North Korea and the West

By Shuja, Sharif M. | Contemporary Review, December 2000 | Go to article overview

North Korea and the West


Shuja, Sharif M., Contemporary Review


THE last few months have seen sudden changes in the relations between North Korea and the outside world. First North Korea allowed a temporary re-union between families in the North with relatives in South Korea. This created an atmosphere of increased friendship between the two Koreas at the Olympics. The Western powers began to show a willingness to open diplomatic relations with the secretive Communist regime of North Korea. The British Foreign secretary, Robin Cook, announced that his country wished to open diplomatic relations with North Korea. In October the U.S. Secretary of State, Madeline Albright, made a formal visit to North Korea.

The conventional view outsiders have of North Korea (DPRK) is that of a 'rogue' regime, irrational, dangerous, provocative or even aggressive. Pyongyang's invasion of South Korea in 1950, its maintenance of strong military forces near the inter-Korean border since then, its bizarre political and diplomatic practices, its refusal to liberalise its economy like its more dynamic neighbours, its nuclear weapons programme and the 31 August 1998 so-called 'missile' test are all seen to affirm this conventional view. Kim Jong-il, like his father, Kim Il-sung, has run a ruthless government that has in many respects done its people terrible disservice.

Abundant reports, over nearly a decade now, indicate that North Korea's economy is under enormous stress and that it lacks the capacity, unaided, to feed its people, fuel its factories and transport systems, or generate sufficient foreign exchange to cover its needs.

On the other hand, South Korea (ROK), being prosperous and sharing the values of liberal democracies and free-market economies, has not only now established good relations with China and Russia, but has also transformed its cooperative ties with traditional allies, such as the United States of America, Japan and the nations of Western Europe, into equal partnerships. Despite the end of the Cold War, the on-again-off-again dialogue between the South and the North and the efforts of South Korea's President, Kim Dae-jung, to adopt a more conciliatory approach to the North than his predecessor, the reality is that the Korean Peninsula remains divided and that confrontation continues. In view of this reality, South Korea regards close co-operation with its traditional allies, especially the USA, in the key areas of security, the economy and trade to be important for the continued progress of the country. The challenge now for the South is to ensure that the North does not collapse, since this would entail costs o f an order which would seriously destabilise the economy of the South, as well as unsettling the strategic balance in the region.

No serious observer of North Korea questions the fact that it is in very serious economic difficulties. Estimates vary about the severity of the economic crisis, and statistics are almost certainly unreliable, but the trends are less so. Since 1990, the North Korean economy has recorded a negative growth rate. Moreover, massive floods in 1995 and 1996 greatly exacerbated the North's endemic and growing distress. The bad news continued into 1997 with a severe drought. Thus, North Korea has been afflicted by a dreadful calamity which resulted in food shortages and children suffering from malnutrition, though Mrs Albright saw none of these on her visit.

Industrial production and exports have been badly hit by Pyongyang's inability to afford the hard currency now needed to buy spare parts for the Russian equipment used in many factories. But the most critical problem is oil. Oil shortages have slowed factory output and led to a decline in agricultural activity. The decline in exports means a further decline in hard currency reserves necessary to purchase oil. This will cause the economic crisis to intensify still further. The oil crisis also has serious military implications since the North can spare little fuel for exercises. …

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