North Korean Surprises

Posted January 5, 2004

Categories: Articles

North Korean Surprises

U.S. pundits and policymakers routinely label North Korea
“unpredictable.” Yes, Pyongyang has sprung a number of surprises on the world. It launched a rocket over Japan in 1998. It pursued a secret uranium enrichment program. It has sent boats and submarines on mysterious missions to South Korea and Japan.

But once you study the North Korean system, these surprises begin to acquire a certain logic. North Korea launched the Taepodong in 1998 in order to grab the attention of the United States and advance implementation of the Agreed Framework. It pursued the uranium enrichment program because it wanted a nuclear deterrent – or at least the appearance of such a deterrent – to prevent an attack by its enemies. It sends out spy missions because the United States and South Korea do the same, and Pyongyang believes that espionage is an equal opportunity game.

Now that the Bush administration will be at the helm for four more years, the same pundits and policymakers anticipate another North Korean surprise. Perhaps it will test a nuclear weapon. Perhaps it will transfer nuclear material to a rich buyer. Perhaps it will send another missile zooming around East Asia.

But if Pyongyang really wants to surprise the world, it would be wise to pursue two parallel strategies to break the current nuclear impasse. Kim Jong Il should move quickly to arrange another summit with the South, preferably on the fifth anniversary of the first summit of 2000. And the North Korean leader should invite McDonald’s to open in Pyongyang. These might seem like an odd pair of strategies. But they are connected.

The first North-South summit was a breakthrough in transforming the logic of confrontation in East Asia. For all of its defects, the meeting
refocused the attention of all the major players on normalizing relations with Pyongyang. It also fundamentally changed the South Korean image of North Korea from resolute adversary to potential partner. As a result of the 2000 summit, the two Koreas made agreements that are now bearing fruit in Kaesong, and the United States came close to negotiating detente with its longest-running enemy.

A second North-South summit held either in the South or in a neutral
country is needed to cement cooperation and push forward such stalled projects as the inter-Korean transportation links. More importantly, such a summit would send a powerful signal to Japan and the United States that the two Koreas continue to forge common interests even at a time of disagreement. The Bush administration feels little pressure from inside the United States – from civic groups or Congress – to modify its hard-line positions. The moderates in the State Department are on their way out.

The only effective pressure on the administration will come from the
outside, from its allies and from China. Other countries in the Six-Party Talks could use a second summit as proof of flexibility in Pyongyang in order to coax more flexibility out of Washington.

Where does McDonald’s fit in? Even though North Korea is no longer a communist country and has embraced some version of market capitalism, it has a profound image problem in the United States. Newspapers and politicians continue to call North Korea “communist.” In order to break this pattern, Kim Jong Il must do something dramatic.

He has already introduced hamburgers to university cafeterias. And in 2000, he brought Coca Cola to the country for the first time. After the introduction of Coke, the South China Morning Post asked, “Can a country that imports Coca-Cola be all bad?” If Kim Jong Il oversees the construction of a Golden Arches in Pyongyang, public opinion about his economic reforms will shift considerably. I am no fan of McDonald’s.

The food is terrible, and the dietary consequences are dire. I would like to see the fast food chain disappear from the face of the earth. But in the interests of peace and security in the region, I would like to see a franchise open in Pyongyang. It would do for North Korea’s image outside the Korean peninsula what the first North-South summit did on the peninsula.

The North Korean government is authoritarian and regularly violates human rights, but it is also fundamentally pragmatic. It works closely with the Moonies. It negotiates with and even apologizes to its sworn enemy, Japan. It has invited Family Mart to open in Kaesong.

Given the results of the U.S. elections, Pyongyang should accentuate the pragmatic by sending Kim Jong Il to a summit with the South and bringing McDonald’s to the North.

Munhwa Ilbo, December 7, 2004

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