Review: The Survival of North Korea

Posted September 29, 2011

Categories: Articles, Book Reviews

Foreign Policy in Focus, September 29, 2011

Despite the predictions of many obituary writers, North Korea is still around. It was supposed to collapse with the Eastern European communist regimes, but it didn’t. It was supposed to crumble during the great famine of the mid-1990s, but it didn’t. The hard-line policies of the George W. Bush administration were supposed to do the trick, but they didn’t. The North Korean economy is in lousy shape, the ruling elite is a gerontocracy, and several thousand North Korean citizens vote with their feet every year. But the government in Pyongyang soldiers on.

The contributors to The Survival of North Korea attempt to understand the reasons for North Korea’s longevity and the appropriate policy responses. They all come to a similar conclusion. If North Korea isn’t about to collapse, then policymakers must stop complaining and deal with it.

Veteran Korea analyst Bruce Cumings reviews this history of inaccurate predictions and concludes that “foreign policy observers have gone wrong, in my view, by underestimating North Korea in nearly every way possible.” So, for instance, observers underestimate the capacity of the North Korean system to absorb external shocks, respond to internal challenges, and shift from a ruling ideology connected to global communism to one that relies heavily on indigenous Korean nationalism. Observers come and go. North Korea remains.

Often described as the least flexible regime in the world, North Korea has in fact devised a variety of tactics to preserve itself. First and foremost has been the drive to create a nuclear weapon. Pyongyang watched with dismay as regime after regime that didn’t possess a nuclear deterrent succumbed to external change: Serbia under Slobodan Milosevic, Iraq under Saddam Hussein, and most recently Libya under Muammar Gaddafi. Today, as physicist Siegfried Hecker estimates, North Korea has four to eight primitive nuclear devices. If not for the effective negotiations of the 1990s, he suspects that North Korea would have an arsenal today of 100 nukes. But even four devices are enough to keep the regime change enthusiasts at bay.

Another strategy has been North Korea’s attempt to woo foreign capital through special economic zones. The Kaesong Industrial Complex, located just north of the Demilitarized Zone, has been the most successful of these projects. Run by South Korean managers and employing more than 45,000 North Korean workers, Kaesong has survived the downturn in inter-Korean relations over the last several years. Even with the money taken out of their checks by the government, workers at Kaesong earn 70-100 times the average for other North Korean workers, as Sung-Hoon Lim points out.

A third strategy North Korea has employed has been to trade on its location. As Suk Hi Kim relates, North Korea can serve as the key missing piece in a pipeline project that brings oil and natural gas from the Russian Far East down to energy-hungry South Korea. If and when North and South Korea finally get the inter-Korean railroad up and running, it can connect the Korean peninsula to Europe and thus reduce the shipment time of goods by two weeks and the cost by $34 to $50 per ton.

Engaging North Korea along any of these lines involves a trade-off. Providing economic assistance to the country is likely to buttress the regime. But the expectation is that, like China in the 1970s and 1980s, increased engagement with the outside world will be accompanied by substantial internal change. Indeed, Semoon Chang and Hwa-Kyung Kim recommend an expansion of inter-Korean economic cooperation as a way to provide more information to North Koreans about the world at large. Such cooperation also provides a counterbalance to China, which has been keeping North Korea on life support with food and energy while at the same time extracting as much mineral wealth as it can.

Various organizations have also been involved in information exchanges with North Korea. German foundations, for instance, have held a series of seminars on economic issues inside North Korea. The Hanns Seidel Foundation carried out several “capacity-building” projects on international trade and business management. Bernhard Seliger, the foundation’s representative in Seoul, concludes that the results of the seminars were “mixed.” But the exchanges did encourage different ways of looking at policy issues, “the creation of new ideas in a mid-level field of bureaucrats and managers.” He continues: “North Korea is far from being a homogenous mass, though its politics always stress this aspect of its policy-making. It remains important to encourage discussions about openness.”

The Survival of North Korea is a hard-nosed look at the challenges of engaging with a country that is suspicious of outside motives and brutal toward internal dissent. North Korea has proven over the years to be unusually persistent. Policymakers who have based their strategies on its collapse have so far been confounded at every step. This book offers a realistic approach to dealing with a difficult, opaque country that is not going away any time soon.

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