The U.S. needs to ask itself what is its ultimate goal in Northeast Asia. It seems lately that the answer to that question is the elimination all nuclear weapons from North Korea, but such thinking reveals the fundamental weakness in U.S. foreign policy: this is not a long-term goal but merely an objective, and one that is probably not even achievable.
The correct long-term – and certainly more enlightened – goal ought to be peace and stability in the region. Progress in that direction would likely entail a different form of government in North Korea, certainly one with far more concern for the needs and aspirations of its people. But what exactly does that entail? In a previous piece, I discussed what the general functions of any government are and how Pyongyang fails at them.
Setting aside for the moment the issue of whether an American-style government is appropriate for the current needs of North Korea, what exists in the U.S. is not the only way to build a democratic republic.
A DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC IN NEED IS A DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC INDEED
Although the term democratic republic is bandied about quite frequently, few fully understand the premises that define such a government. First, let’s look at what a democracy is in basic terms. Larry Diamond, a respected scholar in the study of democracy, postulates that it is a form of government with four crucial aspects, as quoted here:
- A political system for choosing and replacing the government through free and fair elections.
- The active participation of the people, as citizens, in politics and civic life.
- Protection of the human rights of all citizens.
- The rule of law, in which the laws and procedures apply equally to all citizens.
Then there is the republic part. According to the online version of the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a republic is “a government in which supreme power resides in a body of citizens entitled to vote and is exercised by elected officers and representatives responsible to them and governing according to law.”
The correct long-term – and certainly more enlightened – goal ought to be peace and stability in the region
That is all well and good, but there are some caveats. One needs to recognize that while many governments refer to themselves as democratic republics, not all are – as the Democratic Republic of (North) Korea exquisitely demonstrates. It takes more than a name to be one. Further, such definitions fail to address the efficacy of such governments, for as even casual observers recognize, some democratic republics are better than others.
WHEN THERE IS NO WILL, THERE IS NO WAY
Any talk about North Korean regime change is likely nothing more than wishful thinking. Consider what outsiders are asking of a young leader who grew up with such privilege. We certainly recall our hopes when Kim Jong Un came to power in December 2011, that he would implement a more Western form of government. Those hopes were based upon his having been educated in a democratic republic, Switzerland.
What was completely forgotten – or ignored – was that young Kim Jong Un benefited incalculably from his being the scion of the reigning dictator of North Korea and that his opulent lifestyle was seen as only befitting. To cite some clichés, he grew up in the lap of luxury, enjoying that silver spoon that served him pleasure after pleasure.
The point here is that Kim Jong Un has no motivation at present to change: only a direct, impending threat to his personal status will cause him to think about modifying his regime. However, one ought to realize that any alterations to the status quo for the common North Korean will come about only if they do not threaten Kim Jong Un’s position.
If there is an alternate explanation with any degree of credibility as to why Kim Jong Un has not implemented a more enlightened government in North Korea, it is yet to be offered.
Any talk about North Korean regime change is likely nothing more than wishful thinking
You may ask about market changes allowed by Kim, which have led to a better life – albeit only slightly – for many citizens in North Korea. Technically illegal, for the moment they are conveniently open to blackmail “taxes” and “fees.” Such meager gains in market reform still leave the country a great distance from being a democratic republic.
Should the likelihood for a change of the regime itself dramatically increase, then Kim is likely to be concerned only about how to mitigate any challenge to his perch as Supreme Leader or worry about where to go into exile as a last resort. It seems unlikely that any significant move by the current regime to a more democratic system of government will take place.
THE AMERICAN TRACK RECORD
Most efforts at state building by the U.S. end in failure, because American leaders poorly understand other cultures and are intolerant of other forms of governance. Imposing an American-style democratic republic upon a people whose culture is not well understood and whose population has had little preparation for political participation may not be the optimum course of action in the beginning.
For these and other reasons, the U.S. has had little success lately in the installation of democratic republics in foreign countries. Given America’s lack of skill in dealing with different cultures, perhaps the task of developing a better government for North Korea ought to go almost exclusively to South Korea.
Seoul has a better chance of understanding the needs and wants of the common person in North Korea, simply through the analysis of its defector/refugee population as well as by sharing a common heritage and language with the North. Accordingly, the responsibility for developing a better government for North Korea when the time comes might rest better in the hands of South Korea.
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Featured Image: Sunset over the Taedong River by uritours on 2014-08-26 05:57:49