Thursday, June 09, 2011

North Korea's soft landing

This is a reasonably well-written article summarizing North Korea's current dilemma: opening up the country brings prosperity and some stability to the Kim dynasty, but with openness also comes information. North Korea has done a stunningly thorough job of keeping outside information out of the country, far better than China. However, its own desires are to open up with what might turn out to be Chinese-style reforms learned, naturally, from China.

Learning from China offers North Korea a fantastic opportunity for a soft landing, where the Kim dynasty gets to keep on ruling in the way that the Chinese Communist Party has been able to survive the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution while looking stronger than ever.

Cell phones, for example, were touted as a way to break the information blackout, but North Korea's growing cell phone market sidesteps the issue by blocking international calls. Previously, Chinese-made phones used Chinese signals available in border areas to contact the outside world.

The Internet is another similar issue. As China has demonstrated, there is really nothing to stop the Internet from becoming a glorified Internet. North Korean computers connected to the Internet often only provide access to a handful of websites. North Korea could open it up great to, for example, allow many Chinese websites while blocking all Western websites. The North Korean system could relax t let North Koreans breathe, but it certainly would not represent a tearing down of the wall between North Korea and the outside world.

It may well be that in ten years, North Korea is like Vietnam or some of the poorer parts of China, an emerging market that has more freedoms than in the past but is still very much an authoritarian country. This would improve living conditions for ordinary North Koreans and the death of Kim Jong-il would maybe allow for a milder cult of Kim Jong-un with a subtler reverence for Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung. If the experiment goes well enough, the subtlety might even give way to obscurity in the way of China's frequent inability to acknowledge that Mao even existed.

It's possible to see a roadmap emerge for how North Korea might escape its current humanitarian crisis along with its murderous government without resorting to unification with South Korea, something that everyone assumes is likely. The sad part for South Koreans is that there is not much of a role South Korea can play in this. Some Souther Koreans, it's fair to say, would certainly breathe a sigh of relief if the North Korean humanitarian crisis, as well as prospective reunification of the Koreas, were both to be resolved through North Korea's gradual transformation into a Chinese satellite state.

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