Time is Running Out for North Korea
The highest-ranking figure ever to defect from North Korea, Hwang Jang Yop, claims that one reason for his action is the fact that the country can neither feed its people nor sue for peace.Hwang, the architect of North Korea's key policy of self-reliance, or "juche," made this statement when he arrived in Seoul, South Korea last month.I believe, however, that North Korea has no choice. It will have to accept and attend peace talks in exchange for food for its starving people.No one would dispute the first element of Hwang's proposition. There is ample evidence that the hard winter of 1994 and the massive floods of 1995 and 1996 have, as Hwang put it, "turned a country that boasts it has built a heaven on Earth into a nation begging for a living." Chinese traders and truck drivers returning from North Korea have recently reported famine-related horror stories, particularly in the northern part of the country.Hwang's second proposition, that North Korea cannot sue for peace, is more debatable, however. Some pundits have even suggested that Hwang's statement was principally designed to please his new South Korean hosts, who have consistently advocated a hard line against the North.But it must by now be obvious to North Korea's secretive leaders that military confrontation is not a practical possibility. Actions such as the 1995 seizure of a South Korean aid vessel carrying humanitarian food, or last fall's submarine incursion into South Korean waters, have not strengthened Pyongyang's bargaining position. On the contrary, they have eliminated international sympathy for the regime.Many military analysts think a military invasion of the South would be tantamount to mass suicide. A hungry and dispirited army with obsolete weaponry and an inadequate logistical system would be no match for the highly trained and motivated South Korean armed forces who are equipped with a modern, high-tech arsenal. Furthermore, the presence of 37,000 US troops in the South constitutes a powerful deterrent against a military adventure across the heavily fortified demilitarized zone.There is no evidence that the north has a nuclear capability. Even if it has built one or two atomic bombs, as certain intelligence sources suggest it could do, it is highly unlikely that it has the delivery system needed to pose any real threat to South Korea or Japan.North Korea's leaders understandably blame the famine on weather, but the true causes of the calamity are more complex.>From the end of the Korean War 1953, North Korea stayed afloat with subsidies from the Soviet Union, which provided food and weapons. But since 1991, when all such assistance stopped, the North Korean army has increasingly deteriorated.China was not in a position to provide economic help, because it was experimenting with a huge modernization program of its own and having a hard time feeding tens of millions of its own people in the less developed inland provinces.Korea experts say that a disastrous farm program, encouraging deforestation to make room for terraced farming in the name of self-reliance, has depleted hillside soil and caused rivers to overflow their banks, inundating the lowlands. Furthermore, a rigid collectivization program has eliminated incentives for farmers.In the long term, the North has no other alternative than to undertake necessary reforms, namely to correct a defective farm policy so as to increase production, institute land reform to provide incentive to farmers, and open the country to foreign capital and trade. In other words, to survive, North Korea -- like China and Viet Nam -- has to do away with the Stalinist system and embrace market economics.It is doubtful, however, that the country's current leaders have the vision and courage to open the country -- fearing that foreign influence would ultimately undermine their authoritarian regime. Even if they do, time is definitely not on their side. After all, it took China 20 years to revitalize its economy and Viet Nam more than a decade to implement its "doi moi" program.If recent developments in the hermit kingdom are any indication, North Korea as a nation is unraveling, and the "hard landing" -- predicted to be worse than the collapse of the Berlin Wall -- that the United States and South Korea tried to avoid may happen sooner than expected.History again appears to be repeating itself. Like West Germany, South Korea, a democratic and prosperous nation within a divided country will be called upon to absorb the shock of the "crash landing" of its bankrupt brother and to bear the burden of its own political and economic successes. However this may be a small price to pay, compared to the cost in terms of devastation and human tragedies of a bloody new civil war in the "Land of the Morning Calm."