SEOULEast Asia in general and most South Koreans in particular are full of praise
for Colin Powell's positive response to North Korean overtures for a return to
dialogue. The ASEAN Regional Forum meeting in Brunei was fortuitously timed to
provide an occasion for Secretary of State Powell to break away from "axis of
evil" talk to meet Pyongyang's foreign minister, Paek Nam Sun, and open the way
for North-South as well as North-U.S. and North-Japan discussions.
The meeting was made possible by North
Korea's expression of regret for the recent naval encounter with the South. More
significantly, it follows major changes in Pyongyang's economic policy that were
announced last month.
Divining the North's intentions is never
easy because the tactical moves of Kim Jong Il, who has played a weak hand
skillfully, often seem at odds with assumptions about the North's long-run goals
of establishing relations with the United States and extracting economic support
from the world and the South to create a viable economy.
The leadership uses shock tactics for
bargaining purposes while being hesitant and risk-averse in its moves toward its
This may explain the apparent
contradiction between the naval incident and subsequent push for dialogue.
Possibly the naval conflict was a localized affair, not planned at the top. Or
it may have been a tactical move to raise the issue of the sea boundary, which
is a domestically sensitive one for the South but of less interest to the United
What matters is that North, the South and
the United States are now agreeable to moving back to a process which began a
decade ago but has been frequently stalled by events as varied as the death of
Kim Il Sung and the election of George W. Bush.
The North's goal is to inch toward
international engagement without compromising its domestic political position.
The South's goal is to promote economic and eventually political change in the
North while avoiding a chaotic collapse of the regime. The primary U.S. goal has
been to limit strategic weapons development and sales, which are more of a
threat to wider U.S. interests than to the South.
This time the North may have been coaxed
by the Russians as much as by the Chinese to take the initiative toward
dialogue. President Vladimir Putin has sought to regain a say in the peninsula's
geopolitics, and Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov has become a conspicuous
interlocutor, a fact that neither Washington nor Beijing could ignore. The
United States meanwhile knew that the "axis of evil" rhetoric had won it no
friends in Seoul or elsewhere in the region, so there was scant merit in
refusing to talk.
The North may well also have calculated
that with the South's presidential election due in December it needed to show a
more accommodating face to Seoul if a hard line was not to become favored in a
South frustrated by the apparent failures of Kim Dae Jung's "sunshine" policy to
elicit much response. The North realizes, too, that it will need more, not less,
foreign money if its new economic policy is to work.
The economic changes are a
rationalization of the socialist system, not a departure from it. Even so, they
carry dangers for the leadership. They are an attempt to move away from a ration
and barter economy to a real money economy. Prices and wages have been
drastically increased, and the currency value dramatically reduced. As food
prices will rise faster than wages, the changes will in theory encourage rural
production, bring the barter economy into the state system and create monetary
incentives for enterprises to exceed plan targets.
China started its reforms with somewhat
similar measures. But it was 80 percent rural, while North Korea is at least
half urban, so policies favoring farmers (who remain collectivized) are
politically more dangerous. The North cannot afford urban food shortages, and
incentives for industry will be worthless if there are fuel and raw material
shortages. The North needs food from the South and the world, oil from China and
the United States and whatever it can get from Russia. As before, Pyongyang will
be aiming to barter its strategic weapons and geopolitical position for the
economic support it needs.
None of the parties has much alternative
to playing this game. All one can hope is that there is a resumption of movement
and that domestic economic changes and increased external links sow the seeds of
the North's eventual liberation. International Herald Tribune