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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

Pyongyang Puzzle

Recent dramas provide both danger and opportunity


THE FATHER OF THE state ideology defects. The defense minister and his deputy die. The prime minister is replaced. Recent events in North Korea must have jolted even the most jaded observer of the "Hermit Kingdom." In fact, the latest political rumblings may be a sign that Mr. Kim Jong Il, Pyongyang's presumptive leader, is moving to consolidate his power. But the loss of so many prominent figures in such a short time cannot be conducive to political stability. And this does not augur well for a country that already has debilitating food shortages. It also renews the question: What should the neighbors, and the world, be doing in response?

The first issue to address is the feeding of the population. North Korea needs food -- and fast. Opinions may differ on the severity of the famine. Some United Nations officials say North Koreans are malnourished but not starving, while more extreme accounts have people eating tree bark, placentas and even one another. No one, however, disputes that aid is urgently needed. There has been no outpouring of sympathy and money from other nations -- which is perhaps understandable, given Pyongyang's reputation as a dangerous rogue state. With the international community becoming inured to the news of North Korea's famine, the worry is that the small flow of aid will dry up altogether. The U.N., through its various agencies, and other international relief organizations should be redoubling their efforts to bring food into the country and, to the best of their abilities, ensure that it reaches its intended recipients.

A longer-term goal should be to help make sure that North Korea is better equipped to feed itself in the future. That can only be achieved through overseas investments and the country's involvement in international trade. Foreign governments ought to allow -- if not actively encourage -- trade and investment links with Pyongyang. Barriers to companies setting up shop in North Korea should be removed, especially in South Korea. Business should not be held hostage to politics, even when dealing with a regime that can be as odious as Pyongyang. Warn interested businessmen of the risks involved in investing in a country run by an unpredictable government, but don't stop them if they wish to do so. Increased business activity would bring sorely needed funds into the country, while more contact with the world would put North Korea under pressure to reform its antiquated economic system -- and, eventually, its equally discredited political setup.

Promisingly, Pyongyang has lately shown a willingness to engage the world. The authorities are continuing to solicit investments in their experimental Rajin-Sonbong economic zone in the northeast (around $150 million will have been injected by the end of 1997). And they are offering tours to foreigners for next month's celebrations of the 85th birth anniversary of the late leader, Kim Il Sung. Earlier this month, North Korean delegates attended a meeting in New York with officials from South Korea and the United States. Admittedly, the topic of discussion was peace talks rather than peace itself, and there is still some way to go before North Korea actually accepts the concept of a four-way peace parley mooted by Washington and Seoul (the fourth participant would be China). But Pyongyang's promise to study the proposal marks a distinct step forward from its adamant refusal previously.

Yet, even as it tries to attract donors and investors, North Korea has engaged in hostile actions. It has continued its diatribes against the South and sent a spy submarine full of armed commandos. This schizophrenic tendency indicates a lack of consensus within the leadership, perhaps a struggle between Marxist hardliners and reformers. Interested nations should encourage and strengthen the latter by responding positively to any reformist initiatives emanating from Pyongyang.

Among the countries best placed to do so is China. Last month's high-profile defection by top ideologue Hwang Jang Yop positioned Beijing awkwardly between a longtime ideological ally and a major business partner. But it also underscored China's unique position as the only power with channels to both Pyongyang and Seoul. That makes it an ideal mediator, and the Chinese should use all their influence to bring North Korea out of its shell. After all, Pyongyang will be more willing to talk peace with its foes if there is a friendly face at the table.

Whatever other countries do, the key ultimately lies with North Korea. Only it can decide whether it opens up and joins the world -- or remains closed, suspicious, hostile and potentially dangerous. Some of its leaders may fear that opening up would mean the end of the political and economic structure that has kept them in power the past half-century. But another prospect is the death of the system through economic collapse -- or a reckless war with the South. Hopefully, the clearer heads will prevail. But for other nations, remaining hopeful should not mean letting down their guard.


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