A Progressive Perspective: Moon Chung-in on North Korea

By | April 26, 2012 | No Comments

Moon Chung-In at the World Economic Forum. | Image: World Economic Forum

Manager of International Affairs for the DailyNKblogger and occasional contributor to Sino-NK, Chris Green, authored a short piece about being a progressive in South Korea a while back. His conclusion is that while many claim to be “progressive,” the list of bona fides remains small. Among those who claim, or are considered to be, progressive in South Korea, Yonsei University professor Moon Chung-in is one of the better known. From his position at Yonsei as professor of political science, and his role as Editor in Chief for Global Asia, Moon writes frequently on issues involving North Korea. Of his more recent publications, of which there are many, one of the better known is Professor Moon’s Foreign Policy article entitled “The Land of Lesser Evils,” wherein Moon, along with fellow Yonsei progressive John Delury, argued for a possible solution to the then pending missile launch on the backdrop of concentrated engagement with the reclusive state. Shortly before the FP piece, Moon and Delury put forth their progressive theory on how best to deal with North Korea, represented by the security-plus-prosperity approach.

To gain a better perspective on the security-plus-prosperity theory, and simply to peer into the mind of one of Korea’s most well known academics, Steven Denney and Brian Gleason conducted an interview with Professor Moon for the forthcoming issue of PEAR (Papers, Essays, and Reviews), The Yonsei Journal of International Studies. Below is a selected portion of the longer interview, which will be available to read in seventh issue of PEAR. — Steven Denney, Assistant Editor

A Progressive Perspective: Moon Chung-in on North Korea

By Steven Denney, with Brian Gleason

PEAR: In 2012, there will be major elections taking place in the US, China and South Korea. Also, Russia recently had an election, which Vladimir Putin won. What effect will these elections have on politics in Asia?

Professor Moon: It all depends on the coalitional configurations that result following each country’s respective elections.

If Obama wins in America and Ahn Cheol-soo, Moon Jae-in or any other liberal wins in South Korea, and if Xi Jinping pursues a more open and liberal policy in China along with Kim Jong-un opting for Chinese-style economic reform, we will have a liberal coalition. Putin, too, will choose a more liberal option if all other major actors are doing the same – and this will be a sign of good things to come for the region. There will be less tension, more cooperation and an overall positive outlook for Northeast Asia.

But suppose we wind up with what I call the scenario of “conservative clashes.” Romney wins the election in the US, Pak Geun-hye wins here, and Xi Jinping pursues more conservative policies, which, for China, is a very real possibility. People in China talk about how Mao Zedong consolidated political power, Deng Xiaoping consolidated economic power and now it is time for China’s next leader – Xi Jinping – to consolidate military power. If Xi Jinping pursues this route, along with Kim Jong-un continuing a policy of military-first politics, then we will have quite a nightmarish situation in the region. Because such development is most likely to foster a new divide between the Northern axis (China, Russia, and North Korea) and the Southern axis (US, Japan, and South Korea). In reality, we will probably wind up somewhere between the two scenarios. In any case, it is not certain that all these democratic changes in Northeast Asia will be good for the geopolitical situation in 2013 and after.

One positive development is the stance of Park Geun-hye. In her Foreign Affairs article, she pledged to a more balanced diplomacy, with an emphasis on improving ties with North Korea. Thus, overall situation on the Korean peninsula could be better than that during the Lee Myung-bak government.

PEAR: Do you foresee a Sunshine Policy 2.0 forthcoming, regardless of whether a conservative or liberal candidate is elected?

Professor Moon: I would label it as engagement 2.0 rather than Sunshine Policy 2.0. The term Sunshine Policy is a kind of President Kim Dae-jung’s invention. Meanwhile, engagement is a generic term to describe a policy on North Korea that emphasizes recognition, dialogue, reconciliation, and cooperation. My book, “Sunshine Policy- In Defense of Engagement as a Path to Peace in Korea,” will be published late April by Yonsei University Press. As I argue in my book, there is no other alternative but to pursue engagement, be it hawk, dove, or something else. How can we solve the current issues without engaging with North Korea? I really do not think war can be an option. Sanctions have been imposed on North Korea since the end of the Korean War in 1953, but they were not effective.

