The Wilson Quarterly

North Korea could be open to engagement on an economic basis — as long as its internal politics are left alone, writes Tat Yan Kong in The Pacific Review. But is this a possibility the United States should consider? Would the U.S. be rewarding misbehavior?

Not quite, says Kong, arguing that engagement with North Korea on this condition should instead be seen as a strategy for furthering the Hermit Kingdom’s otherwise reluctant exposure to international capitalist society. If such a path is taken, North Korea’s main motives for misbehavior — military insecurity and economic insolvency — may diminish.

Surprisingly enough, Kong believes that despite its blustery rhetoric, North Korea is likely to accept an alliance with the United States. Unlike Asia’s surviving communist regimes in China and Vietnam, North Korea has not achieved sustained growth by reforming its economy. North Korea's economic failure has “triggered a vicious circle of anti-marketization, militarization, and stagnation,” Kong writes. “The regime is trapped in a vicious circle of its own making. It does not collapse but it cannot revive its economic base either.”

Outside of North Korea, other communist regimes have followed one of two distinct paths of internal reform: the “mono-transition strategy,” as seen in China and Vietnam, which seeks to restructure the economy along market-based principles even as the party apparatus retains political power; and the “cautious reform strategy,” seen in Cuba, which resists the pressure to transform into a market-based economy but does seek ways to “alleviate the problems of the centrally planned economy,” says Kong.

These two strategies vary in their handling of the social issues posed by capitalism, but they both succeed by emphasizing direct foreign investment and reducing the economic burden of key constituencies (like the military). Either path requires buy-in from both the country’s internal elites and external capitalist powers; North Korea — which has, thus far, seemed to follow something approximating Cuba’s cautious reform strategy — has yet failed to satisfy the requisites for either.

If there are fingers to point, says Kong, they should be directed at the two main components of the regime’s political method: the Monolithic Leadership System (MLS) and Military First Politics (MFP). MLS emerged in the wake of messy succession fights in the Soviet Union and China, allowing the ruling Kim family to consolidate power in North Korea and focus on national autonomy. MFP was introduced as an emergency measure to bolster the influence of the party during the economic collapse of the mid-1990s, exacerbating the economic crisis with additional military spending. The one-two punch of MLS and MFP pushed North Korea backwards, keeping even the most basic objectives of economic reform from being achieved and leading to excessive restrictions on grassroots capitalism, wasteful economics of militarization, and international isolation.

But these factors could create an opening for the United States. Potential external engagement would depend on a U.S. ability to work with the North Korean regime as it is — requiring the United States to drastically rethink the approach it has taken to North Korea since the mid-1990s.

“Practical engagement should instead be based on the realistic expectation of ultra cautious reform motivated by regime preservation, with disproportionate benefits accruing to the regime's core constituencies (especially the military),” writes Kong. “The criteria for engagement should be simple, namely, does it help the economy to grow, expand the number of economic stakeholders, and enable the country to pay its way in the world.”

Kong concludes that China, which has engaged with North Korea without offering approval of the state’s actions, shows that such engagement can be successful. But, she cautions, North Korea’s actions will only cease “when the [United States] finally decides to come to terms with the persistence of the North Korean political system and the different values it represents.”

The Source:The political obstacles to economic reform in North Korea: The ultra cautious strategy in comparative perspective” by Tat Yan Kong, The Pacific Review, December 18, 2013.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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