Tuesday, November 14, 2006

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Will Kaesong subvert North Korea?

I'm probably more enthusiastic than most about the ability of multilateral economic sanctions to topple the North Korean regime. On the other hand, it looks like real multilateral enforcement ain't gonna happen anytime soon.

So.... what's left? Well, there's the engagement option, of course. Which leads me to Anna Fifield's FT journal from Kaesong, the joint ROK-DPRK industrial zone. If commercial engagement is going to change the DPRK regime from within, this should be the flashpoint.

Fifield's piece sounds optimistic, but I have my doubts:

South Korea’s sunshine policy has clearly failed to change the regime’s behaviour – Seoul has sent billions of dollars to Pyongyang over the past eight years and has received almost nothing in return. Seoul must start to demand information about where its money is going – preferably paying Kaesong workers directly – and make it clear how it expects Mr Kim’s regime to act in return for this assistance.

But decades of American containment haven’t worked any better.

So despite the obvious moral dubiousness of paying money to a regime that lets its people starve while all the while developing nuclear weapons, the positives of Kaesong still outweigh the negatives.

Indeed, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that engagement is making a difference.

The trip to Kaesong marked my seventh visit to North Korea in the last two years. Even in that short time it has become apparent to me that economic links are having an impact in this most closed and communist of societies....

The 9,500 North Koreans now working at the Kaesong complex every day see how much taller, healthier and wealthier South Koreans are. If even 10 per cent of them go home and talk about their Southern colleagues, or about the foreigners who intermittently visit this park, that will have a profound effect.

This will only be amplified if Kaesong develops according to plans. It is projected to employ 500,000 North Koreans when it is completed in 2012.

South Korea knows this. “We never talk about this but the real reason behind engagement is to show the North Koreans that their system is based on lies,” one senior government official confides. “This will destroy the ideas that sustain their system. They can’t keep out these ideas of freedom and prosperity. It’s what is invisible that is most important.”

Indeed, Hong Heung-joo, the South Korean executive director of the Kaesong Industrial District Management Committee, says he has already noticed significant attitude changes since the complex opened.

“The most important change is that North Koreans have realised the importance of production. Under the North Korean system there is no sense of profit, but here North Korean workers are working to targets and asking for extra hours. That means they are becoming aware of market economics.”

Personal contact does remain limited – the two sides eat lunch separately and conversation rarely strays outside work-related matters. Indeed, the tip sheet given to visitors by Southern authorities advises that North Koreans are “generally simple, naïve and emotional”.

Visitors should refrain from commenting on “the economic situation of either the North or the South, liberal democracy, the superiority of the market economy, unification-related matters, the North Korean leadership, education systems, human rights and/or other potentially sensitive issues,” the sheet says.

My research suggests that in places where sanctions don't look like a viable tool of statecraft, engagement does not work any better, but you, dear readers, be the judge -- is Fifield's cautious optimism well-placed?

posted by Dan on 11.14.06 at 08:47 AM


Isnt this essentially the model that toppled Castro? Oh... The idea that somehow the NKs dont realize what miserable lives they lead and how much better they could have it seems fantastic to me.

So 'containment' doesnt work- fine. How about the old tried and true siege? We dont even need to impose sanctions- how about just stop say... i dont know, _propping up the regime_ with gifts of cash and food and energy? If ourselves, Japan, and SK alone just stopped trading and sending aid to NK, the nation would collapse within a couple of years. Messy? Sure. Lot of lives lost? Sure. But better than seeing NK become the world supplier of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles while we feed his people? I think so!

posted by: Mark Buehner on 11.14.06 at 08:47 AM [permalink]

And btw, isnt this kinda like having a rabid wolf prowling in your back yard and wondering why he wont go away even though you feed him a pound of meat every day?

posted by: Mark Buehner on 11.14.06 at 08:47 AM [permalink]

Apples, oranges, and kumquats. You are talking about multilateral sanctions as a way to overthrow the NK regime. The sanctions just put on by the UNSC are both designed and stated to be a coercive measure related directly to the North's nuclear and missile programs only. And the FT correspondant is talking about both the sunshine policy and containment as policies designed to change behavior when only the first has that as its stated goal. The FT article then talks with a South Korean official who talks about the sunshine policy as having an unstated goal of regime change. This, in my opinion, is part of the problem with US and multilateral policy towards North Korea -- we (call it the U.S. and the others in the 6 party talks minus the NKs) can't agree on the goals, or what we'd be willing to pay/risk to achieve them, so fuzzy debates about tools are all that is left.

posted by: Drew on 11.14.06 at 08:47 AM [permalink]

This made sense during the Cold War when Soviets would see the bounty of American supermarkets, but the USSR of the Cold War was not even close, as bad as it was, to the totalitarian nightmare of the North Korean regime. Is it possible that the average North Korean doesn't already realize the moral and economic poverty of his country? Do those lies need to be debunked, and is it worth the price of giving the regime an economic crutch? I say no.

posted by: Seth Weinberger on 11.14.06 at 08:47 AM [permalink]

This has obvious drawbacks, including its ramifications for Japanese security, but it seems to me to be at least worth considering alongside the other bad options we have: why not conclude a deal with China agreeing to eventually remove American troops from the Korean peninsula in exchange for Chinese help destabilizing the Kim Jong-Il regime? Only joint cooperation between the U.S. and China with shared goals can end the DPRK regime.

It is difficult to see what purpose our military presence in South Korea still serves given a nuclear-armed North Korea, and we should recognize that the Korean peninsula is in China's sphere of influence. The strength of American defense ties with South Korea has been fraying for years, and our troop presence there acts primarily as a tripwire to guarantee American involvement in any new Korean war.

posted by: Ryan McCarl on 11.14.06 at 08:47 AM [permalink]

Containment or flourishing business do not change regime. Look at China, it is around 30 years their economy is doing well and how far the Party rule has lessened? It will not help in N. Korea's case too. The only way it would work is:
- on one hand USA talks with N. Korea and if needed gives guarantee that USA will not topple the regime explicitly; provided USA conditions are met (mothballing Nuclear activities and no force enlargement including missiles) and
- on the other hand continue to play hard ball with any foreign trade and currency for N. Korea (this way Kim is on his knees).

Foreign currency is the key to choke DPKR unless China wants to feed them all the time. As long as foreign currency and goods do not reach DPKR, rest of the world has a chance to get down DPKR. While this is happening, there is no harm for USA to promise mother too!

posted by: Umesh Patil on 11.14.06 at 08:47 AM [permalink]

I understand your doubts, and they are well founded, but really what other options are left? China will not cut their aid nor impose sanctions. Kim has at lest a few fat men and a little boy, so an old fashion siege seems far fetched, since he is the one guy that might actually push the button. Furthermore, even if he didn't and the regime fell, what would we do with those people? For that matter what is going to happen to those people if Kim where to unexpectedly die? Bringing them, the NK people, into the light a little bit at a time seems to me, not the best nor only option, but certainly the most prudent.

posted by: R$B on 11.14.06 at 08:47 AM [permalink]

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