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Kim Jong Il Must Go By: Henry S. Rowen
Policy Review | Wednesday, November 05, 2003

orth Korea’s nuclear-weapons programs confront us with hard choices. They create a sense of urgency to make another deal with the North, but experience tells us that any new agreement will not stem the flow of crises. However we handle the immediate crisis, we will do better if we do so while having in mind an end position — something we have not done since the end of the Korean War 50 years ago. The argument here is that there should be different leadership in Pyongyang as a step towards the political unification of the peninsula.

Short of that goal, the main possibility for getting rid of the North’s weapons is an agreed strategy between China and the United States. Unfortunately, there is no good evidence that this will happen.

The North’s weapons pose three immediate challenges. Combined with its long-range missiles, North Korea’s nuclear weapons could inflict devastation at long distances, including the United States. The threat to Japan is already rousing Tokyo to rearm. Worse still, the regime threatens to sell bombs to all comers, including terrorist organizations.


Kim Jong Il’s game

his crisis was set off by the North admitting that it had a secret nuclear-weapons program in violation of the 1994 Agreed Framework. Negotiated by the Clinton administration, the framework promised economic benefits in return for North Korea’s “freezing” its nuclear program. Since breaking the agreement, the Kim Jong Il regime has loudly proclaimed that the U.S. is planning to attack and has demanded a guarantee of security from us. Perhaps seeing our campaign against Iraq has persuaded Kim that he’s next. But it seems more likely that he has a different and overriding perspective.

It is to gain enough resources to stay in power. The system his father, Kim Il Sung, perfected combines extreme nationalism, severe internal repression, and a Stalinist economy. The economy’s dysfunctions have led to the deaths of upwards of a million people in the past decade. Kim Jong Il’s margin of survival comes from extortion. At its core are nuclear weapons — along with an implicit threat of collapse and resulting social chaos that would be costly to North Korea’s neighbors.

The weapons program apparently started in the late 1970s and has continued despite several international commitments to stop it, each violated. An obvious reason for starting the program was to change the military balance on the peninsula. Although the North’s conventional forces were then relatively stronger than they are now, the U.S. had both troops and nuclear weapons in the South. In 1992 we removed our weapons as part of a denuclearization agreement between North and South — one of several agreements violated by the North. The U.S. estimated that the North could soon make enough plutonium for some nuclear weapons — and might have done so already. The resulting confrontation led to the Agreed Framework in 1994, in which the North agreed to shut down its reactor and store the spent fuel (containing plutonium) under international inspection. We and others agreed to provide food and fuel, to normalize relations, and to build two large nuclear electric power reactors. (The American negotiators seemed to have assumed, not unreasonably in 1994, that the North’s regime would be gone by the time the reactors were finished.)

If nuclear weapons were so important in the North’s strategy, why did it agree to this freeze? Its principal source of aid, the Soviet Union, had disappeared in 1991. This, plus endemic mismanagement, threw the economy into a slump. Apparently the urgent need for food and fuel, the U.S. threat to attack North Korea’s nuclear plants, and perhaps arm-twisting from China did it. (The Chinese did not sweeten the deal with food; they cut their supply in 1994-95.) The North also presumably knew something we have come to believe only since: that it had enough plutonium for a few weapons. And we now know that at some point in the 1990s it started work on a separate, enriched uranium-based weapons program, evidently with Pakistani help.1

North Korea claims that we reneged on our commitments under the Agreed Framework, while the Clinton administration complained about the North’s behavior. In early 2001 President Bush suspended the dialogue underway at the end of the Clinton administration, but later that year he signaled a willingness to resume talks. We were still supplying food and fuel and participating in the nuclear reactor construction program when the North revealed its second nuclear program in October 2002. In case we (and the South Koreans and Japanese) hadn’t gotten the message, in April of this year the North’s representative told ours that North Korea had nuclear weapons and might demonstrate (i.e., test) or sell them. In July the North announced that it had completed separating plutonium from its stored fuel rods by June 30 and that weapons production had begun. In short, North Korea is a nuclear power; on its present trajectory it will become a greater one.

