Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

THE WORLD : NORTH KOREA : Pyongyang's Advantage: Its Method of Suicide

February 18, 1996|Robert A. Manning | Robert A. Manning, a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, was a State Department policy advisor from 1989-93

WASHINGTON — At first, it seems a champagne-popping event: the collapse of North Korea's anachronistic Stalinist regime. But the controversy attending the $2 million in emergency food aid offered by the Clinton administration suggests otherwise. Behind this nominally humanitarian gesture are fears that North Korea's food crisis, refugee flows, defections (including Kim Jong II's ex-wife) and other turmoil are signs the regime may become an Asian East Germany.

The problem is that North Korea may not "go gentle into that good night." Fearing collapse and absorption by a South Korea seeking revenge against Pyongyang's elite, would North Korea lash out militarily in suicidal desperation? The harsh treatment South Korea's own leaders are receiving as a result of their involvement in political scandal may fan Northern paranoia. In the event of a collapse, it would not be far-fetched to imagine North Korea's military firing its artillery and pushing its troops across the Demilitarized Zone--and then quickly suing for peace. What would they have to lose? This scenario--its own suicide--may be North Korea's secret weapon.

Indeed, this dark fear has been at the heart of the Korea problem ever since Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions put the regime on the U.S. radar screen. The effect of the nuclear deal that the administration reached with North Korea in October 1994 was that of a bailout for a failing state. The hope, shared by South Korea and Japan, has been for a North Korean "soft landing." But having defined the issue as one of nuclear proliferation, the United States and its allies appear to be banking on luck, rather than on strategy, to manage the transformation of the Korean Peninsula. What about North Korea's 11,000 artillery tubes and Scud missiles, along with its million-man army, two-thirds of which is deployed a stone's throw from Seoul?

Still, while it is foolish to think that North Korea has a bright future, reports of its imminent demise may be exaggerated. The country is the most closed society on Earth. U.S. intelligence's track record in predicting its behavior leaves much to be desired. Fact is, there is simply an inadequate information base for U.S. officials, or anyone else, to make reliable judgments about the significance and meaning of North Korea's inner life. The country could implode next week, or muddle through for five or six more years. It is also possible that the regime, not the state, might collapse.

Yet, the question is not whether North Korea ends up on the trash heap of history, but how and when. South Koreans talk frequently of gradual reunification. But is such a scenario possible? The decision by the United States, South Korea and Japan to bail out North Korea was based on the assumption that Pyongyang would make the least destablizing of the bad choices it faces: It would, like China, reform and open its economy. Revitalizing its economy, which, even before the recent devastating floods, has shrunk in each of the past five years, would promote the regime's survival and gradual reconciliation with South Korea.

But to succeed, this most secretive and tightly controlled society would have to risk undermining the myths upon which its cult-of-personality rule rests. Pyongyang's elite know their system is broke; they don't know how to fix it--and stay in power. Thus, the government passes foreign-investment laws and creates a Chinese-style special economic zone in a remote corner of the country, so that any potential political fallout can be contained. Yet, Pyongyang is surprised when investors do not rush in. Worse, unlike China or Vietnam, it has not begun any internal market reforms. In short, Pyongyang is flirting with economic reform but appears wary of robustly embracing it.

Another problem is that the country's most interested lifeline supporter, South Korea, is of two minds about the North. While South Koreans do not want a war, desire a soft landing and a slow-motion reunification, they deeply hate their archrival, with whom they have been locked in a life or death struggle since 1953. It is understandably difficult for them to be magnanimous and gracious toward the assassins of their leaders and the would-be subverters of their government. But unless and until South Koreans overcome their vendetta complex, it is difficult to see how a genuine reconciliation can occur. If the North Korean elite surrendered, would they face war-crimes tribunals or be allowed to run for political office on the Korean Worker's Party ticket? South Koreans appear baffled when such a question is posed.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|