no room for a separatist South Korea, and demands that in any case the South must be liberated first from U.S. occupation before it can join the North in a unified confederation. Not surprisingly, North Korea has tried to bend South Korea’s agenda for inter-Korean reconciliation to suit its own.

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16 Substantively, it can not bring itself to accommodate the much larger South Korea, condemning its agenda for peaceful coexistence as one tantamount to criminal treason, anti-unification, and unforgivable subservience to foreign interests. In recent years, however, the North Korean regime has come a long way in recognizing that there is an established, robust regime in Seoul it has to reckon with. This is not surprising, given the regime’s awareness of South Korea’s relative power and its heightened concern about being absorbed by South Korea. Some believe that the more Pyongyang feels threatened, the greater the likelihood that it will appeal to Seoul for a negotiated unity. Pyongyang may even begin to court its former enemy South Korea for its own self-preservation.

17 If so, Pyongyang will obviously have to rethink its policy aimed at independence and democratization of South Korea. 18 It is possible that Pyongyang may try to have it both ways: substantive linkage with South Korea while maintaining its assertion that South Korea must change its ways first if the two Koreas are to reconcile their differences. In any case, even as it publicly derides South Korea’s bankrupt economy, North Korea now seems to have no qualm about asking for its investments and economic assistance. This was evident in its behind-the-scenes contacts in 1992-93 with South Korean business firms represented in Beijing, soliciting their participation in Pyongyang’s new 7-Year plan slated to begin in 1994. North Korea might get some needed help for three reasons: South Korean firms are eager to bring an end to their own sluggish business by cashing in on the North’s cheap labor; A perception in Seoul that South Korea should invest in the North to counter a possible Japanese economic dominance developing in the North; 19 And growing perceptions in Seoul and elsewhere that aiding the North now can be a less costly alternative to its collapse that, analysts fear, would impact severely on South Korea’s own economic and political stability. Where the two Koreas are concerned, the United States, Japan, China, and Russia all have one interest in common: a stable and nuclear-free Korean peninsula. Pyongyang’s relations with each of these countries will be crucial to its overall future direction.

The future of Pyongyang’s relationship with Washington depends on the outcome of several unresolved issues. The most pressing now concerns Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program, the existence of which it denies while refusing to establish the veracity of its own claim by allowing IAEA inspections. Pyongyang argues that the nuclear issue can be resolved only through direct meetings between the DPRK and the United States. The U.S. position is that Pyongyang must comply with the IAEA special inspection because of the obligations it assumed under the nuclear nonproliferation treaty (NPT).

A second issue involves the U.S. military presence in the South. The communist North wants U.S. troops out of the South, its argument being that the cold war is over and that the U.S. military presence is the primary source of threat to the North.

However, given the triangular nature of ties among Washington, Seoul, and Pyongyang, the North’s policy toward Washington is bound to affect its policy toward Seoul. This means that unless Pyongyang’s resolve to coexist with Seoul becomes credible, its demand for U.S. withdrawal could be misconstrued in Seoul as a continuing attempt to undermine South Korea. In the short run, it can be argued that the U.S. presence can be in Pyongyang’s own interest as the presence could become a potentially stabilizing force as the two Koreas strive for mutual reconciliation.

Russia incurred the wrath of Pyongyang in September 1990 by normalizing its relationship with South Korea. Relations have remained tense since then, despite North Korean-Russian bilateral talks in January 1993 aimed at improving the relationship and despite their interim accord that the 1961 mutual defense treaty would remain in place, until 1995, at least.20 According to Moscow, two major problems are yet to be resolved: Pyongyang’s failure to pay off a part of its debt to Moscow (totalling 3.3 billion of hard currency ruble, at the 1990 exchange rate): and North Korea’s insistence that Russia should stay out of Pyongyang’s dispute with the IAEA over the safeguards inspection issue. 21 Pyongyang has remained silent about China’s establishment of diplomatic relations with South Korea in 1992. With its increasingly weakened economic and security ties to Russia, North Korea can ill afford to antagonize China, Pyongyang’s last and perhaps only source of outside support. Despite recent unconfirmed reports of border clashes, an intense effort has been under way to cultivate China’s good will and economic and military support. So far, China has sought to accommodate Kim Il Sung as far as possible within the framework of its broader domestic and foreign policy agenda. In late 1991, China reportedly promised an increase in military aid.

