Thursday, December 10, 2009

North Korea: the case for economic engagement

I used to attend think-tank forums on North Korea policy on a fairly regular basis, and still do on occasion. Most of the panel discussions I've witnessed are fairly predictable, with right-wing participants advocating for a harder line on Pyongyang through increased isolation and tougher sanctions while those on the left call for greater engagement in the form of bilateral talks and various welfare programs such as food aid and/or building the Norks a safe nuclear facility.

After a while I started to wonder why the U.S. didn't simply pull the troops out of South Korea, call it a day and go home. After all, are we really scared of North Korea, a country about as developed as the Solomon Islands? (Yes, they have the Taepodong missile, but it lacks a proven re-entry capacity and is inaccurate) And why are we protecting South Korea, when it has a population more twice that of the North and an economy many times times greater?

The better approach, in my view, has been to end most of the sanctions and turn North Korea into a most favored nation trading partner. Send in ipods, the Jonas Brothers, and burger joints and watch the communist system collapse. Indeed, as I have argued many times before, what the world's last Stalinist regime -- one based on isolation from the outside world -- truly fears is capitalism. Current policy gives them exactly what they want.

A paper released in October by a group of noted North Korea experts seems to suggest I am not alone in my thinking. From the introduction:
The United States should adopt a long-term strategy of economic engagement with North Korea. North Korea’s attitude toward the world is closely related to the underlying structure of its domestic political-economy: a closed, command economy that favors the military and heavy industry and is isolated from the sweeping economic and political changes that have transformed the Asian landscape in recent decades. Encouraging a more open and market-friendly economic growth strategy would benefit the North Korean people as a whole and would generate vested interests in continued reform and opening, and a less confrontational foreign policy.

In other words, economic engagement could change North Korea's perception of its own self-interest. China’s economic transformation stands as an important precedent, showing how a greater emphasis on reform and opening can have positive effects on foreign policy as well. Economic change has the potential to induce and reinforce the D.P.R.K.’s peaceful transition into a country that can better provide for its people’s welfare and engage with other countries in a non-hostile manner.

Economic engagement should be a central part of U.S. strategy in dealing with Pyongyang, and is complementary to the current focus on solving the nuclear issue. Sanctions have a role in defending the U.S. against risks of proliferation, but they have not and cannot provide a long-run solution to the North Korean problem.
To its credit the Obama Administration has demonstrated a willingness to rethink U.S. policy on Cuba, moving away from a policy of isolation towards greater openness. Let's hope it will extend this approach to North Korea.

Update: More on North Korea here.

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