Daniel W. Drezner

Will Kaesong subvert North Korea?

I’m probably more enthusiastic than most about the ability of multilateral economic sanctions to topple the North Korean regime. On the other hand, it looks like real multilateral enforcement ain’t gonna happen anytime soon. So…. what’s left? Well, there’s the engagement option, of course. Which leads me to Anna Fifield’s FT journal from Kaesong, the ...

I'm probably more enthusiastic than most about the ability of multilateral economic sanctions to topple the North Korean regime. On the other hand, it looks like real multilateral enforcement ain't gonna happen anytime soon. So.... what's left? Well, there's the engagement option, of course. Which leads me to Anna Fifield's FT journal from Kaesong, the joint ROK-DPRK industrial zone. If commercial engagement is going to change the DPRK regime from within, this should be the flashpoint. Fifield's piece sounds optimistic, but I have my doubts: South Korea?s sunshine policy has clearly failed to change the regime?s behaviour ? Seoul has sent billions of dollars to Pyongyang over the past eight years and has received almost nothing in return. Seoul must start to demand information about where its money is going ? preferably paying Kaesong workers directly ? and make it clear how it expects Mr Kim?s regime to act in return for this assistance. But decades of American containment haven?t worked any better. So despite the obvious moral dubiousness of paying money to a regime that lets its people starve while all the while developing nuclear weapons, the positives of Kaesong still outweigh the negatives. Indeed, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that engagement is making a difference. The trip to Kaesong marked my seventh visit to North Korea in the last two years. Even in that short time it has become apparent to me that economic links are having an impact in this most closed and communist of societies.... The 9,500 North Koreans now working at the Kaesong complex every day see how much taller, healthier and wealthier South Koreans are. If even 10 per cent of them go home and talk about their Southern colleagues, or about the foreigners who intermittently visit this park, that will have a profound effect. This will only be amplified if Kaesong develops according to plans. It is projected to employ 500,000 North Koreans when it is completed in 2012. South Korea knows this. ?We never talk about this but the real reason behind engagement is to show the North Koreans that their system is based on lies,? one senior government official confides. ?This will destroy the ideas that sustain their system. They can?t keep out these ideas of freedom and prosperity. It?s what is invisible that is most important.? Indeed, Hong Heung-joo, the South Korean executive director of the Kaesong Industrial District Management Committee, says he has already noticed significant attitude changes since the complex opened. ?The most important change is that North Koreans have realised the importance of production. Under the North Korean system there is no sense of profit, but here North Korean workers are working to targets and asking for extra hours. That means they are becoming aware of market economics.? Personal contact does remain limited ? the two sides eat lunch separately and conversation rarely strays outside work-related matters. Indeed, the tip sheet given to visitors by Southern authorities advises that North Koreans are ?generally simple, na?ve and emotional?. Visitors should refrain from commenting on ?the economic situation of either the North or the South, liberal democracy, the superiority of the market economy, unification-related matters, the North Korean leadership, education systems, human rights and/or other potentially sensitive issues,? the sheet says. My research suggests that in places where sanctions don't look like a viable tool of statecraft, engagement does not work any better, but you, dear readers, be the judge -- is Fifield's cautious optimism well-placed?

I’m probably more enthusiastic than most about the ability of multilateral economic sanctions to topple the North Korean regime. On the other hand, it looks like real multilateral enforcement ain’t gonna happen anytime soon. So…. what’s left? Well, there’s the engagement option, of course. Which leads me to Anna Fifield’s FT journal from Kaesong, the joint ROK-DPRK industrial zone. If commercial engagement is going to change the DPRK regime from within, this should be the flashpoint. Fifield’s piece sounds optimistic, but I have my doubts:

South Korea?s sunshine policy has clearly failed to change the regime?s behaviour ? Seoul has sent billions of dollars to Pyongyang over the past eight years and has received almost nothing in return. Seoul must start to demand information about where its money is going ? preferably paying Kaesong workers directly ? and make it clear how it expects Mr Kim?s regime to act in return for this assistance. But decades of American containment haven?t worked any better. So despite the obvious moral dubiousness of paying money to a regime that lets its people starve while all the while developing nuclear weapons, the positives of Kaesong still outweigh the negatives. Indeed, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that engagement is making a difference. The trip to Kaesong marked my seventh visit to North Korea in the last two years. Even in that short time it has become apparent to me that economic links are having an impact in this most closed and communist of societies…. The 9,500 North Koreans now working at the Kaesong complex every day see how much taller, healthier and wealthier South Koreans are. If even 10 per cent of them go home and talk about their Southern colleagues, or about the foreigners who intermittently visit this park, that will have a profound effect. This will only be amplified if Kaesong develops according to plans. It is projected to employ 500,000 North Koreans when it is completed in 2012. South Korea knows this. ?We never talk about this but the real reason behind engagement is to show the North Koreans that their system is based on lies,? one senior government official confides. ?This will destroy the ideas that sustain their system. They can?t keep out these ideas of freedom and prosperity. It?s what is invisible that is most important.? Indeed, Hong Heung-joo, the South Korean executive director of the Kaesong Industrial District Management Committee, says he has already noticed significant attitude changes since the complex opened. ?The most important change is that North Koreans have realised the importance of production. Under the North Korean system there is no sense of profit, but here North Korean workers are working to targets and asking for extra hours. That means they are becoming aware of market economics.? Personal contact does remain limited ? the two sides eat lunch separately and conversation rarely strays outside work-related matters. Indeed, the tip sheet given to visitors by Southern authorities advises that North Koreans are ?generally simple, na?ve and emotional?. Visitors should refrain from commenting on ?the economic situation of either the North or the South, liberal democracy, the superiority of the market economy, unification-related matters, the North Korean leadership, education systems, human rights and/or other potentially sensitive issues,? the sheet says.

My research suggests that in places where sanctions don’t look like a viable tool of statecraft, engagement does not work any better, but you, dear readers, be the judge — is Fifield’s cautious optimism well-placed?

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. He blogged regularly for Foreign Policy from 2009 to 2014. Twitter: @dandrezner

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