PEAR: Many believe that before Korean unification can even be considered, the North Korean economy must first be developed to a level comparable to other developed or developing countries. How should policymakers in the United States and South Korea approach Kim Jong-un’s regime in order to promote economic growth in North Korea?

Professor Moon: I fully agree with you. We can discuss about peaceful unification without first leveling up the North Korean economy. This is even applied to the case of unification by absorption. The North Korean economy must be revitalized and leveled-up. To make it possible, we should work hard to create an environment that can be favorable to North Korea’s opening and reform, as China experienced in 1979. If we look to China as a model, lessons can be drawn. First, the normalization of diplomatic relations with the US in 1979 removed external security concerns that impeded economic opening and reform.

Vietnam also serves as a model to emulate. The economic reform policies known as doi moi (“reform and newness”) was made possible primarily because of improving relations with the U.S. Improved relations with China also abetted this process of opening and reform. It is under this favorable external development that Vietnam could have expedited the process of opening and reform and achieved impressive economic growth.

PEAR: What does détente with North Korea look like?

Professor Moon: Using China and Vietnam as models, we can see that improving the external environment is a necessary prerequisite to North Korea’s economic reform and growth. Thus, assuring security for the North Korean regime is the first step that must be taken in order to encourage the type of reform necessary for economic development. Without such a security guarantee, economic reform and growth is inconceivable.

PEAR: Alongside fellow Yonsei professor John Delury, you have put forward the idea of security-plus-prosperity as a way of creating the conditions necessary for economic development in North Korea. Could you explain this concept?

Professor Moon: North Korea is in a Catch-22. Its leadership is committed to the ‘military first politics’ as a way of ensuring regime and national security. It was in this context that the North has been engaging in nuclear testing and missile launching. However, such moves have entailed negative consequences such as economic sanctions and international isolation, which have in turn worsened economic conditions in North Korea. But the new leadership in the North cannot enhance its legitimacy without resolving its protracted economic hardship as well as deteriorating food and energy situation. In order to tackle economic problems, Kim Jong-un should get food, energy, and economic assistance from the outside world. However, the US, South Korea, and Japan are highly unlikely to provide such assistance unless the North makes substantive concessions in nuclear weapons and missiles. Thus, Kim Jong-un is currently facing the horn of dilemma.

The US and South Korea should help the North overcome the current dilemma by providing a favorable security environment, despite the rocket launch on April 13. In this regard, the US needs to rethink about its diplomatic normalization with North Korea. Recognizing and normalizing with North Korea does not cost. It is simply a matter of recognition. Use recognition as an incentive to make North Korea to abide by the September 19 joint statement, the February 13 agreement, and even the February 29 agreement, so that it can undertake concrete measures to dismantle its nuclear facilities, programs, materials, and even weapons in a complete, verifiable, and irreversible manner.

Yes, North Korea can cheat. But the threat of severing diplomatic ties will be a more effective tool than the promise of diplomatic normalization in return for denuclearization would. In addition, some sort of deal regarding missiles should also be considered.

In any case, the important thing to remember here is that North Korea will give up its nuclear weapons last, so it is important to start with the nuclear facilities and materials first. Under conditions of security guarantee and negotiated settlement, North Korea will go for opening and reform. This, then, will be followed by a massive influx of assistance to North Korea. Once reform begins and the market develops, there will be no way for North Korea to reverse the trend. Market will entail the expansion of civil society and the birth of middle class. All this can take place within five to six years after market opening.

Consider China, for example. Reforms started in China around 1979 and within ten years Tiananmen took place. The speed of social change could be much faster in North Korea, depending specifically on how North Korean society handles change. In any case, the main idea regarding security-plus-prosperity is this: there is a trade-off between prosperity and security. To foster prosperity we have to try to satisfy North Korea’s security need first.

PEAR: It has been a few months since the death of Kim Jong-il. What is your assessment of power transition in North Korea thus far? What is the main threat to Kim Jong-un’s consolidation of power?

Professor Moon: The situation in North Korea seems very stable. In order to make the succession process stable and successful, Kim Jong-un should satisfy four things: legitimacy, power, institutional consolidation, and winning the hearts of the people.

