Recently, TomDispatch launched a series of pieces
aimed at the coming Obama era. Michael Klare wrote on the new president's "energy
challenge of a lifetime"; I explored his future arrival in "airless
Washington"; and today, John Feffer, co-director of the Foreign
Policy In Focus website and a Korea expert, considers the thorny issue of
American policy toward North Korea.
As Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post recently
wrote, "On North Korea, Obama will inherit a process that is probably in
worse shape than what Clinton left for Bush." Who can question this, given that
the North has now actually tested a nuclear weapon and declared itself a nuclear
When queried during the campaign on his attitude toward the latest agreement
on verifying the partial rollback of the North Korean nuclear program, Obama's
response, peppered with run of the mill American threats, seemed
only marginally different from that of the Bush administration. "If North Korea
refuses to permit robust verification," he answered, "we should lead all members
of the Six-Party Talks in suspending energy assistance, re-imposing sanctions
that have recently been waived, and considering new restrictions. Our objective
remains the complete and verifiable elimination of North Korea's nuclear weapons
program. The Six Party Talks offer North Korea a clear choice. If North Korea
abandons its nuclear weapons programs, there will be meaningful incentives.
If it refuses, it faces a future of political and economic isolation."
This was, of course, campaign rhetoric, and the campaign season is invariably
a time when all Democrats must seem tougher than titanium on foreign policy
issues. But campaign rhetoric has an eerie way of turning into policy, especially
for a new Democratic administration which will undoubtedly feel a similar need
to seem tough on "security issues." It's often suggested that Kim Jong Il's
country is locked in a time warp. That might turn out to be a better description,
as Feffer suggests, of American policy toward that country. As a key prerequisite
for a genuinely new approach to the North, the Obama administration should start,
he concludes, by suspending the givens of the last 12 years and simply trying
to see that country in a new way. (While you're at it, check out a podcast interview
with Feffer on the look of the new North Korea by clicking here.)
The North Korean Conundrum
Change You Can Believe In or Policy Status Quo?
By John Feffer
As Barack Obama assembles his foreign policy
team, he appears to be drawing from two primary sources: the Clinton faithful
and Republican renegades. These old dogs might be up for some new tricks, but
one risk of relying on such "experience" could be the triumph of conventional
thinking in Washington when the world expects, and the times demand, fundamental
These foreign policy mandarins will certainly counsel a tempering of the worst
excesses of the Bush administration legacy on torture, global warming, and
adherence to international treaties. By asking what the elder Bush's National
Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft would do, the Obama administration will at
least restore a modicum of realism to the hard-edged fantasy world of the George
W. Bush years. At least, we'll be back in the realm of the geopolitical chessboard
after eight years of Grand Theft Auto.
But if we withdraw troops from Iraq only to send them to Afghanistan, approve
free-trade agreements with only minor tweaks, and address global warming with
quarter-measures, we will also find ourselves slouching toward what I've termed
a Goldilocks apocalypse.
Not too cold and not too hot might please the palate, but in the end we'll end
up in the belly of the bear.
Consider the risks of the policy status quo in the case of just one nation:
North Korea. For the last seven years, the Bush administration wavered between
two options in its policy planning for a country that the President famously
labeled a member of his "axis of evil" in his 2002
State of the Union address. During George W. Bush's first term, the ascendant
hardliners in his administration rejected President Bill Clinton's efforts to
negotiate with that country, favoring instead pushing North Korea until its
regime collapsed which, of course, it didn't. In his second term, the State
Department got the upper hand with a plan to end North Korea's nuclear program
through multi-party negotiations.
Neither of these policy approaches proved sufficient. Largely because it would
unleash millions of refugees on surrounding countries and who knows how much
loose nuclear material on the world, regime collapse proved an unappetizing
option not only in the region, but in Washington, at least for all but the most
militant neoconservative policymakers.
The alternative what might be called "the nonproliferation imperative"
aimed at negotiating the North Koreans down from their stance as a nuclear power
was admirable in theory. Unfortunately, focusing only on the single question
of whether or not North Korea would give up its nuclear program produced an
insoluble dilemma. North Korea quickly grasped a single reality highlighted
by Washington: when it came to both bargaining chips and deterrents, nuclear
weapons were all it had. As a result, getting Kim Jong Il's regime to hand over
those last scraps of nuclear material is turning out to be like persuading a
surrounded and desperate bank robber to relinquish his last hostages.
If there is one thing the Obama administration needs to do, it is to widen
the American lens when it comes to North Korea. It should reframe US policy
by pursuing nonproliferation goals through regime change. Here's the
rub: That doesn't mean pushing for a North Korean collapse or brandishing military
threats. If the new administration wants change everyone can believe in, it
must first recognize, and then leverage, the change that North Korea has already
embarked on and American officials have largely ignored.
Change in the Air
Forget the picture you have of a land that time forgot. North Korea is not
the world's last Stalinist country or the only remaining communist economy.
