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Posted January 2, 2003

Categories: Articles, Korea

Conflict-resolution professionals often say that to break a deadlock requires parties to shift from “positions” to “interests.” For the past year, the United States and North Korea have repeated their positions ad nauseum. The United States wants North Korea to give up its nuclear program; North Korea wants a guarantee that the United States won’t pull an Iraq and bomb Pyongyang. These positions couldn’t be any clearer — or a resolution any more elusive.

Recently the Bush administration showed signs of flexibility in its position by announcing the possibility of a multilateral security guarantee for North Korea. Pyongyang responded, predictably, that the offer, because it was neither bilateral nor a treaty approved by the U.S. Senate, was “laughable.” George W. Bush’s gambit clearly did not appeal to Kim Jong-Il’s underlying interests. All of which begs the question: What does North Korea really want?

While a piece of paper from senators may break the ice, North Korea ultimately wants something more basic: namely, time and money.

The leadership in Pyongyang needs time to implement its economic reforms. A year ago, the North Korean government devalued its currency, removed price supports, raised wages, handed over collective land to private farmers in certain areas and expanded private plots in others. Private enterprise, which has poked up through the cracks of the economy in the last decade, is now officially encouraged. Three-thousand mobile-phone users, mostly the new business elite, roam Pyongyang. In the last year, private markets have expanded, roadside stands have become more common and billboards advertising cars have appeared in North Korea’s capital.

Like the early days of Chinese reform, this is cautious economic change unaccompanied by any hint of political democracy. Many outsiders, including the Chinese government, would prefer a brisker tempo to North Korean reforms. But remember: Seven years passed between the historic U.S.-Chinese détente of 1972 and the launching of China’s economic reforms in 1979. Reformers needed that time, both to consolidate their political position and to await the solidification of a more stable security environment before risking the economic instability of reform. North Korea is therefore one step ahead of the Chinese, having started the economic ball rolling before negotiating a détente with the United States.

Given his hereditary privilege and seeming preference for movies over politics, North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il is perhaps an unlikely Deng Xiao Peng. Like Deng, though, he is pushing market reforms even as outside critics — and they are legion — continue to throw around terms like “Stalinist” and “communist.” Kim is also pruning the dead wood in the leadership and elevating technocrats in their place. In a recent cabinet shake-up, Kim replaced one out of four ministers. This new generation of technocrats taking power has been to South Korea, witnessed the fruits of Chinese reform and appears willing to replicate elements of what it has seen.

Time is important to North Korea’s rulers, but so is money. Once one of the most industrialized countries in East Asia — more industrialized than China or even South Korea — North Korea is now one of the poorest countries in the world. Its infrastructure is outdated, its industries are running on empty and its agriculture can’t feed the population. At the same time, the population is highly literate, the engineering elite has an ingenious ability to conjure products from next to nothing and key sectors like information technology show a great deal of promise. A large infusion of capital, if used wisely rather than plowed into weapons or rerouted into overseas bank accounts, would enable North Korea to leapfrog to state-of-the-art industrial infrastructure.

Why on earth would any country give the North Korean state, which has a dreadful human-rights record and not the greatest history of abiding by international agreements, the time and money to get its act together? North Korea doesn’t possess oil. It doesn’t control any important sea lanes. And because it defaulted on loans in the 1970s, it has one of the worst credit ratings in the world.

What North Korea does have is a nuclear weapon. Or, rather, it claims to have a nuclear weapon — and the CIA apparently agrees, though neither side has offered any proof. Without the threat of North Korea going nuclear, Washington would no doubt treat the country like an African state that somehow became appended to South Korea by a cartographic sleight of hand.

This, then, is the true interest of North Korea: to use its one bargaining chip to gain the time and money to reform its economy. Multilateral dialogue and multilateral agreements are valuable to the North Koreas only insofar as they eventually result in the United States forking over money and guaranteeing that the current regime will have time to use it.

A skilled mediator would seek to find overlapping interests between North Korea and the United States. On the face of it, the interests of the two sides seem as far apart as their positions. After all, the underlying interest of the Bush administration — which has been made clear through policy documents, public pronouncements and personal asides — is to bring about regime change in North Korea. The hawks in the administration prefer regime change sooner rather than later; the doves prefer nonmilitary methods to military ones. Both, however, would prefer to be negotiating with a different government in Pyongyang, though neither has a clue as to who would possibly succeed Kim Jong-Il.

But if you brush aside the invective and political opportunism of both sides, a common interest indeed emerges. Both Pyongyang and Washington want to see North Korea change. The antagonists disagree about the pace and, no doubt, the objectives of this change. But there is room for compromise. Washington, the capital of spin, should change the way it represents engagement with North Korea. Providing money to North Korea in exchange for freezing its nuclear program should be seen not as nuclear blackmail so much as an investment in North Korea’s adoption of Chinese-style reforms — and, eventually, Chinese-style engagement in the world. But until the Bush administration begins to understand North Korea’s underlying interests and seeks some overlap with its own, the two countries will continue to find themselves in very uncompromising positions.

American Prospect, October 23, 2003

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