Kim must have been severely disappointed that the hopes engendered by Clinton’s diplomacy were interrupted by the harder line taken by Bush. His government says it wants a guarantee of security from us. Paranoia can’t be ruled out in that nearly hermetically sealed society, in which ignorance of the West is profound. Perhaps the implications of being called a member of the “axis of evil” rattled him — although anyone other than a paranoid would see the implausibility of the U.S. attacking without South Korean agreement, which is most unlikely to be given. As for the North starting a war, there is no good reason to regard Kim as suicidal.

The Pyongyang regime has long had an ambitious goal. Fanciful as it might seem to outsiders, it is to unify the peninsula under its control; this is the purpose that justifies the regime’s rigors. The U.S. is seen as the main obstacle, and no doubt Kim and company contemplate the political gap that has opened between the United States and South Korea with satisfaction.

But today Kim Jong Il is balancing fears — perhaps of a U.S. attack but surely for his fate from continued and perhaps worsening poverty. That fear is balanced against the perceived danger of opening the economy — with the latter one dominating. Since his economy can’t produce many exports and with serious economic liberalization seen as too dangerous, what’s left is outside help induced by threats. Although it has left the country desperately poor, the routine has worked.

Kim is often portrayed in the West as a skillful player of a weak hand. Lately, however, his play looks erratic, as Nicholas Eberstadt has noted. He botched the creation of a special economic zone (in Sinuiju) with the Chinese and blew the opportunity to get several billion dollars soon in reparation payments from Japan by his handling of the kidnappings of Japanese citizens, and his trumpeting about nuclear weapons is helping to unify his opponents. These actions have led to cuts in the flow of fuel and food and to reports that once again the population is on the brink of famine.

He may not understand the fire with which he is playing. Building nuclear weapons puts other nations in danger, and if his having these weapons isn’t enough to provoke the U.S. and perhaps the Chinese to end his rule, the prospect of North Korean fissionable material coming into the hands of terrorists should do it.


The mess in the North

his is a strikingly poor country for one populated by disciplined and well-educated Koreans. The ending of Russian aid and a cut in Chinese subsidies after 1990 contributed to economic output and foreign trade declining by about one-third and to a food supply deficit of over one million tons a year. Food conditions became disastrous in 1994 and 1995. The authorities diverted food to the army, party cadres, and workers in key industries, leaving the rest to fend for themselves. Probably upwards of a million people (around 4 percent of the population) died.

Agriculture is still collectivized 25 years after the Chinese started to abandon this mode of production. A measure of its condition was that family garden plots (limited to 120 square yards per family) yielded one-third of all agricultural output in 1997.2 More important in that highly industrialized economy is the sorry state of industry.3 Goods are shoddy and scarce. Many factories lie idle and productivity is low. Poverty is overwhelming. Per capita gdp seems to be about $700, for a national total of around $13 billion to $15 billion. The regime’s core supporters get a large share of the country’s meager supply of goods (partly through access to hard currency), a supply that might now be on the verge of inadequacy even for the elite. The military has long absorbed about one-fourth of the total, an extraordinary share for an impoverished country. Allowing for the sustenance of other parts of the core, perhaps $7 billion to $9 billion is left for the remaining 21 million people, around $300-$400 per year per person, an amount available for such little investment as occurs as well as personal consumption. The World Food Program estimates that 57 percent of the population is malnourished, including 45 percent of children under the age of five.4 No wonder people try to flee.

Cash from exports and goods in kind from outside provide the crucial margin for the regime’s survival. Until recently, these probably ran about $2 billion per year. They have come from six main sources: exports of raw materials, the export of weapons and drugs, gifts from Koreans in Japan, fuel oil supplied under the 1994 Agreed Framework, other support from China and South Korea (for example, via the Mount Kumgang project for South Korean tourists), and gifts of food from many countries. There have also been secret payments from the South. According to the public prosecutor, South Korean President Kim Dae Jung paid Kim Jong Il $100 million as the ticket price for the June 2000 summit meeting in Pyongyang. The Hyundai Corporation paid an additional $350 million, supposedly for business purposes. Today, most if not all of these sources are diminished, leaving the regime in even more difficulty than usual.

Kim Dae Jung may have seen his Sunshine Policy of payments to the North as encouraging economic reform, but they had the opposite effect: Money supplied without conditions weakens the incentive to change. Such gifts don’t solve economic problems; they only leave the country in a precarious state that causes it repeatedly to go to the brink.

