While it remains unclear whether there are actually modest signs of change taking place in North Korea it remains abundantly clear that without a change in the way the country treats the Asia-Pacific community and is treated by it, North Korea will remain separated from the region, globally isolated, resource deprived, poverty-stricken, famine-prone and among the world's poorest economies. Its antagonistic posture toward its Asia-Pacific neighbors threatens regional peace and security and its pursuit of nuclear statehood alarms them. In this context a question emerges: is it possible that North Korea can begin a transformation process by taking an initial, low-risk step toward simultaneously combating its internal poverty while lessening its external conflicts? The contention herein is that the answer is yes and it can begin by becoming an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC).
Clearly North Korea will continue to pursue a dominantly "military first" strategy--but it does not mean that it will pursue one that is "military only." High level officials recently acknowledged the need to pursue economic growth and development in order to eradicate or at least alleviate North Korea's widespread and persistent poverty and pursuing development requires engaging with external economic actors. The process of transforming and energizing North Korea's economy remains a task yet to be undertaken in a way that involves regional and global "partners." Consequently North Korea remains incapable of generating growth, preventing deterioration in key economic sectors and eradicating poverty--particularly widespread famine. Its domestic economic weaknesses are so profound that North Korea's per capita income and human development indices rank among the lowest in the world. (1)
The nation's isolation means that, with the exception of the People's Republic of China (PRC) it is unable to acquire resources from external sources. The missing resources are essential if poverty, famine and general economic stagnation are to be addressed. At present only its light industry and agriculture sectors are experiencing even modest growth. In the absence of useful external associations North Korea remains unable to cooperate with others in order to obtain external resources and gain access to markets abroad. A feature of its isolation is a suspicion among North Korea leaders about the motives of other nations. In response North Korea is the reciprocal target of widely held views that it threatens regional peace and security due to its aggressive strategies and tactics associated with its nuclear program. (2)
Neither North Korea nor other nations have an interest in continuing the degree of mutual separation and mistrust that currently persists. Each party would be well served if North Korea were to become party to an association that embraces dialogue and mutually beneficial economic cooperation. Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) fits that bill: it is an association that would offer North Korea an opportunity to take a small and low risk step towards addressing some of its economic needs while simultaneously improving its external image and relations with others. By becoming an APEC member economy both North Korea and current member economies could possibly find a platform for further dialogues and contacts. Over time dialogues among them could more successfully address both domestic economic needs and improve the external environment within which discussions about North Korea's future would take place.
APEC matches North Korea's needs because of what it is and what it does: it is a significant, innovative, accommodating and transforming cooperative association. APEC's significance lies in the fact that it involves 21 member economies that collectively account for approximately 45 percent of global population, land mass, economic product and external trade. (3) The United States, Russia, Japan, South Korea and the PRC are member economies that also comprise the core of nations that having been discussing how to convince North Korea to de-militarize its nuclear program, moderate aspects of its aggressive military strategies and tactics and transform itself into a participating member of broader global and East Asian communities. …