Friday, November 27, 2015         

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North Korea's future requires economic change, diplomats say

By Jim Borg


North Korea faces a "tight dilemma" if it continues to support a Soviet-style, military-first dictatorship, the South Korean ambassador to the United States said here Friday.

Feeding the military first and leaving much of the civilian population to starve is a doomed policy, said Ambassador Y.J. Choi at a forum sponsored by the East-West Center and the Korea Economic Institute. The forum also included Sung Kim, the first Korean-American U.S. ambassador to Seoul, in a wide-ranging discussion of the U.S.-Korean alliance and related issues.

"They must realize that this is not going to guarantee the long-term survival of the regime because the economy is deteriorating almost every year," said Choi of the North Korean leadership.

The only solution for North Korea is to adopt a free-market economy like China's, which likely would lead to a more liberal society, he said.

"But that brings the risk that they may lose control of the population, which may threaten the regime's survival," he said. "So this is a very tight dilemma for the regime, and it will take extraordinary leadership to find a way out."

Whether such leadership resides in Kim Jong-un remains to be seen, Choi and Ambassador Kim agreed.

"Kim Jong-un is only 29 years old, so he is in the formative stages as a leader," said Choi. "It may be unrealistic for us to analyze him as a leader who already has the visions and the experience to transform the country or bring about reform in the country."

The challenge for the regime remains to find a way to achieve a "soft landing" rather than an "explosion or hard crash," Choi said.

"But the answer is there," he said, "and North Korea is incredibly capable. They have a population of 25 million people, well educated and well motivated. So there is a possibility, but it takes a strategic decision on the part of the leadership."

Panel moderator Ray Burg­hardt, former U.S. ambassador to Vietnam and former deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, asked Choi and Kim whether the December presidential elections in South Korea might lead to closer North-South ties.

"Commenting on the domestic politics of another country is even harder than doing the ‘Gangnam Style' dance," said Kim, former envoy to the six-party talks on North Korean nuclear issues. "So I won't. I think the point to emphasize here is that whoever wins the presidential election in Seoul, I think what is critical is that Washington and Seoul continue to coordinate very closely in every aspect of North Korea policy. It is the Korean Peninsula, after all, so I think it is only right that South Korea take the lead. And if the new president wants to take some initiative and to revitalize North-South relations, we're certainly not going to stand in the way. But what we would expect, and I know we will get, is very a very, very close cooperation and coordination."

Such cooperation is even more vital as the United States places more emphasis on the Asia-Pacific region and as South Korea takes on a greater role in global affairs, the ambassadors said.

"I think this is the most exciting part of the relationship between our two countries," said Kim. "Of course, the security alliance remains critical, the economic partnership is huge and it's going to get even better with implementation of the free trade agreement. But this cooperation on global and regional issues beyond the Korean Peninsula, I think, has huge potential. As Korea becomes more important, richer, more active on the international scene, I think it makes a lot of sense that our two countries cooperate together on transnational and global issues like climate change, energy, terrorism."

On the issue of the Liancourt Rocks, a group of islands claimed by Korea and Japan, Kim said the United States declines to take sides or even mediate the discussion, but will instead continue to urge South Korea and Japan to reach a diplomatic accommodation.

But Choi flatly said that the issue cannot be resolved.

"This is a sovereignty issue," he said. "So without war we don't resolve sovereignty issues. War is not in the cards between Japan and Korea. So this issue cannot be resolved. In other words, it should be managed."

Managing the issue means placing it on the "back burner" and emphasizing areas of mutual benefit, like trade, he said.

"It may flare up in the future, but I am confident we can again put that issue on the back burner after some period of posturing and emotion," said Choi.

KOKUA LINE: June Watanabe is on vacation. Her column returns Friday.

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