Kim Can Survive
Andrei Lankov’s recommendations for toppling Kim Jong Il have been made almost irrelevant by the six-party agreement in February ("How to Topple Kim Jong Il," March/April 2007). Lankov’s advice to the U.S. government emphasizes the importance of undermining North Korea "from within." It reflects the Bush administration’s policy of transformational diplomacy. But the February agreement ...
Andrei Lankov’s recommendations for toppling Kim Jong Il have been made almost irrelevant by the six-party agreement in February ("How to Topple Kim Jong Il," March/April 2007). Lankov’s advice to the U.S. government emphasizes the importance of undermining North Korea "from within." It reflects the Bush administration’s policy of transformational diplomacy. But the February agreement was a strategic choice between the United States and North Korea. It envisions a peaceful coexistence between the two countries, and America’s acceptance of North Korea as it is — a sea change in U.S. policy.
More problematic is Lankov’s failure to grasp the dynamics and direction of U.S.-North Korean nuclear negotiations. His argument, regardless of his intentions, is consistent with those of neoconservatives in Washington whose policies are marked by an excess of ideology, an unrealistic understanding of the world around them, and overconfidence in military power. One critical variable Lankov overlooks is the role of North Korea’s leadership — and that of President Bush for that matter — in dealing successfully with subversive and destabilizing forces through strategic choices, like Kim’s July 2002 economic reforms and his September 2005 and February 2007 nuclear deals with the United States.
Ultimately, regime change or system collapse in North Korea — "bringing freedom to North Korea," in Lankov’s words — will depend on the regime’s ability to capitalize on opportunities that arise. North Korea will have to deal with a "reform dilemma," but the economic recovery and development that the nuclear deal will bring could actually heighten the survivability of Kim’s regime. History shows that authoritarian governments and economic development are by no means incompatible.
Seongnam, South Korea
Andrei Lankov replies:
Haksoon Paik expresses the hope, common among South Korean officials and academics, that North Korea will become a Chinese-style "development dictatorship" able to coexist alongside South Korea.
This wishful thinking ignores the problems posed for the North Korean regime by the existence of its far more successful neighbor to the south. If Chinese-style reforms were launched in the north, its populace would soon learn even more about South Korean prosperity. That would undermine the regime’s authority, especially because such reforms would require a significant relaxation of police control.
Pyongyang clearly believes any such reform is dangerous. Its 2002 "reforms" were merely a belated and partial admission of changes that had already occurred without official permission. Now, North Korea is working to push the clock back even further, as demonstrated by the recent reintroduction of comprehensive food rationing.
The February agreement is simply irrelevant. Even if we take this preliminary agreement seriously (and we have seen many similar false starts), it will have little or no impact on North Korea’s domestic politics.
Without continuous pressure, North Korea will not change itself. I share Paik’s concerns about a confrontational approach often favored by neocons. But Seoul’s hopes that North Korean leaders will reform their own political system are naive. Pressure, including pressure from within, is necessary to induce change.