North Korea: A Different Kind of Regime Change

Posted January 1, 2003

Categories: Articles, Korea


For the last year, the Bush administration has spoken with a forked tongue on North Korean policy.  The pragmatists in the Bush administration have wanted to negotiate a solution to the current nuclear stand-off.  The hardliners have been eager for Korean War II.  Now, according to Beltway gossip in Washington, the pragmatists have bested the hardliners and the Bush administration is ready to deal.

Whatever its accuracy, this assessment misses two essential points.  Both camps in the administration are united in their desire for regime change in North Korea.  And both camps have ignored evidence that the regime is in the process of doing just that.

Pragmatists like Richard Armitage of the State Department and hardliners like his colleague John Bolton have recently fashioned a rough compromise on Korea policy.  The pragmatists have won the right to talk with North Korea, albeit in a six-party format (with Russia, China, South Korea, and Japan) and without a flexible mandate that could turn talks into real negotiations.

In turn, both camps support applying maximum pressure on North Korea, particularly through the newly formed Proliferation Security Initiative.  This eleven-nation reinterpretation of international law is designed to shut down North Korea’s trade, not only in weapons and drugs but in anything that falls in the amorphous category of “dual use.”  In August, on orders from Washington, Taiwan seized a shipment of phosphorus pentasulfide heading to North Korea.  Whatever its military use, phosphorus pentasulfide has a very important civilian use.  It is most often used in the production of pesticide, a critical resource for the long-suffering North Korean farm system.

At the same time, the Bush administration is cutting back sharply on food aid to North Korea, no longer provides energy inputs as mandated by the 1994 Agreed Framework, and continues to find ways to impose harsher sanctions on Pyongyang.   A military option is still on the table, though the Pentagon recognizes that the consequences of war would be devastating for both U.S. troops and our allies.

Few countries are flocking to support North Korea in this standoff.  Pyongyang is moving forward with its nuclear weapons program, trying to expand the range of its missiles, and raising hard currency by exporting its military know-how.  Even erstwhile comrade China has been exasperated with what it considers the slow pace of domestic reform in North Korea.  It seems, however, that China has forgotten its own past.  It took two decades for Beijing to move from the abyss of the Gang of Four to the brink of the Group of Eight (G8).

Meanwhile, the North Korean regime is changing – at its own pre-MTV pace and according to its own post-communist agenda.

In a recent cabinet shake-up, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il replaced one-quarter of his ministers.  The new generation of technocrats taking power has seen South Korea, witnessed the fruits of Chinese reform, and is eager to move further in the direction of a market economy.

A year ago, the North Korean government devalued the currency, removed price supports, raised wages, handed over collective land to private farmers in certain areas and expanded private plots in others.  The state no longer has the money or the desire to continue subsidizing enterprises.  In the last year, private markets have expanded, roadside stands have become more common, and billboards advertising cars have even appeared in Pyongyang.

Do these changes mean that North Korea will suddenly throw its missiles in the ocean and release all of its political prisoners?  China didn’t do so in 1979 when it began its economic reforms.  Yet twenty-five years later, the United States is not pushing for regime change in Beijing, and the Bush administration is welcoming the “global role of China.”  It is foolish to believe that North Korea can change its society any faster than China did.

Our best hope for ending the current nuclear standoff is to not simply to freeze North Korea’s nuclear program.  After all, to counter a potential U.S. attack, Pyongyang may well hold on to a latent capacity.  Rather, the objective should be to ensure that Pyongyang becomes less and less interested in using the military tools in its toolbox.  Like Beijing, Pyongyang must find a positive global role.  North Korea, like China, must begin to view military conflict as jeopardizing its own economic transformation.

To push North Korea along the Chinese path, we need to encourage the reforms already taking place.  We need to offer major economic and political incentives for North Korea to mothball its nuclear program.  This would not be a blackmail payment.  An investment in structural change in North Korea will ensure a peaceful Korean peninsula and a stable East Asia – and that is surely in the U.S. national interest.

Global Beat Syndicate, December 2, 2003

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