Why N Korea’s neighbors soft-pedal sanctions

Asia Times
(abridged)
11/30/2006

United Nations Security Council Resolution 1718 has had no impact on the economic activity in the remote northeastern corner of North Korea where Russians and Chinese are building transportation infrastructure for future industrial-development projects. As was planned before the nuclear test, the Russians began repairing a dilapidated railway line, while the Chinese continued with their highway-construction project.

There were no delays in the normal operations of the Kumgang (also transliterated Geumgang) project, a joint tourist venture on the border between two Koreas. Every day many hundreds of South Korean tourists travel about 20 kilometers into the North to visit the picturesque mountains and spend a few days there, leaving their currency in the accounts of the North Korean government. The project has always been a major money-earner for the cash-hungry North. The Americans tried to stop Kumgang operations, but the South Koreans refused, and business continued as usual.

It was reported this month that a number of the North Korean workers employed by South Korean companies in Gaesong industrial park exceeded the 10,000 mark. Gaesong industrial park is the largest cooperative venture between two Koreas. It is the place where South Korean capital and technology use cheap North Korean labor to produce internationally competitive stuff – or at least this is what is supposed to be going on there.

In spite of optimistic talk, so far the project has been a money-losing enterprise for the Southerners, and most companies stay in Gaesong only because their government is willing to back them financially.  Still, Seoul, even when it talked tough, did not do anything to slow down the project. On the contrary, the Gaesong project is growing fast, and so, one might suspect, are revenues it provides to the Pyongyang regime.

By now it has become patently clear. No international sanction regime against North Korea worthy of its name is in place, and there is no chance that such regime will emerge in future. China, Russia and, above all, South Korea do not want to punish North Korea for going nuclear.

China is not happy about a nuclear North Korea, but probably sees it a lesser evil than a unified Korea that is likely to be under US influence and will perhaps even have US military bases. Beijing does not want this. It also does not want a collapse of another state under communist rule – this might be a bad news for domestic propagandists.

And last but not least, in recent years Chinese companies have moved into North Korea, taking over mining and infrastructure, so such gains need be protected as well. At the same time, the North Korean nukes are not seen by Chinese strategists as an immediate problem: the Chinese assume (correctly, perhaps) that these weapons will never target China and will not be transferred to China’s enemies. So for China, keeping North Korea afloat is a strategic imperative.

Russia is not a major player in the Korean game nowadays, but it has some leverage as a potential “blockade breaker”. Without sincere cooperation from Russia, no efficient sanctions regime will be possible, and such cooperation seems unlikely. Moscow does not want the North Korean regime to collapse. The country’s leader Kim Jong-il is potentially useful for numerous diplomatic combinations, and also as a deterrent against the Americans, who are increasingly seen by President Vladimir Putin’s Moscow as dangerous global bullies.

However, it is South Korea whose policy is decisive in these issues. Indeed, in recent years North Korea was kept afloat by generous Southern aid, with some 500,000 tons of grain and a large amount of other supplies being sent north every year. This aid saved countless lives in the North, but it also contributed to keeping the regime in control.

It has been clear for a decade that South Korea, in spite of all the rhetoric, does not want unification to happen too fast or too soon. The German experience demonstrated how vastly expensive unification might become, and Koreans have good reasons to believe that their situation is much worse than that of Germany. After all, the per capita gross national product in East Germany was roughly half of the West German level, while in the case of North Korea, per capita GNP is less than one-tenth of the South Korean level.

Judging by the experience of the 1990s when the North Korean regime was more isolated than now, economic pressures alone will not necessarily lead to its collapse. During the great famine of the late 1990s, between a half-million and a million people starved to death without causing any inconvenience to the regime. There are no reasons to believe that sanctions would achieve much either, apart from producing another famine and many more deaths.

In contrast, the ongoing exchanges bring to North Korea information about the outside world, and this information is subversive by definition, making more and more people wonder whether something should be done about their country’s political and economic system, so clearly inefficient and anachronistic. Thus the current situation surrounding the so-called “sanctions” might be a rare case when the hypocrisy and duplicity of so-called “collective diplomacy” is doing more good than harm.

Early this month a market riot happened in the remote North Korean city of Hoeryong. Perhaps for the first time since 1945, a large group of North Koreans openly and vocally protested an unpopular decision of the local administration. This was a minor incident, but in the long run it might be more significant than all the meaningless invectives delivered by the well-dressed people in the UN Assembly Hall.

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