Not anymore, anyway. The country is very different than it was even a decade
ago. For one thing, North Korea is now thoroughly permeated by a spreading market
Take for example, the Tongil market in Pyongyang, which attracts thousands
of shoppers every day, and is one of 19 markets in the capital city that sell
everything from food to VCRs. Each North Korean city has between
two and four markets. According
to North Korean sources, citizens rely on the markets for approximately
20% of their staples as well as 50% percent of their fruits and vegetables,
while other sources suggest that
as many as 60-70% of North Koreans trade part-time or full-time in such markets.
These are not the only signs of independent economic activity. Kiosks offer
a wide variety of foods as well as services like photo-taking. Private restaurants
have mushroomed. On the illegal housing market (largely ignored by the government),
North Koreans now buy and sell apartments.
A recurrent food crisis has certainly limited market expansion in some ways.
Over the summer, the UN World Food Program reported
that three-quarters of all households have had to reduce their food intake.
Patronage has dropped at restaurants that don't rely on the tourist trade, while
consumption in general has declined. Nevertheless, the market now looks like
an irreversible fact of North Korean life.
The government has largely played catch-up when it comes to these changes
in the everyday economic fabric of the country. It has taxed market activity
and attempted to regulate who sells goods in order to ensure that the young
and able-bodied continue to show up at their designated state jobs. But it has
also implemented market-oriented economic changes from the top.
After all, the North Korean government no longer has any ideological problems
with market economies per se, either locally or globally. It has instead
created what it euphemistically calls "real-gain socialism" and has endorsed
the vague but distinctly capitalist principle of "selling what is present and
buying what is missing." In both cases, the primary concern of the central authorities,
as in China, is to maintain political control, while ensuring that the
ongoing market transformation yields a portion of its value to the government.
To the extent that these changes have been noticed in our American world,
attention has mainly been devoted to the government's old 2002 economic and
financial reforms, which adjusted wages and prices, massaged the exchange rate,
expanded private garden plots, and somewhat decentralized authority in the agricultural
and industrial sectors. Although the North Korean economy did grow modestly
from 2002 through 2005, the reforms generated a variety of problems. Economists
are notoriously fallible creatures just look at the crowd in charge of US
policy over the last seven years and North Korean officials haven't exactly
been operating in an information-rich environment.
Pyongyang also found itself in the unenviable position of attempting to implement
capitalism without capital. There simply hasn't been enough money to modernize
its factories and farms. While individuals avail themselves of markets and the
government continues to pass laws to prepare for more foreign investment, agricultural
and industrial enterprises are still forced to barter goods among themselves.
Without an accompanying rise in productive output, wage and price increases
have led to inflation. The opportunities in the new economy to make money have
produced a nouveau riche class and a widening income gap. Economic change
has indeed come to North Korea, but in many respects it is a red capitalism:
red in tooth and claw.
Beyond the Economy
Even if the North Korean state aspires to totalitarian control over its citizenry,
these days it has difficulty generating even a modicum of fealty from them.
During the starvation years of the 1990s, the state largely abdicated its responsibility
to provide for most North Koreans. The food distribution system collapsed. Factories
stopped working. Food-poor border regions negotiated their own deals with China.
Even soldiers could no longer rely on food distribution and so took to raiding
farms. The paternalistic bonds between state and citizen, between state and
county, between state and military began to melt away.
At the same time, the barriers between citizens and the outside world have
become a great deal more porous. During the food crisis years, hundreds of thousands
of North Koreans traveled to China and back in order to procure food for themselves
and their families. They discovered that the giant neighbor they had always
thought of as backward was in fact staggeringly far ahead of North Korea economically.
Perhaps realizing the effect this flow of information was having, the North
Korean government aired footage of leader Kim Jong Il's celebrated visit to
Shanghai in January 2001, featuring visits to thriving factories and the Pudong
stock exchange, as well as views of the material wealth enjoyed by ordinary
Today, it is possible for North Koreans to acquire on the sly videos, songs,
and books from South Korea. The North Korean government has reportedly cracked
down on South Korean-style haircuts and slang probably picked up from watching
South Korean TV dramas on bootleg videos all signs of the growing popularity
of the world across the North's borders.
No less importantly, the market has shaken up previously rigid social hierarchies.
One's place in the pecking order was once determined by proximity to the leadership,
distance from a compromising past, or ability to work in strategic industries.
With a money economy now shaping a new social hierarchy, however, it is not
uncommon for former untouchables to pull together a bit of capital and rise
through the new economic ranks.
The North Korean elite, too, has changed over the last decade. Knowledge of
English has become a desirable asset. Travel and market training have become
indispensable. The rich have
enough disposable income to buy luxury goods from China.
The international media, when not writing about the North's nuclear program,
has focused largely on the health of Kim Jong Il and the identity of his potential
successor. In doing so, like officials in Bush's Washington, it has missed the
larger story of an impending generational change. A younger group of officials
have moved into important economic advisory positions around Kim Jong Il. At
the same time, the ruling Politburo and military councils remain top-heavy with
the old guard, once nurtured by the Dear Leader's father Kim Il Sung.
