The Korea Economic Institute’s recent interview with Professor B. R. Myers, author of The Cleanest Race, is a must-listen. One point he makes clear is that the coming “final victory” the North proclaims to its people is to “bully” (with occasional provocations) South Korea into a confederation in which the North politically subdues the South, yielding a unified Korean state dominated by the North’s elite. Myers says the North ultimately won’t succeed because it will eventually overreach, and the South, no matter who is president, will forcefully respond.
Myers’ depiction of this “final victory” points to an important dynamic in the self-conception of the North Korean state. The problem is that since Kim Il Sung’s demise, North Korea has been too busy trying to survive rather than focus on achieving its ultimate ambition. Regime survival – in some form – has been too pressing a matter. But this DPRK end goal of eventually subsuming the South, a justification for its sacrifices, is too important for regime cohesion to be jettisoned.
Another excellent piece, co-authored by Chris Green (of Daily NK) and Sokeel Park (of Liberty in North Korea or LiNK), has a different take on where the North may be headed. They point out that Kim Jong Un is not yet even 30 years old and has most of his adult life ahead of him. He realizes “it would be futile to carry on with his father’s politics for another half century in the implausible hope that he might get to pass on power to his own favored son.” Therefore, the authors argue, “economic liberalization is a proactive way to break out of this doomed spiral;” better to try reform like Gorbachev than end up like Qaddafi.
I lean in the direction of Green and Park. Despite the clamor about the global menace of Islamization, a resurgent China, and of “existential threats,” although potentially serious, these issues are ultimately transitory problems not fundamentally indicative of where the world is headed. The phenomena of one-party rule or of totalitarian regimes using economic democracy as a façade are transient and no longer sustainable. They are bound to change because of the free flow of communication, best ideas, best practices, and technological innovation unparalleled in history. In the post-Kim Jong Il era, though there is a temporary period in which one power group in the North continues to impose its will, the global conditions for one party rule are rapidly disappearing.
Societies generally are endeavoring to participate in how to define and construct their destinies. This applies to North Korea as well as those parts of the Islamic world that have upheld a form of orthodoxy on “purity of thought” for decades or even centuries. I sense we are in the middle of a universal transformation that inevitably will lead such countries to freedom and democracy – not Western style, but adapted to their culture and traditions. The second decade of the 21st century does not require us to behave as if it is still 1917, the 1950s or even the 1990s.
Meanwhile, let’s look around Northeast Asia in recent and coming months: Vladimir Putin began another term as Russian president this spring; new Chinese leadership assumes power this month; the U.S. holds its presidential election in November; South Korea has its presidential election in December; and, Japan may end up choosing a new prime minister soon. Certainly in this kind of fluid environment, though it can be potentially dangerous, there is also new opportunity, including for the two Koreas. No matter who wins the ROK elections, all three presidential candidates have advocated a relaxing of the South’s rather rigid policy toward the DPRK. Such an environment can be very conducive to creative diplomacy and taking bold steps. I’m reminded of Anwar Sadat’s courageous 1977 trip to Israel that led to the 1979 Israeli-Egypt peace treaty. The Koreas really need a permanent peace agreement. Can we even hope to see reasonable steps taken toward Korean reintegration in the next year or so?
One possible step would be for the ROK to inform the DPRK that a unified Korea could have Pyongyang as its capital, with Seoul as the nation’s financial center. Although Seoul has been the capital of Korea since the early Joseon Dynasty – except for the period of Korea’s division since 1945 – such a proposal might go a long way in convincing the DPRK that an equitable unification, independent of but supported by the major powers, may be the best possible outcome for the North.
There are many examples of separate political capitals and financial centers: Washington and New York; Beijing and Shanghai; Ottawa and Toronto; New Delhi and Mumbai; Jerusalem and Tel Aviv; and Berlin and Frankfurt are some. Such a construct might assure the North Koreans that they would not be absorbed by the ROK but be offered their own dignity. Dignity? Myers noted in his interview that faith in the North Korean state remains strong, despite all the personal hardships upon citizens.
Designating Pyongyang the eventual political capital of a unified Korea would make best use of that city as the administrative center. Seoul, meanwhile, would continue as a major Northeast Asian financial center, deeply integrated into the global financial system. We should think of Pyongyang not as the present capital of a dictatorial regime, but as a city rich in history in its own right, able to represent Korea in the coming decades of this century.
Pyongyang became the capital of Gorguryo in 472 A.D., near the height of that kingdom which encompassed much of Manchuria and the northern two-thirds of the Korean peninsula. Ironically, the DPRK initially insisted that Seoul was still the nation’s capital, but as it was under “American occupation,” it finally promoted Pyongyang to its seat of government in 1972. As Andrei Lankov points out:
In the colonial period, Pyongyang was an embodiment of Westernization, arguably the most pro-Western and most socially advanced city in Korea.…It was also known as the ‘Jerusalem of the East,’ because Christians constituted some 30% of its population. By the standards of its era this was exceptional, since in the colonial times Christians constituted less than 1% of the total population of Korea. There is a bit of a historical irony in the fact that a city with such pro-Western and pro-Christian tendencies became the capital of a fervently Stalinist regime.
Lankov notes that nothing remained of Pyongyang after the 1950-53 Korean War. It was flattened by American bombing and the city was rebuilt from ashes. The biggest building boom was in the 1970s, but significant new construction has continued in recent years as well.
We are entering a time of new paradigms, not of resurgent old paradigms. Somehow Kim Jong Un and the winner of the upcoming ROK presidential election have to embrace new paradigms to take advantage of inevitable fresh opportunities for the two Koreas available in the coming year and beyond. National reunification may not remain a distant dream, or a long, drawn out process, if each side embraces a Korean-style “new thinking.” Rather than a zero-sum competition, can each Korea see the other as a partner for peace? A reunified Korea, moreover, brought together based on new ideas and concepts, would have a profound impact upon its neighbors, Russia and especially China.