Tuesday, October 22, 2002

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The Oprah effect in international relations

One of the things that surprised me in my first year as a professor was how many students would come into my office and admit they had not done the work in the class. At first, I had no idea how to respond to such an admission, until I realized that this was an example of the Oprah effect on American culture. The students seemed to believe that by being open about their failings, they would receive penance come grading time. Such confessions never affected my grades, since all I cared about was their class performance. [You are such a hard-ass--ed. I prefer to think of it as being tough but fair.]

I bring this up because of the reaction that North Korea has been earning for its recent behavior. In the past few years, it has apologized for naval confrontations with South Korea, and admitted that it's faltering economy has empoverished and starved millions. In the past month, it has apologized for kidnapping Japanese citizens and admitted to the U.S. that it has an underground nuclear weapons program. One interpretation of this behavior is that it's a clumsy North Korean effort to open up to the world. This Chicago Tribune story has the following quote from South Korean analyst Park Kun Young: "Kim as been making rational choices to meet his goals and given that I think North Korea was looking for opportunity by admitting to their nuclear program." Joel S. Wit in Saturday's New York Times op-ed notes, "Leaving Pyongyang's defiant rhetoric aside, the fact that it confessed to a secret nuclear program is a sign that North Korea may be looking for a way out of a potential crisis."

Now, honesty is certainly preferrable to dishonesty on these issues. And maybe it's a signal that the DPRK regime wants to negotiate. But to conclude that these admissions amount to a change of heart for the North Korean regime borders on the absurd. The admissions don't change the fact that in the past two decades, North Korea has violated just about every important international norm you can mention. Terrorism, assasination, ballistic missile proliferation, toleration of mass famine, development of weapons of mass destruction, and -- lest we forget -- good old-fashioned totalitarianism. Admitting these violations may be a possible signal of change, but a tangible signal of change would be North Korea's abstinence from such nasty deeds. [What about Michael O'Hanlon's argument in Slate that North Korea has moderating its behavior over the past decade?--ed. The so-called reforms are mostly a mirage, as I've previously noted (I'll add the link when my server is not so busy). And even O'Hanlon acknowledges that any "North Korean reform had more to do with necessity than virtue."]

For realpolitik reasons, negotiations and a multilateral approach makes sense right now. But let's hold off on the "North Korea is reaching out for a hug" sort of discourse.

UPDATE: Marcus Noland provides an excellent description of recent North Korean economic reforms. Noland thinks that Pyongyang genuinely wants to reform its economy and polity (see also his op-ed in today's Financial Times), but I think his facts suggest the opposite conclusion -- an attempt by Kim to increase his stranglehold on society by rewarding favored groups. Read it for yourself and judge.

posted by Dan on 10.22.02 at 10:35 AM