The Elders

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End the isolation of North Korea

"Diplomatic isolation is actually helpful in the North Korean government’s efforts to keep its people ignorant about the outside world."

Korean studies specialist Andrei Lankov examines the rationale behind North Korea's provocative behaviour, arguing that isolating the country will only help to reinforce the dangerous status quo.

Few people would now deny that North Korea is a problem. As a matter of fact, its government is keen to remain a problem, and has been quite successful in the pursuit of this goal. The North Korean leadership believes (perhaps not without some justification) that by appearing dangerous and unpredictable it can squeeze concessions from the outside world, while keeping its grotesquely inefficient system in place.

A penchant for provocation

North Korea’s seemingly irrational behaviour is actually driven by a cool-headed assessment of the country’s peculiar situation. Decades ago it introduced the Soviet system of economic management and then made it even more rigid – and, predictably, less efficient. In this regard, North Korea is similar to China of Mao’s days. However unlike China, North Korea is very reluctant to jettison its inefficient system. The reason is the existence of South Korea – or, to be more precise, its remarkable economic success. The per capita income gap between the two Korean states is believed to be 15-fold (and is likely even wider).

This means that attempted reforms, necessarily associated with a measure of political relaxation, are likely to endanger domestic political stability: if North Koreans learn about South Korea’s prosperity and become less afraid of the government, they are likely to challenge the regime. In other words, in a peculiar situation for a divided country, attempted reforms are likely to produce German-style political collapse and unification, rather than a Chinese-style economic boom under the watch of an authoritarian regime.

North Korean leaders have refused to follow the Chinese path, assuming that it would lead to the collapse of their power. However, this means that they remain burdened with a grossly inefficient economic system that cannot even feed their population. Outside aid is a must, but they need the aid to come with few conditions attached.

Hence North Korea’s penchant for provocative behaviour. For decades the North Korean government has followed the same cycle. First, it creates a crisis. Then, it suggests negotiations. When/if negotiations start, North Korean diplomats squeeze concessions from the outside world as a reward for their willingness to maintain status quo and not start another round of brinksmanship.

North Korean policy makes perfect sense if judged from the vantage point of the regime. But what about the outside world – and for that matter, the North Korean people – who are major victims of such a policy? Can something be done about this?

Engagement, not sanctions

Right now it seems that policy discourse is dominated by the hardliners. Hardliners believe that sanctions can make North Korea surrender its nuclear programme and comply with international norms of behaviour. However, thus far, sanctions have failed to produce results. On the contrary, the increasingly isolated North seems to get ever more belligerent.

The alternative is engagement: talks, interpersonal exchanges, economic and cultural cooperation. This approach has come in for much criticism – some allege that engagement is tantamount to appeasement – but the reality is rather different. As the experiences of the Soviet Union and China have shown us, exchanges remain the easiest way to introduce both the elite and ordinary people to new ideas (including ideas which may not be compatible with the existing government).

The eventual collapse of the Soviet Union and the transformation of China were driven by the incurable inefficiency of the communist system, which was challenged from above in China, and from below in the Soviet Union. An understanding of the system’s issues, and how to fix the system or change it for the better, was very important. Without information slowly dripping in from overseas, neither transformation nor revolution could have come about – or at least, such success would have taken much longer.

There is good reason to believe that these lessons are especially applicable to North Korea. North Korea has to change – both for its own benefit and for that of the outside world. North Koreans themselves should of course initiate such changes. The only way to encourage them to start pushing for it is to show them that alternatives are possible and indeed far more attractive than their current way of life.

This internal pressure is the only type of pressure that has a chance of succeeding in changing the North Korean government’s attitude. The government is deeply suspicious of reforms. However, if it faces mounting pressure from below, it is possible that the government will take significant risks and start changes in order to avoid domestic crisis. This policy might succeed, making North Korea into a version of China or Vietnam. It might end in failure, triggering an outbreak of public discontent and perhaps leading to a popular revolution. Either way, it will mean a significant improvement of the situation compared to the dangerous status quo of the present day.

For North Korea to change, we must end its diplomatic isolation

So, exposure to the outside world appears to be the key in changing North Korea. But what is the best way to introduce North Koreans to the wonders of the outside world?

Nothing can be as efficient as the development of interpersonal exchanges – academic, cultural and economic. Given the nature of the North Korean government, there is no doubt exchanges will be closely monitored and manipulated by the North Korean regime from time to time. However, even with surveillance, such exchanges will produce lasting impressions on North Koreans – including some members of the elite.

In the short run, it is also true that such activities will benefit the powerful and the well-connected. In due course though, the reach of exchanges will spread, and eventually will probably prove decisive. Unfortunately, this is not often well understood by decision-makers.

However, it is difficult to create an environment for exchanges as long as North Korea perceives itself as a besieged fortress and acts accordingly. One cannot usually send sufficient numbers of tourists, academics and journalists without stable diplomatic contacts. In other words, the exposure to the outside world that will change North Korea can only happen if the diplomatic isolation of North Korea is ended. Diplomatic isolation is actually helpful in the North Korean government’s efforts to keep its people ignorant about the outside world and therefore docile.

There is little doubt that numerous strategic considerations may complicate political contacts with North Korea. This is the reason why such contacts are better undertaken through private diplomacy, rather than through standard diplomatic channels. A group like The Elders can play a significant and important role in this.

North Korea in its present state is unacceptable to the international community and to all of us. The best way to change the North for the better is not to isolate it, but rather engage with it.

Professor Andrei Lankov is a specialist in Korean studies based in Seoul, Republic of Korea.

Views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Elders or The Elders Foundation.

Quote Widget Martti Ahtisaari response to End the isolation of North Korea

The Elders believe that dialogue with North Korea’s leaders can break the cycle of crises you describe. Engagement in no way means condoning the North Korean nuclear weapons programme. But no-one has ever come up with a peaceful solution to a conflict without talking to the other party.

The Elders in North Korea

Korean Peninsula

The Elders are working to help improve inter-Korean relations and highlight worsening humanitarian conditions in North Korea.

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