In a capital-rich environment, there would be less likelihood of a major conflict
between the new technocratic elite concentrated in the economic sphere and the
old guard in the military councils. The Chinese government avoided this conflict
by giving the People's Liberation Army a major stake in the country's economic
reforms. There, the rising economic tide then lifted both boats.
The North Korean government has, in fact, made tentative moves in this direction
as when, for instance, Kim Jong Il urged
the military to establish "sideline industries" to provide for soldiers. But
in a situation of limited resources, the military and the technocrats must fight
each other for scraps. Unless the technocrats can prove that they are rainmakers,
that their reforms will bring in needed capital a distinct challenge in the
rapidly worsening global economic climate they are likely to lose out to
the military every time.
Learning from Beijing and Seoul
If the Obama administration proves capable of looking at North Korea with
new eyes, it will see that economic engagement with the country is likely to
encourage all these important, if still nascent, changes. The impulse should
not be seen as charitable. Over the last eight years, South Korea has already
an estimated $27 billion in benefits from its economic relations with the North,
through trade, tourism, and particularly the Kaesong Industrial zone that now
employs over 30,000 North Koreans in an area just north of the Demilitarized
Zone that separates the two halves of the Korean peninsula.
China, too, has been quietly engaging North Korea for its own purposes. It
has invested tens of millions of dollars in improving North Korea's extraction
industries for instance, negotiating a 50-year lease to mine
iron ore in the county of Musan and improving access to the port of Rajin.
Even Russia is getting in on the ground floor of what ultimately may be a profound
economic surge in Northeast Asia, inking a recent energy deal with South Korea
for a natural gas pipeline that will pass through the North as well.
The United States will never reap the same kind of economic rewards. We are
too far away, and 23 million North Koreans are not a sufficiently tempting market
for most US businesses. But the Obama administration can realize other goals
by opening up the spigot of development dollars going to North Korea.
Modest-sized targeted investments in high-tech ventures and infrastructure
development can simultaneously boost the political fortunes of technocrats
in the North Korean government and provide more opportunities for a middle class
to emerge, helping soften the tooth and claw nature of economic reform there.
Such investments can help the regime change itself, just as foreign engagement
helped the Chinese exit the insanities of the Cultural Revolution. To the objection
and the neocons and conservatives will be screaming about this, if Washington
policy begins to change that such money will only end up in the North Korean
military, so be it. The North Korean military, like the People's Liberation
Army before it, must have a stake in any movement for reform, or it won't ever
come to fruition. It should, in fact, be encouraged to create its own non-military
enterprises and become "gloriously rich" the Chinese way.
As for the goal of non-proliferation, the truth is: North Korea will only
give up its nuclear program when it no longer serves as a crucial bargaining
chip and a deterrent. Economic incentives alone will not accomplish this task
We can't simply buy North Korea's nuclear weapons program, because it is inextricably
connected to the country's pride and the leadership's survival. But if the United
States endorses economic engagement with North Korea, the country and the leadership
will, sooner or later, be able to uncouple pride and regime stability from the
atom. Conversely, refusing to provide real economic incentives until the denuclearization
of the country is complete will ensure that North Korea stumbles along indefinitely
in, at best, its current, partially transformed state, brandishing its nuclear
card whenever its leadership feels threatened.
It wouldn't take much for the United States to decisively back North Korean
economic changes. A few well-placed investments in the country's dilapidated
energy grid or in a new, high-tech industrial complex would have a considerable
ripple effect through the country's economy. Minimally, Washington should step
out of the way so that the North Koreans can begin negotiating for international
As importantly, the US seal of approval on economic engagement, accompanied
by a modicum of assistance, would markedly increase investor confidence and
thus the flow of dollars from the private sector. Rather than tying these economic
incentives to the non-proliferation goal, they should be linked to continued
changes in North Korea's economic policy such as greater transparency and accountability,
or more autonomy for farms and factories. In this way, the process of economic
engagement becomes mutually reinforcing.
In either of its two modes, the Bush administration treated North Korea in
purely instrumental ways. Washington attempted first to use sticks to bring
about regime change and then carrots to effect a narrower change in the regime's
The latter strategy has at least reopened dialogue and incrementally rolled
back the North Korean nuclear program. But as the Clinton administration understood
in its final year, Pyongyang is not interested in talk alone or in a simple
trade of nukes for goodies. It wants a fundamentally new relationship with Washington,
and the recent changes on the ground can help build that relationship.
If Obama and his advisors look at North Korea clearly, they can resolve the
longest-lived conflict that the United States currently has with another country.
That wouldn't be change around the edges, but a fundamental step forward in
US relations with the world.
John Feffer is the co-director of Foreign
Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. His most recent book
Future of US-Korean Relations. His writings can be found at his
website. This dispatch was adapted from a presentation given at a Korea
Policy Institute conference at the University of California-Berkeley on October
Copyright 2008 John Feffer