One Korea, one enormous challenge

31 07 2011

by Hamish Mcdonald (Sydney Morning Herald, July 30, 2011)

If Kim Jong-il and his North Korean regime didn’t exist, would we have to invent them? This Strangelovian thought came to mind as the region’s foreign ministers in the American camp took the opportunity of the recent Bali security forum to beat up on the North Koreans.

Indeed they have much to be berated about: the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan, the shelling of a fishing village and frenetic pursuit of nuclear enrichment and weapons testing – despite having agreed six years ago to freeze and then dismantle the latter activity in return for various quid pro quo.
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For a while, the general policy line has been: let them starve, let them freeze, let the regime crumble – no more sweeteners or “paying for the same horse twice”. A couple of years ago, it really looked as though the regime might be close to collapse, when Kim Jong-il suffered a severe stroke and the order of succession was unclear.

According to Andrei Lankov, of Seoul’s Kookmin University, who is one of the talented Russian scholars helping us understand Pyongyang, the Chinese started sending academics to Seoul and other places to discuss ways of dealing with regime collapse.

Now Kim’s health seems to have stabilised and he’s started grooming one of his sons, Kim Jong-un, as the “Bright Leader” to be the third ruler in the dynasty. The Chinese seem to be giving cautious endorsement and continue to underwrite what they see as still a useful buffer state.

The 40 million South Koreans meanwhile are getting less and less keen about the prospect of reunifying the peninsula and assuming responsibility for 23 million stunted and brainwashed northerners – at an estimated cost of $US3 trillion ($2.7 trillion).

Emma Campbell, a Korea scholar at the Australian National University, has been investigating who young South Koreans include in “uri nara” (our nation). They can accept Korean-speaking foreigners who settle in South Korea, and most Korean-Americans, but not North Koreans.

Ethnic nationalism is mutating to what Campbell calls a “globalised cultural nationalism” by which young South Koreans take pride in the modernity of their society, its advanced technology and big corporations known around the world. They value education, international values and speaking foreign languages.

Although most Europeans regard the German reunification as a success story, with a former easterner, Angela Merkel, now the country’s leader, in South Korea there is a general perception that it was immensely costly and still difficult. The South’s young feel they have enough problems, Campbell says. “Even older Koreans don’t understand how competitive it is for young people – to get educated, to get into university, to get a good job, to get married. I don’t blame them for being reluctant to think about integrating North Koreans.”

Lankov and Campbell were among speakers at a University of Technology Sydney workshop a week ago on “North Korea: Imagining the Future”. A lot of imagination is required, and the organisers floated four scenarios to get everyone talking.

One was a smooth succession to Kim Jong-un, perhaps starting as early as the 100th birth anniversary next April of his grandfather, regime founder Kim Il-sung. The state and the market economy establish an “uneasy but symbiotic relationship” and the country muddles along. The second envisaged a power struggle in the regime when Kim Jong-il dies, with the country imploding in rebellion and even worse famine than usual, leading to a breakdown of the border with the South and a massive foreign stabilisation effort. The third is a variant of No.2, except that famine and internal strife precipitates Chinese intervention, with Seoul tacitly accepting and helping with food and financial aid, as an alternative to shouldering the burden itself. The fourth scenario sees North Korea taking the Chinese road of capitalism, with a powerful bourgeoisie rising out of the state sector. The outside world supports this opening up, and gradually barriers and hostilities on the peninsula subside. But don’t hold your breath. Something could happen next week, or it could take years before any significant trend is visible.

Leonid Petrov, another Korea expert from Russia now at Sydney University, suggests instruments of change are already at work. A Singapore fast-food chain has set up a joint-venture with Kim Jong-il’s younger sister. North Korea’s new mobile telephone system has 600,000 subscribers. DVDs of South Korean TV soaps are circulating.

Women have moved into the free markets allowed under Kim Jong-il’s hesitant reforms of the past few years. Kyungja Jung, of UTS, thinks such women are likely to be the first to have the scales fall from their eyes about the regime’s ideology. The “angry female trader” is already a phenomenon that could turn to dissidence.

If and when it does happen, Korean reunification will be the biggest challenge facing “any society, any country”, Campbell says.

It will pose big strategic issues, says Lankov: the Chinese have indicated a “maximal” aim of getting American forces off the peninsula completely, a “minimal” aim of keeping them below the present DMZ.

Mary Nasr, a PhD candidate at Sydney University, says being confronted by the demonised South Koreans and Americans will be traumatic for many Northerners. Indeed, you think of the Japanese in August 1945, only they had their emperor telling them to “bear the unbearable”.

Lankov thinks there is a lot of preventive medicine that countries like Australia could start providing. “A few things can help in any scenario,” he said.

One is education and training: North Korea is unlikely to send students to the US, but would send them here. The ANU actually had a program to teach officials how to run a modern market economy but it was halted by the Howard government as part of anti-nuclear sanctions.

Another is developmental aid. “Maybe not nuclear physics, but everything else,” Lankov says. “The trouble is people here are afraid of their American friends.”

While embargoes are rightly applied on strategic weapons and nuclear material, generalised sanctions tend to entrench dictatorships. More revolutions result from a population able to measure its position against that in other countries, and spread the word by mobile phones and email.

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