Mon, Dec 22, 2003 - Page 9 News List

South Korea's aspirations bound to the North

Ensuring a gradual transformation to a market economy and a more open society is the goal of Seoul's policy toward its northern neighbor, but its soft approach is a source of tension with the US

By Norimitsu Onishi  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , Seoul


North Korea, so the scenario unfolds, gradually moves to a market economy under the grip of its one party rule. Its leaders keep tight control on the political and social repercussions of economic reforms, but over time the changes ineluctably lead to more wealth and a more open society.

"We South Koreans do not want abrupt change," said the South Korean foreign minister, Yoon Young-kwan, in a recent interview. "We are not ready to digest sudden change in the political situation in North Korea."

As the prospect of a negotiated end to the nuclear crisis with North Korea inches closer, South Koreans are now thinking seriously about the implications. There is the potential, they realize, for a terrible lesson in getting what you wish for.

Abrupt change conjures up the nightmare image of millions of refugees from North Korea, a crashing economy, war. At the very least, the collapse of the demilitarized zone would be far messier to handle than the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The ideal of a gradual transformation to a market economy and a more open society -- played out in China, as well as in smaller countries in Asia and South America -- lies at the heart of South Korea's approach to North Korea, and is also the source of differences with Washington over how to resolve the crisis.

To the Bush administration, North Korea is part of the "axis of evil" and its leader, Kim Jong-il, an irredeemable "pygmy," as US President George W. Bush once said. To Seoul, though, North Korea stands where China did a couple of decades ago, and with the right nudge, here and there, Kim could metamorphose into the late Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平).

Asked whether Kim could assume a role similar to that of the Chinese reformer, Yoon said without hesitation, "I think so."

In an interview, Yoon cited the economic changes undertaken by North Korea since July last year. Government price controls have been lifted in an increasing number of markets in Pyongyang, the capital. Trade with South Korea has increased; South Korean companies are building cars, roads and railroads in North Korea and are planning to build factories in a special industrial zone in Kaesong, a town about 65km north of Seoul, just over the border.

Pointing out that Kaesong is an hour's drive from Seoul, Yoon again turned to the China model.

"We will be implementing a Hong Kong-Shenzhen model to the North Korean situation," he said. "Because Kaesong is so close to Seoul, if we can succeed in this project, the positive economic and political impact will be great.

"The key of our North Korean policy is helping North Korea adopt market mechanisms," he said. "That will help them rebuild their own economy, which will in turn bring about some positive domestic political impact and some positive impact in terms of North Korea's international behavior."

Contrast such talk with Washington's. Its recent strategy has been to apply mild economic pressures on North Korea and hint at more severe measures like UN sanctions, if negotiations collapse.

The other critical element of the Chinese model of development is that the move toward a market-based economy could not take place in a democracy. North Korea would live under an authoritarian government for an indefinite period.

"In the case of China, the reforms were made possible because Deng Xiaoping maintained strong leadership and stability politically," said Park Chan-bong, the deputy minister in the South Korean Unification Ministry.

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