Waiting for North Korean Reform…and Waiting

As surely as the sun rises in the east, someone inevitably perceives subtle new signs of impending North Korean economic reform and a less belligerent foreign policy. Like ancient seers examining animal entrails to predict the future, modern prognosticators interpret cryptic North Korean statements as portending major policy shifts. These clues, in turn, affirm a favored paradigm of a faction of North Korean softliners hiding in the regime bureaucracy, furtively sending signals to the outside world for help, much like World War II French Resistance fighters.

Benevolent assessments of North Korean intentions are inevitably followed by policy recommendations that, in order to strengthen the nascent reform movement, the United States must offer concessions. These may be providing new unconditional economic and diplomatic benefits or, conversely, removing existing sanctions imposed on Pyongyang for violating international law or UN Security Council resolutions.

This is nothing new. There has been a long history of grasping at North Korean straws in the wind. After the death of North Korean leader Kim Il Sung in 1994, the U.S. State Department predicted that Kim Jong Il was actually a closet reformer and North Korea was on the cusp of implementing bold economic reform. Well, we’re still waiting.

After Kim Jong Il failed to materialize as a reformer, the argument for engagement evolved into depicting Pyongyang as riven by factions competing for influence over the malleable North Korea dictator. If only, it was argued, the United States or South Korea provide concessions, it would make North Korea feel less threatened by the outside world and thus move onto the path to righteousness.

When concessions didn’t bring about the desired outcome, it was blamed on insufficient U.S. and South Korean largesse or evil neoconservative influences in Washington and Seoul. How did we know this? Because North Korean officials told like-minded progressive U.S. visitors invited to Pyongyang to carry the message back to Washington.

But, there is scant evidence of the existence of a North Korean government faction advocating bold economic reform, opening the country to outside influence, reducing the regime’s brinksmanship tactics, and abandoning its nuclear weapons programs. In classic “good cop, bad cop” strategy, North Korea has long perpetuated the image of factional infighting between “engagers” and “hardliners” as a negotiating tool to elicit additional benefits. Rather, it is a division of roles with all playing their part in order to gain maximum diplomatic and economic benefits. In the words of a Korean adage, “The same animal has sharp claws and soft fur.”

The theory that impending North Korea reform was strangled in its crib by hostile U.S. and South Korean policies suffered greatly after Pyongyang responded to President Barack Obama’s proffered open hand of dialogue with provocations and deadly attacks. No longer could academics and media pundits blame Washington for Pyongyang’s actions. The façade had slipped and the regime’s decades-long quest for nuclear weapons was belatedly recognized as an enduring national objective and not merely a diplomatic bargaining chip.

But, the death of Kim Jong Il and ascendency of the Swiss-educated Kim Jong Eun has resurrected the ‘hope springs eternal’ school of thought. Visions of Kim fils watching Disney characters cavorting on stage, listening to Frank Sinatra, and watching excerpts from Rocky IV, all while accompanied by his stylish wife, triggered suggestions of a new dawn in Pyongyang.

In recent weeks, Pyongyang has dusted off its charm offensive tactic by exploring diplomatic initiatives with Beijing, Washington, and Tokyo. One news organization reported “North Korea has virtually abandoned the planned economy.” A South Korean academic predicted that “we can expect the reforms and openness to pick up speed and scale once Pyongyang’s relations improve with Seoul and Washington.”

Is the new North Korean leader willing to significantly alter his country’s policies, including implementing widespread economic reform? Perhaps. Anything is possible and someday pigs may indeed fly.

So far the supporting facts are few and the landscape is littered with the debris of previous failed predictions and false hopes. And let’s not forget that another country implemented Chinese-style economic reform but didn’t follow-through on predicted political reform, nor did incorporating free markets moderate its international behavior. That country is, of course, China. As University of California Professor Stephen Haggard correctly argues, “economic reforms or improvements are designed to consolidate power and forestall political change, not lead it.”

Eminence grise Jang Sung Taek recently traveled to China but only appears to have gained Beijing’s pledged assistance in resurrecting two long dormant and failed special economic zones in Rason and near Dandong. Beijing may be tempted to offer financial assistance to convince Kim Jong Eun to adopt economic reforms, despite unsuccessful similar efforts with his father. Yet, the new North Korean three-card monty dealer may have found a new patsy willing to ante up for another game.

Pyongyang’s recent outreach to the United States, both in formal meetings with U.S. diplomats and Track Two discussions in Singapore, was merely to affirm the regime’s intent to maintain its nuclear weapons. The North Koreans also demanded that the United States first make significant unilateral concessions, a hardening from its position earlier this year. As North Korea made clear in February 2010, “We have tightened our belts, braved various difficulties and spent countless amounts of money to obtain a nuclear deterrent as a self-defense measure against U.S. nuclear threats. Only fools will entertain the delusion that we will trade our nuclear deterrent for petty economic aid.”

Since assuming power, Kim Jong Eun has actively sought to portray a more charismatic and pragmatic image than his reclusive father. And he may be inclined or at least forced by circumstances to introduce economic reforms. But perceived changes are still based on purported private statements rather than government pronouncements.

Nor is there any evidence that North Korea has become any less dangerous. Kim Jong Eun has been credited by Pyongyang with masterminding North Korea’s two acts of war in 2010 that left 50 South Korean citizens dead and purging hundreds of perceived challengers. Since Kim Jong Eun ascended the throne, Pyongyang called for the assassination of South Korean President Lee Myung Bak, threatened to annihilate South Korean media outlets, and again violated UN resolutions by launching a long-range missile.

To date, Kim Jong Eun has shown a change in style but not policies from his predecessors. It would be naïve to think that Jong Eun’s embrace of some western cultural icons supersedes long-standing North Korean resistance to capitalism, democracy, and a non-threatening foreign policy.

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