Is North Korea Liberalizing?

Although the Feb. 29 agreement to ship 240,000 metric tons of food to North Korea in return for a halt in the North’s nuclear weaponization program has been cautiously welcomed as a diplomatic breakthrough, it is wise to be cautious.

With Burma now having come in from the cold to take on at least the initial trappings of democracy, that leaves the north as Asia’s last pariah nation. Could the leaders around the late Kim Jong-il’s successor son Kim Jong-un, believed to be 28, be recognizing that fact?

First, the poverty-stricken North is highly unlikely to give up its nuclear weapons programs despite the mutually agreed upon pact, which was announced simultaneously in Washington and Pyongyang. It is believed that the current thaw was subscripted by Kim Jong-il before he died on Dec. 17 and the succession is probably too recent to as yet affect the course of the government in Pyongyang. It is doubtful that the country has actually started its move toward openness and it is also doubtful that Jong-un, as a leader, would have the clout to order his late father’s advisors to make a dramatic change in course.

It is thus very difficult to see genuine change happening in the north at least for the time being. The North's behavior – a sudden thaw as in the past -- is nothing new to those who know about the regime. It has too often been followed by a turn away from reason to rocket-rattling and belligerence, and sometimes to violence, as in the case of the sinking of the South Korean navy corvette Cheonan, with the loss of 48 sailors’ lives.

Unlike China, which abandoned the Maoist principles of isolation and self-reliance to become a driver of the global economy, the North still refuses to move toward market-driven economics, the only alternative to a hopeless future. Needless to say the nutritional aid must be ‘a modest first step’ in the right direction, as the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it.

While the Obama administration’s limited but constructive engagement has undoubtedly brought positive changes to the Hermit Kingdom, which is seemingly controlled by the young Jong-un or the regents appointed by his late father, past experience teaches the world to be wary. The fact is that on each agreed point -- a moratorium on long range missile launches, nuclear tests and nuclear activities at the nuclear facilities at Yongbyon, and the return of IAEA inspectors in exchange for the initial shipment of nutritional assistance with the prospects of additional assistance based on continued need – the agreement falls short of expressing exactly what it means.

The Lee government in Seoul is suspicious, saying that while the North Korean end of the agreement demands that sanctions be lifted and that the US reinstate its promise of a light-water reactor, there is no mention of the country’s extensive underground nuclear operations. The US only mentioned the Yongbyon facilities without any demands for the other sites, which are believed to number at least four where the North is said to be enriching uranium.

Moderate pundits assert that there is a chance the humanitarian carrots can help deter the north from continuing to develop its nuclear weapons program, unless the conservative Lee Myung-bak government of South Korea remains recalcitrant and refuses to assist the American efforts. The South Koreans have already indicated dismay at the country-to-country contacts between the United States and the north instead of through the six-party agreement whose members include China, the US, Russia, Japan and the two Koreas.

Some South Korean analysts hope the rare moment of progress would open the possibility of a much higher degree of contact and cooperation, paving the way for unofficial “Track II” dialogues involving academics and think-tank analysts on a range of strategic as well as economic issues.

To this end, it is an encouraging sign that the North’s top nuclear negotiator, Ri Yong-ho, attended a security forum at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of International Affairs to discuss with various North Korea experts the prospects of resuming the six-party talks, which have been stalled since late 2008.

The other question is how the changing relationship with North Korea would affect the future of the South Korea-United States alliance. Many foreign policy analysts point out that in any case the fuel gauge of the ROK-US Mutual Security Agreement made in 1954 is bound to move downward as US global influence wanes and South Korea’s economy and politics continue to evolve. That does not mean a weakening of the current alliance necessarily, but these analysts believe that the status quo ante cannot hold for long.

The pessimistic outlook on the fate of the traditional alliance stems from a fundamental change in South Korea’s perceptions of the US rather than from the South Korea-China strategic cooperative partnership. While it is unlikely that Seoul will turn away from America and decamp to China because of Beijing’s growing economic might, South Koreans have begun to question whether America as a Pacific power can guarantee their core security interests in the uncertain global environment. Washington’s negotiations with the North contribute to those suspicions.

Koreans’ perceptions of America are no longer shaped only by what America did during the 1950-53 Korean War, although conservatives insist, quite rightly, that “We should not forget that American blood in the Korean War fertilized the land well.” But the memories of the war are like shadows lengthening at dusk. The South wants a more equal partnership. If South Korea becomes truly democratic, this tendency is likely to grow more pronounced in the years to come. The 1980s marked the peak of an arrogant, preachy, hypocritical American influence and authority in South Korea. Pro-American power elites have so far established a commanding presence at every level of South Korean society. But most of the right in the mainstream of the country does not recognize how deep their pro-American feelings are. By many liberal accounts, the established are like fish. Having lived their entire lives in water, they do not realize that they are wet.

Yet the bilateral strategic alliance has represented the cornerstone of America’s balancing act in Northeast Asia for 58 years. Alarmed at the possibility of North Korea’s developing nuclear weapons, both countries have had one theme in common: nonproliferation. Plus, the two allies have fundamentally the same ideological values: democracy, free market economy, and human rights.

There is an old saying in Korea: “After the rain, the ground becomes more solid.” If weather with no rain continues, it will turn a fertile land into a wasteland over the long run. So I hope that these home truths---the North’s obsession with nuclear weapons and the inevitable change of the alliance---will evolve into a developmental manner for the peace and stability of the peninsular in one way or another.