Thomas Jefferson, in his inaugural, addressing what would later come to be known as “foreign policy,” called for “peace, commerce and honest friendship with all nations; entangling alliances with none.” His country has been ignoring his sage advice for more than a century. And nowhere on the planet has his advice been more roundly transgressed than on the Korean peninsula, where, for the past six decades, it is not only ignored, but indeed reversed.
With the southern half of that tragically divided country, America finds herself tied up in an “entangling alliance,” and with the northern half, rather than “peace, commerce and honest friendship,” we find war, sanctions, and animosity. Didn’t George Washington warn us against “the mischiefs of foreign intrigue” resulting from “excessive partiality for one foreign nation and excessive dislike of another” in his farewell address?
Ending the permanent and entangling alliance with South Korea is a no-brainer. If the alliance ever made sense, it clearly no longer does. Americans find themselves expending treasure and potentially blood defending one of the richest countries in the world against one of the poorest. Lest one point to China, South Korea has been enjoying decades of friendly political and commercial relations with the regional power. (Do they read Jefferson in South Korea?) The South Koreans have even been attempting the same with the North, with some degree of success, and with much opposition from Washington (the misnamed imperial capital, not the Founder of the Country).
But peace, commerce and honest friendship with North Korea? Surely Thomas Jefferson, that lover of liberty, would not advocate extending peace, commerce and honest friendship to a tyrannical, Stalinist state like North Korea? Of course, such nightmare states could hardly have been imagined in Jefferson’s time, products of late modernity that they are. Thus, the more important question is whether our six-decade-old policy of war, sanctions, and animosity has brought any change to North Korea, which it obviously has not, with a third Kim in line for the throne.
The corollary to that question is whether a policy of peace, commerce and honest friendship, which is affected by people not states at the deepest level, might not be better at bringing some measure of freedom to the long-suffering people of North Korea. There is every indication that it would, if one is willing to go beyond the “analysis” offered by the mainstream media’s “experts” on Korea and read accounts by scholars who actually know the country and her language.
Addressing the first of Jefferson’s specifics, peace, we can turn to Asia Times Online correspondent Peter Lee, whose analysis of the WikiLeaks cables in his Dec. 4, 2010 article Dear Leader’s designs on Uncle Sam explained clearly that “North Korea is desperate to establish relations with the United States.”
About this prospect, Kim Keun-sik, a professor of North Korean Studies at Kyungnam University in Seoul, quoted by Sunny Lee in her Mar. 16, 2011 Asia Times Online article, Don’t let Kim be misunderstood, argues that this would be “the best conduit to integrate the country into the international community,” saying, “Establishing diplomatic relations will do.”
Then why not sign the peace treaty ending the Korean War and establish diplomatic relations with North Korea? Is it that important that Hollywood and video game makers have a politically correct enemy? Is it that important that the Pentagon have a percieved enemy to con the American people out of more tax dollars?
Moving to the effect that commerce is already having within the country, we turn to Andrei Lankov, among the most perceptive pundits on North Korea, having studied in the country and grown up in the Soviet Union, giving him first-hand experience of life under similar economic, political, and cultural tyranny. In his Mar. 11, 2011 offering for Asia Times Online, Why the Kim regime will falter, Prof. Lankov says that each “report that another famine was looming in North Korea” reminds him “the Soviet media’s habit of reporting that a crisis in the capitalist West was becoming ever-more profound.”
He goes on to explain that “in recent years, the economic situation of the population has improved markedly,” and more importantly, why “these changes do not necessarily bode well for the regime’s future.” He writes:
People seldom rebel when their lives are desperate: they are too busy looking for food and basic necessities. Most revolutions happen in times of relative prosperity and are initiated by people who have time and energy to discuss social issues and to organize resistance. Another condition for a successful revolution is a widespread belief in some alternative that is allegedly better than present-day life.
There is little doubt that the North Korean elite welcome signs of economic growth, but paradoxically, this growth makes their situation less, not more, stable. North Koreans are now less stressed and have some time to think and talk — more so since the once formidable surveillance and indoctrination system was damaged during the crisis of the 1990s, perhaps beyond repair.
B.R. Myers, perhaps the foremost outside scholar of North Korean propaganda, noted the same, warning us against “North Korea watchers who speak no Korean” in an Apr. 1, 2009 editorial for The New York Times, with the refreshingly non-interventionist title To Beat a Dictator, Ignore Him, in which he also goes deeper into explaining the paradox for the regime that economic growth entails:
As for economic matters, the leadership in the North has always considered them secondary to domestic security. If the masses lived well, fine, but Mr. Kim's father, Kim Il-sung, once told the East German dictator Erich Honecker that they behaved better when they didn't. In the mid-1990s, when Kim Jong-il was forced to choose between opening his country to the outside world and letting perhaps a million citizens starve to death, he did just what his father would have done.
North Koreans now know that they are much poorer than their brethren in the South. They know this not just because the information cordon that once sealed off the country is in tatters, but also because the Kim Jong-il regime openly, even proudly, admits the gross economic disparity. The propaganda apparatus assures the masses that their heroic sacrifices are helping to nuclearize the North and keep America down. They are also told that the South Korean masses, for all their material comfort, are ashamed of being under the thumb of the Yankees and yearn to live under Kim Jong-il.
North Korean defector Mok Yong Jae, writing on Mar. 10, 2011 for Daily NK, a reliable online journal run by defectors that never falls into the trap of exaggeration, clarifies in his article, Economic Role in the Spotlight, that it was not socialist planning but “ten years of North-South economic cooperation” that have brought about the economic improvements Prof. Lankov spoke of. Mr. Mok also quotes South Korean Minister of Unification Hyun In Taek as suggesting that “unification would be more readily feasible once the average income of North Koreans rose to approximately $3,000.”
Mr. Mok also quotes Professor Kim Yong Ho of Yonsei University about the fact that “50,000 North Korean people are working in the Kaesong Industrial Complex,” an area where South Korean firms are allowed to operate. Prof. Kim says, “If we include their families, it's like having 200,000 people in the Kaesong Complex's sphere of influence. As with the way to achieving German Unification, from East Germany through Hungary to West Germany, Kaesong too can play the role of a channel for influence.”
While conservatives in South Korea and the United States have long maligned the “Sunshine Policy” of economic engagement with North Korea, defectors themselves, and the local experts they quote, understand that it is indeed the best way to effect long-term change in the North. Why not let trade bring about the economic growth necessary for the North Korean people to bring about regime change in their own country? While it might be gradual and piecemeal, in the long run, it will be far more cost effective than continuing the confrontational policies of the last six decades.
On April 4, 2011, Kim Jong-wook of South Korea’s JoongAng Daily reported on a delegation of North Koreans sent to Stamford University to study free market economics, in his article, Capitalism 101 Tour for Northerners ends. Let us hope this is a first step towards peace, commerce and honest friendship with North Korea.
An American Catholic son-in-law of Korea, Joshua Snyder [send him mail] lives with his wife and two children in Pohang, where he lectures English at a science and technology university. He blogs at The Western Confucian.