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What North Korea policy?

The policy must have been improvised by a campaign team to impress voters.
Feb 12,2016

I returned to Korea in 2003 after years overseas studying socialist economies and political regimes for one purpose - to devote myself to the study of North Korea. But reality did not live up to my expectations. Data and materials essential for research were scarce or forbidden. North Korea research was exclusive to hard-core followers of its ideology. Little room was left for academic research, but what there was served a political purpose. Any scholar who recommended policy outlines customized for those in power easily got recruited to senior public official posts.

Ideological prejudice can win out if there is no base knowledge. I was shocked upon learning from a North Korea expert who had led a study group of legislators of the then-ruling party (which is now the opposition) how ignorant our politicians can be. They believed North Korea’s economic troubles were largely due to U.S.-led sanctions. North Korea could not progress because it wasn’t able to import advanced computers due to the trade ban. But North Korea is not in dire straits because of sanctions, but due to a bad regime and atrocious system.

All socialist economies failed. Some were able to pull themselves out of the abyss by adopting capitalism. Anyone who visits Dandong on the Chinese border with North Korea will easily see that North Koreans can buy computers and any other consumer appliances available in the global market. Policies lack effectiveness when they are made solely through ideological and political judgments.

Measures will remain rhetorical if they are not based on research. About 10 years ago, I invited renowned scholars for an international conference discussing the socialist economy. I also invited government officials, but they declined to attend in fear of annoying Pyongyang. Bureaucrats have the responsibility of studying and learning from experts at home and abroad to draw up better policies. I doubt South Korean public officials are that committed to their work to fear their presence in a meeting that could be watched by North Koreans. How can we expect inventive solutions on North Korean issues when bureaucrats and politicians do not even have the slightest will to learn?

Improvised and half-baked policies are bound to fail. I met with several high-level policy makers behind the previous government’s North Korean strict quid pro quo policy of offering economic aid in return for denuclearization. I was curious to know how they planned to make the idealistic idea work. One official said everything was ready for execution. But a few days later, I received a call from working-level officials to request research to map out action plans to make the project work. My confidence in the ability of our government was dashed. The policy must have been improvised by an election campaign team to win favor with conservative voters. Not surprisingly, the inter-Korean relationship and North Korea-related issues were in deadlock throughout the last administration.

The administration of President Park Geun-hye should have learned from the previous government’s mistakes. It ought to have concocted a policy and strategy based on a thorough study of facts and information. But the government came up with equally idealistic and rhetorical ideas like a trust-building process and a creative economy. Little progress was made during the early stages of the administration, usually the best time for bold policies.

President Park managed to score points with her audience at home and abroad with more detailed proposals to North Korea and a road map for peaceful unification in Dresden, Germany. She also described a so-called unification bonanza. But the proposal only heightened suspicions in Pyongyang that Seoul wants to absorb North Korea.

Trust-building takes place through a long, reciprocal relationship. Our president fell short of explaining that what she meant was not a condescending plan for unification. Even experts in the United States say they do not understand what South Korean policy on North Korea is. Is this a kind of strategic ambiguity on North Korean affairs? Or does this come from ignorance of the other party?

My heart is heavy watching the dark clouds loom over the Korean Peninsula. It was blind ignorance and wishful thinking to believe Pyongyang wouldn’t dare go through with another nuclear test. The government and legislature went through their usual follies until North Korea conducted the fourth nuclear test and tested a long-range missile. They naively believed that global powers would solve the problem and North Korea would one day have to give up its nuclear program. Politicians contaminated North Korea policy with populist and ideological notions, and the clueless government went along. We can never be right with a North Korea policy of such recklessness and slack.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 11, Page 27

*The author is an economics professor at Seoul National University.

by Kim Byung-yeon