The economy would benefit greatly if the million-man army were to be scaled way back. The recent statement by Pyongyang that its nuclear weapons enable it to shrink its huge army has a logic. But this is North Korea, where the army is at the core of the regime, and its ability to threaten Seoul is one of its two main assets, the other being nuclear weapons. It is hard to imagine unilateral cutbacks if there is an opportunity to get paid for cutting back. Even then, one doubts that any such agreement would long be honored.

The survival of this island of poverty and obscurantism in one of the world’s most prosperous and dynamic regions is a tribute to the sturdiness of the Korean people, to the power of juche (its ideology of self-reliant ultranationalism), and to totalitarian controls. Collapse of Soviet rule and the fate of the Ceaucescus in Romania supply nightmares to the North’s rulers. More ambiguous is the model of China. The Chinese Communist Party’s great economic success must have appeal, but after Kim returned from China in 2000, where the splendid results of its liberalization were on display, North Korean television described China’s “opening” as a “Trojan horse tasked with destabilizing socialism.”5 As Marcus Noland has noted, Kim does not want to risk being “destabilized.”6

Nonetheless, some liberalizing steps have been taken, including creating free trade zones (Rajin-Sonbong and Sinuiju — both bungled) and allowing farmers’ markets. Potentially important is a recent large increase in the official price of goods (40,000-60,000 percent for grains). Given that wages are being changed differently for various groups in the society, there will be significant winners and losers from this “reform.”7

Some market-oriented reforms notwithstanding, there is little evidence of a willingness to undertake basic ones. Juche is one explanation for this reluctance to liberalize, but there are others. Kim and his core supporters must perceive their tenure as being more fragile than have the Chinese leaders; hence a stronger insistence on keeping control. And their initiatives have been extraordinarily inept. Outsiders often comment on the ignorance of Northern officials about the world economy and how markets work.

Widespread expectations through the mid-1990s of an early collapse, especially after Kim Il Sung’s death in 1994, have been succeeded by the belief that Kim Jong Il’s rule will be limited only by his longevity — and that one of his sons might succeed him. This view arguably weighs too little the effects of life at the margin of starvation for many people, meager resources for many core supporters, and increasing knowledge of the people about the outside world. An appropriate image is that of a gambler who every year faces a significant, perhaps now increasing, chance of ruin.

The unlikelihood that Kim Jong Il will preside over a basic economic transformation, together with his nuclear brinkmanship, leads to the question of an alternative to Kim dynasty rule. Internal political relations there are obscure. Because years passed before Kim Jong Il assumed some of the trappings of power, some outsiders assumed that he was not firmly in charge. That view seems wrong. Evidently he was powerful in the last decade of his father’s life, and his rule seems to have been unchallenged since then.

The two most salient institutions are the Korean Workers Party and the army. As far as one can tell (which is not very far), Kim is firmly in charge of both. The Workers Party has its functions in the spheres of ideology and population control, but it doesn’t seem able to act independently. In contrast, the army does have power. It has the guns. No doubt Kim has taken pains to keep this power from being concentrated in the persons of a few generals. Nonetheless, if conditions get bad enough, members of these elites might act against Kim.

Worries often expressed about regime “collapse” assume that no political alternative to the Kim dynasty could succeed without political chaos — this in a country with nuclear weapons. That might be so but shouldn’t simply be assumed. If conditions get bad enough, might someone who understands the need for basic economic change seize power in a way analogous to Park Chung Hee’s takeover in South Korea or Deng Xiaoping’s succession to the Gang of Four in China? Both were dictators who, by opening their countries, produced rapid growth and, as a consequence, increased personal freedoms for their peoples — and for South Korea, democracy. As Deng told George Shultz in July 1988 when asked his opinion of Gorbachev’s reforms in the Soviet Union, “He’s got it backwards. He opened up the political system without a clue about the economy. The result is chaos. I did it the other way around, starting in agriculture and small businesses, where opening up worked, so now I have a demand for more of what succeeds.” What about political opening? “That will come later and will start small, just as in the economy. You have to be patient but you have to get the sequence right.”


