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Saturday, Nov. 8, 2003

NORTH KOREA

Pressure won't bring peace


Visit Shanghai and while you may not see the future -- contrary to what Sydney and Beatrice Webb once foolishly claimed when they visited the Soviet Union in the 1920s -- you will certainly see very little of the past.

There are broad highways, efficient subways, bustling crowds, colorful signboards, hectares of central-district high-rises and kilometers of housing blocks marching into the suburban distance.

The contrast with the sullen, squalid, stagnant, slogan-plastered city I had seen when I had visited Shanghai just 30 years ago with a group of Australian ping-pong players was overwhelming.

True, one still sees the occasional exhortatory placard. In a back street they have carefully turned Mao Zedong's former house into a museum of the Communist revolution's early days. But the museum also sells pictures of once-reviled anti-Maoists. And alongside the prim middle-aged lady reading Communist gospels at the counter is a teenager in hippie clothes and an exposed belly-button.

The China I saw 30 years ago was not much better than the North Korea we see today -- gulag prisons, stagnant economy, starvation in the countryside. But if you looked closely you could sense hints of change.

Indeed, the very act of inviting pingpong teams from around the world, and having us meet the sponsor, Premier Zhou Enlai, was a sign that some in China then were not happy with the cruel and insane dogmatism then being imposed by China's Gang of Four leaders.

Fortunately the United States, together with most of the rest of the world, responded to the invitation (Canberra was one exception). The results of that tentative opening we see today, and not just in the material progress.

China's society shows a stability and liberalizing confidence that could soon see it on a par with Singapore. Its cities are becoming models of good urban planning, on a par with Hong Kong. Its economic policies are a great improvement on the self-destruction nonsense we see coming out of Tokyo at present.

Would any of this have happened if 30 years ago the then bitterly anti-U.S. and repressive China had been dubbed part of an axis of evil deserving of military intervention to force regime change?

Most dictatorial regimes are the result of abnormal historical circumstances. Their excesses do not have to run forever. Left to time, and freed from outside pressure, leaders emerge who prefer moderation to repression, progress to stagnation.

For proof we need look only at the way the former Chinese regime was able to throw up leaders like Zhou and Deng Xiaoping, and the former Soviet regime was able to throw up heads of state like Nikita Khruschev and Mikhail Gorbachev.

True, the communist dictatorships could evolve because of the role played by ideology in legitimizing the regime. In personalist regimes, such as the former Iraqi regime, leaders often can only hold power through brutality and force. Assuming that the former rules of international law no longer apply, the arguments in favor of intervention to force change are much stronger.

Indeed, we now have a group of intellectuals who describe themselves as anti-anti-American, such as French writer/intellectual Bernard Henri Levy, with his best-selling work, "Who Killed Daniel Pearl?" or well-known Japanologist Ian Buruma recently writing in the Financial Times -- who say it is time for anti-American progressives to admit that the world is a better place for the overthrow of the former Saddam Hussein regime there.

But as we also see in Iraq, intervention has to handled very carefully if it is to be successful. At the excellent historical museum in Shanghai's Pudong district, the Western colonial contribution to Shanghai's pre-communist development is admitted. But there is also a polite reminder that Iraq was not the first time our British friends have invented phony pretexts for their overseas aggressions.

As far as China is concerned, all that began as early as the 1840s, with the Opium War. Without that particular intervention, it is quite likely that China would have been spared many of the traumas, Maoist and others, that it has since suffered.

The same could be true for North Korea today. True, the personalist flavor of the regime, together with its cruelties and paranoia, go beyond even what we saw in Mao's China. But once again there are reasons -- the cruel postwar division of the nation, genuine fears of being attacked, spy and sabotage pressure from South Korean hardliners.

But even Pyongyang can change. Like China in the early 1970s, tentative efforts are being made to open up to the outside world. Most who know Kim Jong Il agree that the North Korean leader is no fool. Indeed, Pyongyang's recent diplomacy has a consistency and logic that far outshines what we have seen from Washington and Tokyo lately. Only ignorant or devious hardliners could possibly see malice in Pyongyang's perfectly reasonable demand for a nonaggression pact in exchange for a promise to abandon nuclear development.

Japan's hardliners now use the abductee issue to push for pressure, including regime-changing military pressure, against Pyongyang. One would like to ask these people: If you are so concerned over the fate of abductees and their relatives, are you more likely to improve things by confrontation, including reneging on earlier promises, or by a closer relationship that allows Japanese officials and others to get to North Korea and try to solve things through contacts and negotiation?

The answer should be obvious. Cool it, and, as with China, time will heal most wounds.

Gregory Clark is a former Australian diplomat and honorary president of Tama University. A translation of this article will appear on www.gregoryclark.net


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