The New York Times today has a front page article on the new “special economic zone” in North Korea, near Kaesong, where the first joint North-South products since the division — stainless steel cookware — have recently been manufactured and sent to market in South Korea. The article is a useful counterbalance to deeply grim reports about how the North is destitute, miserable and primed to attack the South. But it does raise an obvious question: which perspective is the right one? Is North Korea turning itself, little by little, into China — an economically vigorous and globally engaged but still repressive dictatorship — or is it a Stalinist nightmare on the verge of collapse?
The answer may be a bit of both, and the economic development may be, as critics claim, merely a ploy by the regime to bring in enough hard cash to survive. Still, I’m not sure that’s a problem. A total collapse of the regime would not be a salutary experience. At best, it would mean dealing with a vast humanitarian crisis, with South Korea’s economy straining to the limit to try to integrate the North. Foreign intervention would be an absolute necessity, and that would presumably mean American intervention, which could get very uncomfortable, because it would almost certainly take the form of ongoing division, at least at first. The brainwashed population of the North is not exactly ready for prime time, which means that a democratic Korea immediately reunified would be unacceptable: the Northerners, having been taught since birth that Americans are devils, would all vote to have us thrown out, and they might also push for war on Manchuria. There is also the dire possibility that a collapsing regime might be taken over by bellicose generals who figure it’s now or never and launch an attack on the South.
The scenario of economic development is slower, but it’s also far easier to imagine it working out. Let’s say that the North really is only trying to raise a little cash. Even so, a taste of wealth is likely to encourage further efforts in that direction, and economic development has a way of taking on its own momentum. If nothing else, cronyist interests at the top will want a bigger economy to loot. Economic development pretty much by definition means increasing contact between North Koreans and outsiders, which will gradually erode the regime’s near-total monopoly of information. (China still maintains tight control over information, but nothing like North Korea’s news blackout.) It will also increase the general level of wealth, hopefully to the point that an average North Korean could plausibly save up enough money to spend a few days vacationing in Seoul.
Most importantly, economic cooperation encourages diplomatic cooperation, because the North and South will have shared interests. Instead of seeing war as an all-or-nothing proposition, the North, or forces in the North, would come to see war as a potential threat to thriving economic enterprises. And this, more than anything else, could eventually end the standoff between the two Koreas. It even reduces the pressure for reunification: if the citizens of the two Koreas can travel freely throughout the peninsula, work in each other’s countries, buy each other’s goods, call each other on cell phones, then why worry about fusing the two governments? That can come when the era of division has slipped from memory, such that no one in either government can quite understand why you’d have two governments instead of one. They can then move the capital to Kaesong — a compromise location, away from either present capital but with a history as the capital of the Goryeo kingdom.
That’s my fantasy, anyway. I recognize that it leaves a lot out, not least the question of what would prompt the North to give up its repression of its people. But I think that economic engagement is the safest way forward, and the way most likely to succeed without massive chaos first.