Kim Jong-un is born with legitimacy, what the North Koreans call the Paektu bloodline. Being a grandson of Kim Il-sung and a son of Kim Jong-il gives Kim Jong-un an innate and uncontestable legitimacy; no one in North Korea would challenge it.

Kim Jong Un assumes the role of “First Secretary of the Korean Workers’ Party” | Image courtesy Huanqiu Shibao

As far as power goes, Kim Jong-un has all the power necessary to consolidate his rule, augmented by three layers of support. The first layer is inner-circle support given to him by his immediate family members, including his aunt Kim Kyung-hee and her husband Jang Song-taek. Second is the Korean Workers’ Party, which has been completely resuscitated to provide institutional support for Kim Jong-un. Finally, the complete and unified backing of him by the military, which since his ascension to power following his father’s death, has indicated its unwavering loyalty to and support for the young leader. If one looks at the North Korean system, there is no conceivable threat to his power. So, as far as that goes, he is in good shape.

For institutional consolidation, Kim Jong-un was elected as the first secretary of the Korea Workers’ Party and Chairman of party’s Central Military Committee at the 4th Workers Party Delegates’ Conference on April 11. He was also elected as First Chairman of the National Defense Commission at the Supreme People’s Congress, which was held on April 13. Kim Jong-un has thus completed the process of institutional consolidation over the party (first secretary), the state (chairman of the National Defense Commission), and the military (supreme commander, chairman of both KWP’s central military committee and the national defense commission).

As far as the first three conditions are concerned, I do not see any problems. The last condition, however, is much more difficult. Winning the hearts of the North Korean people can be achieved through strengthening the domestic economy and satisfying people’s basic human needs. However, Kim Jong-un’s ruling strategy so far may have been hurting more than helping the economy. The rocket launch on April 13 is a good example. As a result of the happening, North Korea is currently facing tough sanction measures from international community. The US also decided to suspend food aid. North Korea will be further isolated. Thus, it will be harder for Kim Jong-un to win the hearts of the North Korean people.

Whatever domestic benefits he may reap by taking a non-conciliatory approach to negotiations with foreign powers may be offset by creating a situation that hurts the domestic economy. Playing tough with foreign powers, particularly the US and South Korea, has negative consequences for international assistance and foreign direct investment, which will hinder economic growth. It is extremely difficult for Kim Jong-un to both appease the military and satisfy the people concurrently.

I am not sure how long Kim Jong-un will be able to maintain this approach. The people will evaluate the legitimacy of Kim Jong-un based on three things: the provision of food, energy and the overall status of the economy. If he can address these three concerns of the people, then Kim Jong-un will have fully satisfied the fourth and most difficult requirement for power transition and will rule for quite some time. If not, sometime in the not-to-distant future, he may face a serious challenge from the bottom-up.

PEAR: Do you think the recent politicization of the North Korean defector issue is a positive or negative development? In what ways should South Korea and the United States approach China about the legal status of North Korean defectors residing inside China?

Professor Moon: I think it has two conflicting implications. It is positive in the sense that the campaign has publicized the plights of North Korean defectors in China. But it is negative in the sense that they will be facing much tougher environment in both China and North Korea. Whereas China will be taking much stringent measures in detecting and deporting North Korean defectors, North Korea will be intensifying border control that would make it harder for North Koreans to cross the China-DPRK border.

I think quiet diplomacy is still the best method, if the concern is really about the human rights of North Korean defectors. Regarding the status of refugees, the more politicized the issue becomes, the less cooperative China will be. A lot of people are claiming that as a result of pressure from South Korea and the US, China released the four North Korean defectors that had taken up political asylum in the South Korean embassy in Beijing for the last three years. I do not agree. It has more to do with the rocket issue than bending to international pressure.

China will not be as harsh as South Korea and the US expect it to be. Beijing did not concede to pressure from Seoul or Washington. Instead it was more likely a move to save face for President Lee Myong-bak right before the parliamentary elections. Chinese politics is not as one-sided as it is often thought to be. Face-saving is a very important part of operational-logic in Chinese diplomacy.

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  1. I’m surprised to see Professor Moon state that Romney would be part of “conservative clashes”, while Obama would be part of a “liberal coalition”. Am I wrong to believe that U.S. foreign policy is basically bi-partisan?

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