The South

he republic of korea’s creation of a solid democracy is a great achievement. Leading the way was economic growth that became one of the wonders of the second half of the twentieth century. South Korea’s recovery from the financial crisis of 1997-98 was faster than that of the other hard-hit countries in Asia. Its gdp is about 25 times that of the North, and if it tried it could easily dominate the North militarily without any American help (nuclear weapons aside). The American alliance reduces its incentive to try, however, with the result that it allocates only 2.8 percent of gdp to defense, scheduled to increase to 3.2 percent, versus the North’s 25 percent share. The combined strength of the rok and the United States means that the North would lose a conventional war — a salient observation in view of the North’s hyperbolic statements that war will come if we do not give way on this or that of its demands. However, the fact that Seoul is at risk from many thousands of artillery tubes just north of the dmz discourages any unilateral American attack.

The nuclear weapon imbalance on the peninsula today (so it seems) reverses the pattern before 1991 when such weapons were in the South and not in the North. How stable is this situation? The Roh Moo-Hyun government’s professions of opposition to the North’s nuclear program has a certain pro forma character. Indeed, some South Koreans say they see the North’s weapons as an asset in waiting for a future unified Korea. In any case, if the North persists with its nuclear programs the South’s government will be under domestic pressure also to get them.

Another inference from the South’s economic strength is that it can afford to invest amounts in the North large enough to transform its economy — albeit at a substantial cost. This economic differential is a huge asset for the South, one that has been badly managed. Kim Dae Jung’s Sunshine Policy of aiding the North has been, to say the least, controversial. Revelations about the deals financed through the Hyundai company have caused a great scandal.

Nonetheless, “Sunshine” also has many supporters. Popular attitudes towards the North changed greatly during Kim Dae Jung’s presidency, and to many people today it is not a threat — it is more to be pitied than feared. No longer do school textbooks simply condemn Kim Il Sung for attacking the South in 1950 and repressing his people; they now credit him as a fighter against Japanese colonialism. As Larry Diamond has noted, one sign of the South’s soft approach to the North is a refugee’s report that people there prefer listening to the Voice of America and Radio Free Asia rather than South Korean broadcasts because the South does not criticize the North’s government.

Kim Dae Jung contributed, consciously or not, to the growth of anti-Americanism. If his Sunshine Policy failed to bring peace, who is to blame? Many South Koreans point to the Americans. (This disposition helps account for what might otherwise seem paradoxical: widespread complacency about the North accompanied by worry for the fate of Seoul from attack. An explanation is that war could come only if the Americans start it.) An analysis of 2002 election results shows that younger voters preferred the winner, Roh Moo-Hyun, who had been critical of the U.S., and were less suspicious of the North than older voters who have memories of the Korean War and of American support in the hard times afterward. Roh had questioned the desirability of the American connection and seemed to want to help the North at least as much as did Kim Dae Jung — apparently still without serious conditions attached. It is too early to know how the responsibilities of power will affect him, but his supporters will resist a large change in policy.

Another manifestation of change is Seoul’s relationship with Beijing. South Korean and Chinese economic connections are flourishing, in both trade and investment. Their stances towards the North have also converged, albeit incompletely. Though the Chinese government seems more worried about the North’s nuclear programs than does the South, neither wants to see a collapse, both have been helping the North, and they have a similar posture on its human rights abuses — one of indifference. On April 16, 2003, for example, South Korea abstained on a vote of the U.N. High Commission on Human Rights condemning North Korea for “widespread and grave” abuses of human rights. Its explanation was that it would upset the North just before the planned meeting in Beijing. China opposed the resolution.

Until circa 1990, one could fairly say that American and South Korean interests were congruent: Both were about the security of the South and its consolidation of democracy. The robustness of Korean democracy is no longer in doubt. The problem is security. Of course both want to avert war, but Americans (and Japanese and apparently Chinese) perceive greater dangers from the North’s missile and nuclear weapons than do South Koreans. Southerners (rightly or wrongly) do not expect the North’s missiles or nuclear weapons to land on them, nor do they see themselves as the target of nuclear-armed terrorists. Americans see themselves as threatened both ways.