22 In addition, to help the North weather its crisis of oil and foreign exchange shortages, Beijing reconsidered its decision to require that goods be paid for in hard currency. The decision was to go into effect in 1993. China also retains considerable leverage over Pyongyang’s foreign affairs and has played a key role in bringing Washington and Pyongyang together for direct talks over the nuclear inspection and NPT issues. North Korea stands to receive several billion dollars from Japan as part of Tokyo’s pre-World War II compensations (For injuries to Korea during Japan’s occupation from 1910 to 1945). That would have been the case if its talks for diplomatic normalization, begun in 1991, had been completed. The talks were stymied by discords, notably the nuclear safeguards inspection issue.

In time, there seems to be no question about Japan becoming perhaps the most important contributor to the development or resurrection of Pyongyang’s economy. That prospect remains a concern of South Korean economic planners and policymakers. 23 POSSIBLE OUTCOMES Four outcome scenarios seem likely in the 1990s: status quo, reform, hardline, and collapse. Although these scenarios are analytically discrete, they could overlap to a degree. THE STATUS QUO Suppose that North Korea believes effective internal control is crucial both to ensuring self-preservation and to facilitating reform.

If so, the Kim Jong Il regime seems certain to continue rigorous political control to enforce discipline and obedience–and try to keep the North Korean society insulated from foreign ideas and cultures. Economically, however, the regime would continue to search for low-risk ways to increase productivity and improve the standard of living. That will require a reshuffling of priorities, with more resources being allocated to economic development and away from military expenditures. Yet, as long as Kim Jong Il feels insecure in the near term, his dependence on the military will continue undiminished. The KPA is bound to retain dominant influence over the North’s domestic, inter-Korean, and foreign policy issue areas.

And Pyongyang is likely to continue to view the military as its only leverage with Washington and Seoul. The dilemma for Kim Jong Il will be how to balance these two conflicting priorities. The status quo would have other consequences. Under the cloud of international suspicions about its nuclear intentions, Pyongyang will likely remain isolated and feel its security threatened, and may have trouble appearing credible in making any overtures to Seoul, Washington, and Tokyo. 24 Nor will the status quo solve Pyongyang’s endemic shortages of daily necessities.

REFORM This scenario assumes a moderation in Pyongyang’s current pattern of economic, inter-Korean, and foreign policy approaches, since Pyongyang’s trustworthiness as a partner for foreign investment and trade will be pivotal to reform. Probably the most plausible scenario of this type is a gradual, modest reform. In the near term, a major structural reform would appear ruled out in order to protect the myth of Kim Il Sung’s brilliant leadership. There are two qualifications. A substantive reform (along with wrenching pains of uncertain transition) will come as a last resort if the political elite led by Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il become convinced that their collective survival depends on major changes. Another scenario for a comprehensive change postulates a possible coup by a counter elite made up of reformist generals and technocrats.

Near-term reform can be essentially an extension of the current effort to increase output of consumer goods, promote tourism, provide some monetary incentives to workers and farmers, and attract South Korean and Western investment and technology. Although these steps fall short of what outsiders might call real reforms, their success is crucial if more comprehensive reform is to occur. In any case, the future of the regime’s reforms, real or otherwise, could be gauged by the following, selective indicators: A tangible shift in resource allocation in favor of nonmilitary and light industrial sectors; Economic transparency through release of comprehensive, verifiable data; Significantly increased investment in science and technology, coupled with willingness to dispatch North Korean students, scientists, and technicians to advanced countries most actively interested in North Korea’s economic productivity; Relaxation of restrictions on in-country business-related travels by foreign businesspersons and technicians including South Koreans; A substantial boost in manufacturing of labor-intensive, higher-grade consumer goods for exports to South Korea and Southeast Asian countries to earn hard currency; and Rescheduling of foreign debt payments. Reform can be measured also by Pyongyang’s good faith involvement in inter-Korean confidence building in both the political and military sectors. Heading the list will be new efforts to resolve the impasse over inspections of North Korea’s nuclear facilities.

Other steps include initiation of a regular, controlled inter-Korean family reunions; inter-Korean mail exchanges; a joint development of tourist facilities at Mount Kumgang just north of the DMZ on the east coast, or at Mount Paektu on the North Korean-Chinese border; and a reconnection of severed railroad lines. Moderation could be also largely symbolic such as the possible disbanding of the Pyongyang-sponsored anti-South Korean political underground–the Korean National and Democratic Front. A moderate scenario would also have implications for North Korea’s foreign policy. In dealing with the United States, North Korea could drop its fixation with anti-imperialism in favor of a more pragmatic and flexible approach. The North might initiate a formal proposal to exchange semi-diplomatic liaison offices, embark on a good faith attempt to return the remains of American MIAs, and/or be willing to participate in a possible Northeast Asian regional security dialogue.

