Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Seoul Has Big Plans for North Korea (Nightmares, Too)

This story does a good job of highlighting the fundamental problem posed by North Korea's poverty to the South Koreans. One unspoken but extremely important factor in the reluctance of South Koreans to go along with any harsh measures contemplated by Washington has been the fear of precipitating the DPRK's collapse, and thereby unleashing a flood of millions of indigent northerners across the border.

OUL, South Korea — North Korea, so the scenario unfolds, gradually moves to a market economy under the grip of its one-party rule. Its leaders keep tight control on the political and social repercussions of economic reforms, but over time the changes ineluctably lead to more wealth and a more open society.

"We South Koreans do not want abrupt change," said the South Korean foreign minister, Yoon Young Kwan, in a recent interview. "We are not ready to digest sudden change in the political situation in North Korea."

As the prospect of a negotiated end to the nuclear crisis with North Korea inches closer, South Koreans are now thinking seriously about the implications. There is the potential, they realize, for a terrible lesson in getting what you wish for.

Abrupt change conjures up the nightmare image of millions of refugees from North Korea, a crashing economy, war. At the very least, the collapse of the demilitarized zone would be far messier to handle than the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The ideal of a gradual transformation to a market economy and a more open society — played out in China, as well as in smaller countries in Asia and South America — lies at the heart of South Korea's approach to North Korea, and is also the source of differences with Washington over how to resolve the crisis.

To the Bush administration, North Korea is part of the "axis of evil" and its leader, Kim Jong Il, an irredeemable "pygmy," as President Bush once said. To Seoul, though, North Korea stands where China did a couple of decades ago, and with the right nudge, here and there, Mr. Kim could metamorphose into Deng Xiaoping.

Asked whether Mr. Kim could assume a role similar to that of the Chinese reformer, Mr. Yoon said without hesitation, "I think so."


But there are many doubts, not only in the United States but also in South Korea, about whether North Korea is capable of following in China's footsteps.

The biggest misgiving centers on Kim Jong Il himself. The economic policies carried out in the last two years do not amount yet to evidence that he is fully committed to economic reforms. In fact, the so-called hawks here say that he has not shown any desire for real change, only survival. So Mr. Kim is compared less frequently to Deng than to Deng's predecessor, Mao Zedong.

"Many hope that he will become the next Deng Xiaoping," said Lee Geun, a professor of international relations at Seoul National University. "But others argue that change in China happened only after the death of Mao, and that North Korea will not change until Kim Jong Il is eliminated."

Others are unsure whether North Korea's leaders have the flexibility to accept or manage social and political shifts. Although Beijing cracked down on pro-democracy demonstrators in 1989, it was able to direct political changes by first limiting them to areas along China's coast.

Because of its small size, North Korea would find it difficult to restrict the effect of market reforms to a geographic area, said Ha Young Sun, a professor of international relations at Seoul National University.

"North Korea is very worried about the negative effects of capitalism," Mr. Ha said. "It would view them as a threat to the survival of the regime." (emphasis added)

I highlighted that last sentence because it illustrates that the North Koreans are aware that there was truth to Hayek's claim in The Road to Serfdom that economic and sociopolitical freedom are linked, albeit imperfectly. Once a man is free to choose his employer, or even whether or not he wishes to be employed by someone else, and once he is cognisant of the fact that said employment is immune to some degree from the whims of the state, he begins to attain a measure of freedom that poses an existential threat to regimes like Kim Jong Il's, which rely so heavily on the policing of all thought. The Chinese are undoubtedly far freer today than they were before Deng's reforms began in 1979, even if they still don't enjoy the right to elect their political leadership.

The South Koreans have learned well - perhaps too well - from the example set by Germany's reunfication, and are loath to surrender their hard-won prosperity to the cause of Korean brotherhood, however noble an idea it may be in the abstract. I think the South Korean foreign minister, and others who think as he does, misguided in imagining Kim Jong Il capable of playing a Deng Xiaoping-like role in his Stalinist stronghold, but I can sympathize with them for wishing such a thing were possible. The best solution in the Korean peninsula would not be a war, but everything depends on Comrade Kim, "Lodestar of the North", and he seems hellbent on ensuring that war comes to him.