South Koreans have long worried about a collapse of the North’s government. They fear millions of people coming south and the burden of financing the construction of the North’s economy. Many use the costly unification of Germany as a reason (or perhaps rationalization) for keeping the status quo.8 In any case, a large amount of outside capital would be needed (large relative to the South’s economy but not in relation to world capital flows). As Marcus Noland notes in Avoiding the Apocalypse, a capital transfer of $300 billion to $500 billion could bring per capita incomes in the North to 60 percent of the South’s level within 10 years. Although the long-run payoff to the people in the southern part of a unified Korea from a prosperous North would be high both economically and politically, there would be costs in between. Assuming that most of this capital would come from the South, growth there would be depressed during that decade by perhaps 1 percent a year. Here the U.S. has been neglectful. It is in our interest to commit now to helping the South with this financial burden if the North’s regime collapses.9

The Roh government needs to decide on its goals. It cannot act as a middleman between the U.S. and the North. It needs to choose how much it values the American alliance versus helping to sustain a regime that threatens Seoul with destruction, whose military programs are rousing the Japanese to rearm, that sells missiles to all comers, and that might sell nuclear weapons.


China, Japan, and Russia

hina’s position is likely to be pivotal. Its leaders don’t want to see a communist regime collapse; they don’t want a flood of refugees coming to China; they don’t want a war that would bring down the regime and might bring American forces to the Yalu; they don’t want to see a rearmed Japan, especially a nuclear-armed one; and they want good relations with the United States. Nonetheless, they seem to be leaving the job of stopping it largely to us.

China’s apparent lack of vigor might simply reflect a reluctance to tackle forcefully a fellow communist-ruled state many of whose senior officials are old comrades. Or might it be based on the view that the Americans and others will pay to solve it? Or, more ominously, might China judge that U.S.-South Korean differences will preclude war, that they will speed the departure of American forces from the mainland of Asia, and that Japan is no longer a major force? Whatever the combination of views in Beijing, a failure to act decisively could leave China with three more nuclear-armed neighbors — two in Korea plus Japan — along with other troubles.

The mirror image of the putative Chinese view — “Let the Americans solve it” — is an American one: “Let the Chinese solve it.” Why is this not mainly a Chinese problem, on the view that they have more to lose than anyone else from a nuclear-armed Northeast Asia? That might be so if it were not for the North’s possible sale of bomb materials. A more considered view is that we have enough shared interests with the Chinese to try jointly to solve the problem of the North.

The Chinese long claimed that they had little influence in Pyongyang. Relations between their leaders have been cool to frigid, but with China its principal supplier of food and fuel as well as the main obstacle to the flight of refugees, that position lacked credibility. Its supplies now are even more crucial to the regime’s survival than in the past. And if China agreed not to return refugees but rather to send them on, and if South Korea (and the U.S.) agreed to take more of them, there would likely be a rush for the exit. One refugee has said that the cities would empty in six months.10 For a horde of Koreans to arrive and stay in China is a nightmare for Beijing, but a position well short of threatening to empty the North of people — with refugees passing through to elsewhere — would put great pressure on Pyongyang.

The Chinese are edging towards doing more. Recently they let it be known that they cut off the North’s fuel supply for 72 hours. They might come to see what is happening as sufficiently hazardous to warrant strong action. For instance, how do they regard the possibility of the North selling readily fissionable materials or fabricated bombs to anyone who pays enough? Is it beyond the bounds of possibility that such things could come into the hands of Uigher terrorists?

The Chinese have, to little avail, been telling Kim Jong Il to adopt the kinds of reforms that are transforming their economy. Perhaps they say (only to each other?) that what North Korea needs is a leader of the “Deng Xiaoping” sort. Worries are expressed in both South Korea and China about a Romanian-type regime collapse in the North, but too little attention has been given to a change in rulers within the same political structure. If they are sufficiently motivated, the Chinese are best positioned to bring it off.

Notwithstanding the speculations above on why China might not act decisively against the North, there is arguably a large overlapping interest with the United States. China’s comparative advantage is in squeezing the North while that of the U.S. is in rouding up support from others and, if necessary, offering some kind of non-attack commitment.

If the Chinese decide to move against Kim, might they try for a larger goal: to try to engineer a peaceful unification of a non-nuclear, democratic Korea on condition that the Americans leave? Considering how we got there in the first place (to defend against an attack by a communist North backed by Soviet and Chinese power), that could look like not a bad outcome. (Surprises happen. If leaders of the two Koreas come to perceive that their fates are about to be decided by China and the U.S., might they act preemptively? But this line of argument is speculative in the extreme.)