With Japan, Pyongyang could press for an early normalization of relations with Japan, even before the resolution of old pending issues. Of course, change in relations with both Washington and Tokyo will be contingent on increased efforts to resolve differences over North Korea’s nuclear program. HARDLINE A hardline scenario presumes that North Korea will forgo its fledgling reform program and intensify its coercive domestic and foreign policy efforts. For decades, North Korea’s domestic and foreign policy has tended to feature more hardline than moderate approaches. Its combative mind-set has not allowed much room for sustained soft approaches, which Pyongyang views as compromising and defeatist. Inured to decades of confrontation with South Korean and U.S.

troops, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il could find the notion of compromise or peaceful coexistence with Washington and Seoul unsettling and repulsive. But they might find it necessary to temper–but not abandon–their old hardline stance that sometimes worked to their advantage in dealing with Washington and Seoul. Benchmarks for a hardline scenario would include: Open defiance of international pressure regarding inspection of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program; Intensified ideological exhortations and loyalty checks on the populace; A greater emphasis on an all-people or state ownership of the means of production rather than collective ownership; A primacy of Marxist and nationalist ideological motivation over pecuniary incentives in production drives; Preferential allocation of resources for heavy industry (for arms manufacturing) and the KPA; Warlike threats against Seoul and Washington; An uncompromising attitude toward South Korea, including increased united popular front tactics against the South Korean government; and Dispatching saboteurs, guerrillas, and terrorists to the South; increasing anti-government, anti-U.S. propaganda and disinformation in South Korea; and provoking incidents along the DMZ. COLLAPSE North Korea’s problems mount to bring about its disintegration–even without external stimuli. Some analysts judge that it is not whether, but when North Korea will crumble, if Pyongyang’s isolation deepens and its economy continues its slump–especially if prosperity mounts among its Asian neighbors. Several collapse possibilities can be constructed.

First, collapse could occur in the event of a massive popular uprising precipitated bifworsening living conditions and internal repression. Some point to unconffrmed reports of 150,000 to 200,000 prisoners of conscience, in 12 North Korean concentration camps, as evidence of sufficiently widespread dissent to cause a massive uprising. But other analysts discount such a possibility, given Pyongyang’s rigid internal control. A coup could be initiated bifmembers of the Kim Il Sung clan opposed to Kim Jong Il; or there could be a coup bifthe military, with or without support from reformist technocrats and party functionaries. An intra-family coup would be likely to succeed only with backing bifthe KPA and internal security agencies. A KPA coup, initiated bifjunior- to mid-level officers, could rally around Kim P,yong Il, half-brother to Kim Jong Il.

Observers say that these officers will be concerned not so much about overhauling the North Korean system as about improving its economic performance. A collapse in the next several years could result if the North’s economic performance continues to slide, particularly if food and energy shortages worsen. If Pyongyang’s ambiguity on its nuclear program continues, resulting economic sanctions could hasten this crisis. U.S. POLICY APPROACHES Current U.S. policy is designed to firmly deter North Korea’s military adventurism, while exploring contacts with Pyongyang to reach a negotiated settlement of the impasse over its refusal to allow nuclear inspections.

Some U.S. officials believe that current U.S. policy toward the North ought to facilitate an end to Pyongyang’s isolation and help promote a stable unification acceptable to both sides of the DMZ. But there remains substantial U.S. and South Korean suspicion about North Korea’s motives in the current situation.

To underscore its concern for peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula, the United States maintains 37,000 troops in the South, an unresolved legacy of the Korean War. Although the United States has never formally recognized the DPRK, many analysts argue that an isolated and brooding North Korea may increase the risks of instability for the Korean Peninsula. It is not in U.S. interests to promote the rapid collapse of North Korea, according to a finding in a recent Washington roundtable, as the shock of a precipitous disintegration could severely affect South Korea’s fragile democracy.26 Differences exist over how to draw Pyongyang out of isolation, but that U.S. policy approaches can take the form of engagement, pressure, and outwaiting. ENGAGEMENT A policy of engagement would presumably help to sound out Pyongyang’s intentions, encourage its transparency and openness, and promote understanding for mutual confidence-building.26 This would be difficult, given Pyongyang’s ingrained, exclusivist attitude toward foreigners and Americans, residual antipathy toward North Korea’s invasion of the South and subsequent military adventurism. U.S. diplomats since 1988 have maintained low-level contacts with North Korean counterparts in Beijing to discuss possibilities for improving U.S.-DPRK relations.

