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National Perspective | INTERNATIONAL OUTLOOK

'Bribery' Becomes a Key Component in the U.S.-North Korea Arrangement

May 31, 2000|JIM MANN

WASHINGTON — If you think there's nothing new in the world, think again: For the last few weeks, a group of North Korean workers has been "on strike."

Never mind that strikes are virtually unheard of in North Korea. Never mind that ordinarily anyone who dared to be an independent labor activist would be jailed or worse. Never mind that on May Day the North Korean regime of Kim Jong Il proclaimed that the mission of workers lies in "absolutely trusting and following the leader."

About 100 North Koreans have walked off the job at the construction site where South Korea and its American and Japanese allies are building two nuclear reactors for North Korea. Those civilian reactors are the centerpiece of the Clinton administration's 1994 deal in which North Korea agreed to halt its nuclear weapon program.

The North Koreans, we are told, want higher wages from their foreign employers. The workers have been paid $110 a month since 1997 but are now said to want a raise to $600.

If this strike represented the introduction of labor freedom in North Korea, it would be a welcome development. If the wage hikes were going to end up in the pockets of the individual workers, maybe the increase of more than 400% might be worth thinking about.

But of course, such ideas are preposterous. North Korea's "strike" isn't independent and isn't for the benefit of the workers. It's yet another organized attempt by the North Korean regime to hustle a bit more money from the outside world.

Increasingly, the North Korean economy runs on the money--bribes might be a more accurate word--that it can persuade or threaten other countries to give it.

North Korea's economy suffered its first calamity in the early 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which provided it with oil. Now, North Korea is facing a second jolt: Its earnings from trade are disappearing too, because its economy can't make things the rest of the world wants to buy.

"Trade dropped by more than 30% in 1997-98 and has continued to plummet ever since," reports Nicholas Eberstadt, a North Korea expert at the American Enterprise Institute.

And so, says Eberstadt, "aid extraction has become critical to state survival in North Korea." The country's economic policy is to keep on badgering other countries--that is, the Americans, Japanese, South Koreans and Chinese--for cash and goods.

The Clinton administration entered into this strange netherworld with its 1994 deal to stop the North Korean nuclear program. U.S. officials agreed to organize construction of the two civilian nuclear reactors and also to supply fuel oil to meet North Korea's energy needs.

Since then, the administration has gradually gotten into the business of shipping food and other aid to North Korea. Over the last six years, the Pyongyang regime has become the largest single source of U.S. foreign assistance in East Asia.

Why are we paying this money? After all, we are also paying large sums to station troops in South Korea, supposedly to defend against North Korea's 1-million-man army. And our country is talking about building a $60-billion missile-defense system, supposedly to defend against North Korean missiles.

The Clinton administration claims our national bribery of Pyongyang is good policy because it stops North Korea's nuclear and missile programs.

Yet it's never been clear whether North Korea was as much of a nuclear threat as the administration claimed. And when North Korea temporarily halted its missile testing last summer, it left open the possibility it might go ahead in the future. (Translation: More North Korean demands for money are in our horoscope.)

A clearer insight into the Clinton administration's North Korea policy comes from Chinese scholar Wu Xinbo. Speaking at the Woodrow Wilson International Center earlier this month, he said the United States and China have been working together on the "three no's" for North Korea: no war, no nuclear weapons and no collapse.

The first two goals are unchallengeable. But you might wonder why the Clinton administration should want to prevent the collapse of North Korea, a regime it often denounces as a "rogue state."

Could it be that keeping North Korea alive serves hidden U.S. government interests?

Think of this: If there was no North Korean threat, our current rationale for missile defense systems would vanish. If North Korea didn't exist, someone would have to explain why the United States wants to keep American troops and bases on the soil of a reunified Korea.

No one wants to answer hard questions about the future of America and Asia after North Korea collapses. And so, absurd as Pyongyang's monetary demands may be, the administration finds it easier just to pay up and shut up.

Oh, by the way: Last week, after the workers' "strike" held up construction of the two nuclear reactors, North Korea also demanded money from the United States to make up for delays in completion of the project.

We might pay. We're already accustomed to doing so. This is, after all, North Korea, the country that knows it cannot be allowed to disappear.

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Jim Mann's column appears in this space every Wednesday.

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