Pyongyang's Tightrope-Walker

Op-ed in the Far Eastern Economic Review

February 17, 2004

North Koreans are justly proud of their acrobats who entertain visiting dignitaries. After hesitating for nearly a decade, the Dear Leader himself, Kim Jong Il, has begun edging unsteadily onto the high wire. The questions are whether he will fall, and if he does, will there be anyone to catch him?

Economic reforms are enabling an upsurge in small-scale economic activity while at the same time deepening social differentiation and creating a new class of urban poor. A "military-first" ideological campaign, emphasizing modernization, has been introduced to legitimate these changes and justify abandoning traditional socialist practices. As government officials are laid off and the military is elevated above the proletariat in the political pantheon, entrepreneurs and officers have replaced bureaucrats and cadres as preferred sons-in-law.

These changes may ultimately prove destabilizing, though the regime can draw upon considerable assets: two generations of political indoctrination without parallel, a monopoly on social organization and a massive apparatus for internal control. Yet even if Kim is able to use these tools to maintain his balance, the reform initiative is unlikely to come to fruition as long as the country remains a pariah, subject to diplomatic sanctions. Recent statistical modelling work suggests that economic performance, and, by extension, North Korea's external relations, have a critical impact on regime stability. It's hard to imagine Kim successfully traversing the rope if foreigners are shaking it.

The six-party talks, scheduled to restart later this month, on the North's nuclear programme are central in this regard. In the short term, Pyongyang's brinkmanship and American election-year timidity could reduce the talks to theatrical sound and fury, signifying nothing. But even if the participants behave like angels, there are ample grounds for scepticism. North Korea regards its nuclear deterrent as critical to its survival and is unlikely to negotiate it away easily. Even recent pro-engagement visitors to Pyongyang have labelled the North Korean "words for resources" stance as a nonstarter. And having been burned once, America is likely to insist on a very rigorous verification regime.

Countries that have surrendered nuclear weapons or eliminated nuclear-weapon development programmes usually have done so in the context of a broader political regime change, often involving a newly empowered democratic regime asserting control over its own military. Libya's recent decision to terminate its nuclear programme is interesting precisely because it deviates from this pattern, instead highlighting its fears of external pressure and the country's own effort to come in from the cold, resolve outstanding diplomatic issues and gain international acceptance. Regrettably, in reaction to Moamar Qaddafi's call for North Korea to emulate Libya, Pyongyang responded that, "This is the folly of imbeciles . . . To expect any 'change' from the DPRK stand is as foolish as expecting a shower from the clear sky."

Yet even if one doubts the prospects of eliminating the North's nuclear programme through negotiation, earnest and sincere American participation in the talks is a necessary precursor for stiffer measures further down the line.

Coercive diplomacy can work only if Kim is deprived of his safety net, and the Bush administration has made little headway with those who hold it. There is no consensus in South Korea about what to do with respect to the North, and unless the electorate shifts strongly towards the opposition in the upcoming national assembly elections, Seoul will try to catch Kim if he falls.

China is weary of Kim's stalling, but is as yet unwilling to drop the net. It fears a flood of North Korean refugees upsetting the ethnic politics of its border provinces and the possibility of American troops north of the 38th parallel in a unified Korea. To secure Chinese cooperation, America will have to offer assurances about the disposition of its troops and a credible system of permanent refugee resettlement to mollify China's political concerns. Proposed legislation making it easier for North Koreans to gain asylum in the United States is a start, but to convince Beijing, it will take money for temporary refugee resettlement camps, not just minor immigration-law changes. Unfortunately, the Bush administration at its outset regarded China as a strategic competitor and was unwilling to pursue such cooperation, and now with Iraq on its hands, lacks the political capital to do so.

So as Washington sways the rope, Seoul and Beijing look apprehensively skyward as a short, tubby man dances through the air.

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Marcus Noland Senior Research Staff

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