Through these contacts, Washington has stressed such policy interests as progress in a North-South Korean dialogue, including the need for Pyongyang’s compliance with nuclear inspections; an end to acts of terrorism; cooperation in returning remains of American soldiers missing in action during the Korean War; respect for human rights; and a cessation of incendiary and misleading rhetoric against the United States. In January 1992, Washington had its first high-level meeting with North Korea to urge Pyongyang to allow its suspected nuclear-related facilities at Yongbyon to be inspected by the IAEA. The same concern was again the focus of high-level talks in June 1993.27 At the end of four rounds of talks on June 11, North Korea said that it would temporarily suspend its decision to withdraw from the NPT,28 but it still refused to agree to international inspections of its nuclear-related facilities. 29 For its part, the United States side gave assurances against the threat and use of force, including nuclear weapons; and pledged to respect Pyongyang’s sovereignty as well as its internal affairs. In time, engagement might improve U.S.-North Korean relations.

One way would be by promoting more nongovernmental educational, cultural, sports, and business contacts. Other steps could include: easing the U.S. trade embargo against the North;90 conditional suspension of the Team Spirit exercise; upgrading the existing inter-governmental channel of dialogue; and resumption of the gradual U.S. troop withdrawal from the South. While pursuing these steps on the basis of reciprocity, the United States would presumably remain committed to South Korea’s security and, equally important, receive concrete assurances from Pyongyang to renounce its policy of undermining South Korea.

PRESSURE A second U.S. policy option would be to increase pressure on Pyongyang. North Korea is steeped in a garrison-state mentality that it is surrounded by unfriendly powers. This mind-set seems to have worsened since the end of the Soviet empire in 1991, as evidenced in Pyongyang’s growing sensitivity to what it regards as intensified U.S. attempts to topple the Kim Il Sung regime. And, in fact, many analysts suggest that the North would be highly vulnerable to foreign pressure, particularly economic. 31 In these circumstances, the United States could choose to underscore, with various forms of pressure, its own concerns about Pyongyang’s policies and actions.

Such pressure, which would be applied as appropriate to different circumstances, could include the suspension of dialogue with Pyongyang; strong support for international economic sanctions; resumption of the Team Spirit exercise; stepped up aerial surveillance on North Korea’s forward military deployments along the Korean DMZ; denial of visas to North Koreans wishing to visit the United States; strict enforcement of the Trading with the Enemy Act; a tougher stance against Pyongyang’s missiles sales; demand for improved human rights situations in the North; and a collective regional security stand against Pyongyang. Sale of advanced weapons to South Korea could be another form of sending a message to Pyongyang. Advocates of greater pressure believe it may deter North Korean adventurism and give the rigid Pyongyang regime tangible negative incentives to be more cooperative with the outside world. Opponents argue that it could not only stiffen Pyongyang’s already truculent behavior, but could lead Pyongyang to renew its efforts to destabilize South Korea through terrorism, subversion, and infiltration. In this view, a beleaguered North Korea would not be receptive to economic reform and political openness.

OUTWAITING A third U.S. policy approach, outwaiting, is designed to deal with Pyongyang’s penchant for mixing soft and hardline approaches–and its calculated ambiguity in policy toward Washington and Seoul. It would be an eclectic counterpoint to Pyongyang’s opportunistic stance designed to catch Washington and Seoul off guard, extract concessions from them, and outwait U.S. troop withdrawal from the South. Outwaiting employs aspects of both engagement and pressure. Neither embracive nor hostile, it would refrain from actions that Pyongyang could perceive as provocative or threatening, while avoiding actions that would give support or legitimacy to the Kim Il Sung/Kim Jong Il regime.

Crucial to outwaiting are an informed awareness of North Korea’s past tactics in dealing with Seoul and, just as important, a U.S. policy continuity. In addition, the United States will need to consult and coordinate with Seoul and Tokyo on their respective policies toward Pyongyang so as not to allow the North to play one party off another. One potential drawback to the outwaiting is that without concerted international pressure, North Korea could well end up producing a nuclear weapon. In response, some argue that, left alone to chart its own self-reliant transition, North Korea may find that its self-preservation could be better served by collaboration than by what might be called nuclear isolation. ————————————————– —————————— 1 For comprehensive background information on North Korea, consult the Selected Government Essays.