Reforms and Changes in North Korea

By Shuja, Sharif M. | Contemporary Review, February 1999 | Go to article overview

Reforms and Changes in North Korea

Shuja, Sharif M., Contemporary Review

The conventional view outsiders have of Noah 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, and its threats to start a war over US pressure to drop its suspected nuclear weapons programme are all seen to affirm this conventional view. But this view clearly requires re-evaluation. Indeed, it is probably closer to the truth to assume the opposite about North Korea: it is a rational and defensive state.

North Korea is a state alienated from the US-dominated international order. While the North Koreans seem from our point of view to be continually breaking the rules of the game, they are not part of the game and have never accepted the rules. They are profoundly opposed, for example, to America's reinstitution of Japan as the region's economic hegemon, and of course to the original division of the Korean peninsula and the establishment of a South Korean government they believe could not survive without American military backing.

The Kim Jong Il regime, like its predecessor, Kim I1 Sung's, has been a ruthless government that has in many respects done its people terrible disservice. From the standpoint of international security, however, North Korea is not Nazi Germany or even Iraq. It is an alienated, defensive state facing possible extinction. Although Noah Korea is heavily armed, a war would only hasten its demise, contributing nothing to the solution of the serious problems the Kim Jong I1 regime faces. Even though isolated and with a stagnant economy, the recent nuclear crisis would demonstrate that Pyongyang has been capable of exerting significant pressure on the international community.

Confronted with a world that is now on the march toward openness and reform, North Korea seems willing to stay as a rigid Stalinist country. Whether a totalitarian system such as that of the DPRK, however effective it might have been, can continue to operate with the same degree of effectiveness and without any major change in the post-Cold War era, is the question facing not only students of politics but also the decision makers involved in the Korean question, and above all, the DPRK leadership. And following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Pyongyang finds itself increasingly isolated diplomatically. Economic advisers, human rights groups, academics etc., are all awaiting the opportunity to travel throughout Noah Korea and they expect Kim Jong Il will open up the entire North Korean state. But any such opening is fraught with risk for the regime. It is, however, easier to change strategies than it is to change institutions. Since the middle of the 1990s, North Korea has shifted strategic direction seeking to escape the dilemmas in which it is caught. Its attitude to South Korea has become more receptive and resilient. This was evident in the signing of the Agreement on Reconciliation, Nonaggression and Exchanges and Cooperation with South Korea on 13 December 1991 and the subsequent continuation of high level political talks. The North joined the UN along with South Korea (ROK). Moreover, despite the anti-American rhetoric which still pervades the North Korean mass media and official statements, Pyongyang has increased its diplomatic overtures towards the US. It has accepted the October 1994 US-DPRK deal and finally joined the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific (CSCAP). All of that represents a substantial redirection in North Korea's foreign policy.

This article argues that the DPRK, in recent years, has only changed its trade, economic and foreign policies; the 'fundamentals' have not been changed since it is still a command economy. While maintaining the policy of deterrence, the United States and Japan can utilize political engagement, and offer the DPRK inducements and economic assistance to create an external environment that increases the chances of a gradual evolution of reform in the DPRK. …

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