As for Japan, the firing of a North Korean missile over that country in 1998 was a deeply disturbing event, to which is now added its nuclear weapons. There is also popular outrage at the North’s kidnapping of Japanese citizens. These events are having consequences. The Japanese are doing r&d on ballistic missile defenses and are considering building them. There are reports about Japanese air and naval forces being given offensive weapons. Japan would probably participate in a multilateral maritime weapons interdiction effort against the North, especially if approved by the United Nations. Talk about Japan getting nuclear weapons is still confined to the political fringe, but that could change if North Korea continues with its programs.

This crisis brings to the fore our role in the defense of Japan. So far we have been unable to assure the safety of Japan against North Korean threats; hence the growth in the attitude that Japan has to do more for itself. A big cut in our forces in Korea would have repercussions in Japan, and their total withdrawal even more so. Much would depend on the context. Our leaving in anything like the present situation would create alarm. On the other hand, a reduction or even withdrawal associated with the creation of a unified, democratic, non-nuclear Korea would be much less alarming. But even in so favorable a case, a new U.S.-Japan security formula would be needed. For now, the Japanese still hope the U.S. will solve this problem, and they are willing to help.

Russia is likely to remain a marginal player. It has as normal diplomatic relations as any country has with the North. Their trade is small. However, trade between a unified, capitalist Korea and the Russian Far East could become large and of great mutual benefit.


What should we do?

oday, there are many advocates of a deal that can be labeled Agreed Framework Mark ii. One can guess at its contents. It would, again, entail promises by the North to forgo nuclear programs in exchange for benefits. These would include food and fuel — but surely not completing the two nuclear reactors under construction as part of the 1994 Agreed Framework.11 It might also include cuts in conventional forces. (Having the North’s army merely move back from the dmz wouldn’t accomplish much because it could quickly be returned.) The North is pressing for a commitment by the United States not to attack. This is less innocuous than it might seem. The threat here is a point of leverage in what is likely to be an ongoing series of confrontations, and given the North’s record, we could find ourselves having to attack in self-defense. Suppose the North is found to be supplying nuclear weapons to al Qaeda?

The North’s obligations would entail much more pervasive inspection and the removal of readily fissile materials (those which are found, that is) from the country. If this course is pursued, it would likely also include specific and closely monitored economic opening actions that would bring in outsiders — presumably South Koreans — widely throughout the country as well as specific actions on human rights.

To those who will inevitably argue that such demands would be rejected by the North and, anyway, the main aim is to stop the weapons programs, the response is: You have a good chance of not stopping the weapons; there will be other crises; we need a basic change in the North; and we can offer the North more benefits (i.e., money) to go with these demands.

The nuclear inspection task would be formidable, especially for fabricated weapons. The only way to have confidence that they are not present in a country known to have had them (e.g., South Africa) is for the country to be sufficiently open that insiders with knowledge can safely reveal cheating. That condition will not exist in Kim Jong Il’s North Korea. The American effort to round up international support for inspecting and seizing exports of missiles and drugs at least puts pressure on the North in the maneuvering for an agreement. An economic blockade (excepting perhaps some food) might bring Kim down, and might be supported in the Security Council if proposed by the U.S. and China, but that brings us back to how far China is willing to go.

If something like an Agreed Framework Mark ii is reached, there will be celebrations over having averted a great danger. One should not be too ready to carp at whatever emerges; this is a problem from hell. But elation would be premature. The inspection requirements for confidence that the fissile material production programs — and any fabricated bombs — are gone are so stringent as to be unlikely to be met, and as Pyongyang demonstrated recently, the inspectors could be thrown out at any time. It is axiomatic that any government headed by Kim Jong Il will have nuclear weapons, despite any agreement signed by his government (unless the Chinese take decisive action).

Therefore, we should aim to have a leadership in Pyongyang committed to developing the country, rather than surviving on nuclear extortion, as a step towards the political unification of the peninsula. This implies the end of the Kim dynasty. Since the end of the Korean War we have accepted the division and constant tensions, interspersed with crises, as inevitable. We have reacted to events instead of creating them. It is too dangerous to keep doing this.


Some suggested initiatives

e should undertake several initiatives as a part of or — to the extent we have not tied our hands in a negotiation — independently of any agreement.

Try to reach agreement with China on a strategy for eliminating the North’s weapons. The Bush administration would have to trust China to deliver on a promise to rid the North of weapons and China would have to trust that the U.S. would deliver a (rather unpalatable, from the American perspective) package of concessions. But, to repeat, there are no good options.

