There is a good deal of dangerously false thinking about results to be expected from the summit meeting between President Donald K. Trump and North Korean Dictator Kim Jong-Un.
Kim presides over one of the world’s most cruel and inefficient regimes.
North Korea now lives off the bounty of its mineral resources swapped to China for food and other support. With the American and UN sanctions squeezing Pyongyang toward negotiations with Washington and its allies, 90 percent of its international trade is with China; the rest black market activities with such other fellow pariah states such as Iran.
The oft repeated formula that Kim would be ready to open his regime to economic development funded by the U.S., Japan and South Korea is much too glib. Kim’s North Korea is a police state with tens of thousands of political prisoners and the little freedom even known in its Chinese neighbor.
Political modification of the regime would have to come with a revolution, if a managed one. Managed revolutions are rare.
It is true, of course, that South Korea’s economy, now the fourth largest in Asia and the 11th largest in the world, might offer a model for Pyongyang’s moderation. The South, after all, began its journey toward industrialization and modernization with only a surplus population as its only natural resource.
The North’s trove of mineral resources theoretically offers more opportunities as both the Japanese Occupation [1910-1945] development, and the current trade with China indicate. It is also true that South Korea began South Korea’s modernization under Park Chung-Hee, now seen as a dictator [from 1963 until his assassination in 1979].
But with hindsight we now see Park as a remarkable leader with his apprenticeship as an officer in Japanese Imperial military schools and his close relationship with the Japanese leader and longtime civilian manager, Nobusuke Kishi. Kishi was first the economic tsar for the Japanese military including during its occupation of Korea and then prime minister twice in U.S.-sponsored postwar Tokyo governments.
If there is a historical parallel we can look to — and all historical parallels are innately faulty — it is East Germany. By far the most efficient state in the former Communist bloc [not excluding the Soviet Union itself], it was nevertheless where the Soviet Empire began to unravel. Only with the total collapse of the East German state and the Soviet Bloc’s dependence on it that the end of the Communist Bloc came and the fall of the Soviet regime in Russia itself.
Kim will not be able to have it both ways. Either his personal dictatorship with all its repression inherited from his father and grandfather will have to go, or any attempt to build a modern economy — and not one drained of resources dedicated producing weapons of mass destruction — will fail.
Can that take place without a political explosion and the ouster of Kim himself? It seems unlikely that American, Japanese and South Korean generosity would be enough to absorb such revolutionary developments.
And what will be Beijing’s attitude toward such developments if they should occur, with the overall threat of Korean reunification hanging over the whole project? It is no secret that not only Beijing but Tokyo as well are dubious about a uniting of two powerful Koreas which would introduce a new if traditional player in East Asia. That is an outcome that even the Japanese fear and Seoul sees only as a possibility under its tutelage, now a likely route of when events begin to move.
Therefore all the glib talk about the peaceful emergence of a cooperative — much less democratic — regime in the North are, for the present, so much wishful thinking.