Undertake a serious human rights campaign. Make human rights a major topic with the North — and in public. Focusing only on nuclear weapons enables Kim to beat the drum of nationalism and to avoid addressing his manifest domestic failings.

This effort should include the free exchange of people, religious liberty, open borders, and family reunification, as the recent joint “Statement of Principles for U.S.-North Korean Relations” urged (Wall Street Journal, January 18, 2003). Having recently expanded Korean-language broadcasting, we should do more to distribute information on human rights abuses and to investigate religious persecution. On refugees, we should press Russia and especially China to process refugee claims, press the unhcr to invoke its treaty with China on access to refugees, and pass the bill in Congress granting North Korean refugees the same rights as Cubans.

Promote specific economic reforms. If we (meaning the coalition we are trying to form) end up supplying economic aid, some of it should be conditioned on specific liberalizing action in certain sectors, as Adam Garfinkle has argued in the New Republic (November 4, 2002). The principle should be “pay for performance.” We should also be willing to help in educating North Koreans on markets and rule-of-law reforms. Given the minuscule size of the North’s economy, the cost of the aid should not be much of an issue; the question is what we get for the money.

Work to find a successor to Kim. Several of the items discussed above would advance this aim. In addition, we should try to identify a potential North Korean “Deng Xiaoping” or a “Park Chung Hee.” How this might be done is, of course, a large question, but one begins by identifying the need. Probably only China could engineer this — if anyone can.

At the end of a transition (which might be short), the aim is to have a peacefully united and democratic Korea without nuclear weapons, the North’s top leaders retired, a rapidly developing North supported by outside investment, and perhaps a U.S. security linkage. That last decision should depend not only on Korean preferences, but also on how we then assess our role in Northeast Asian security.

That anything like the Kim dynasty is doomed should not be in doubt. The forces of economic and political liberalism are too powerful. The question is when and how it goes and what disasters occur before then. The time is late for us to be thinking about how to make it go away peacefully.


1 A North Korean defector’s report puts cooperation with Pakistani nuclear engineers back to 1994. Henry Sokolski, “Beyond the Agreed Framework: The DPRK’s Projected Atomic Bomb Making Capabilities, 2002-09” (Nonproliferation Education Center, December 3, 2002).

2 Nam Sung-wook, “Feeding the People: Possible Agricultural Normalization in North Korea,” East Asian Review (Autumn 2002).

3 Marcus Noland (in Avoiding the Apocalypse, Institute for International Economics, 2000) makes the point that the failure is (even) more one of industrial than agricultural production. Had the North been able to produce farm equipment, fertilizers, and goods for export, food would have been forthcoming.

4 Human Rights Watch, “The Invisible Exodus: North Koreans in the People’s Republic of China” (November 2002).

5 Selig Harrison, in Korean End Game (Princeton University Press, 2002), quotes Hwang Chang Yop, the most senior defector from the North, as attributing to Kim Jong Il a desire for economic reforms but also a belief that an opening would reveal all of the killings, much worse than in China or Vietnam.

6 Marcus Noland, “The Economics of National Reconciliation” (Institute for Corean-American Studies, 2000).

7 Marcus Noland, “Famine and Reform in North Korea” (Institute for International Economics, July 2003).

8 The German model is flawed. West Germany made mistakes that do not have to be repeated, such as decreeing that wages in the East would move immediately to the West German level despite 60 percent lower worker productivity.

9 A notional example is a standby loan for the contingency of a North Korean collapse of $100 billion supplied by a consortium including the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank, the U.S. Export-Import Bank, and other lending agencies.

10 “A Human Face on North Koreans’ Plight,” New York Times (August 21, 2002). Mongolia is a possible way station for them. The number of North Korean refugees reaching the South has grown from 150 in 1999 to 1,200 in 2002 and might total 2,000 in 2003, according to the Asahi Shimbun (June 18, 2003). However, China has warned Mongolia not to become a haven for North Koreans.

11 These large power reactors, being built by the Korean Energy Development Organization (KEDO) are financed by Japan and South Korea (with the U.S. having regulatory authority). They would create large amounts of plutonium usable in weapons. Moreover, such large concentrations of electricity generation would be practically unusable without also building a more robust North Korean electricity grid.

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