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Friday, Oct. 17, 2008

A way for North Korea's leaders to revamp

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — Sometimes Americans give North Korean officials far more credit than they deserve for allegedly outsmarting us. Just how smart, really, are they?

Headlines can deceive. Sure, in the latest twist in the six-party talks, the Bush administration notably downsized its verification requirements in order to keep the nuclear-disarmament discussions going forward.

Acting on the recommendation of chief U.S. negotiator Christopher Hill, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice persuaded President George W. Bush to sign off on some perhaps surprising concessions. But the U.S. diplomats were right to so recommend, and the president, critics on his rightwing notwithstanding, was wise to accept their judgment.

Here's the bottom line about North Korea: If its leaders were all that brilliant, or even just sensible, why is the place in such a desperate fix all the time? It cannot feed, clothe or keep its people properly sheltered.

You might say that the Communist goons in Pyongyang just don't care about their people's welfare, that they only care about staying in power, and that anyone who tries to stand up to them gets mowed down. Then Pyongyang would have one less mouth to feed.

The truth is sometimes a combination of truths, and there is some truth in the above observation. But one thing is certain: If I were Kim Jong Il (who may or may not be ill), I would, as soon as I am feeling up to it, sit down and truly reflect on the Korean translation of a pathbreaking scheme for North Korea — "Modernizing the North Korean System: Objectives, Methods and Application" — from the California-based RAND Center for Asia Policy. It's a group product of counterpart institutions in Russia, South Korea, Japan and China.

It's not boring. What they have come up with is brilliant and slightly diabolical. It's based on a very simple idea: Dear Leader of North Korea, do you really want your regime to survive? Guess what? You're going about it entirely the wrong way. Forget about keeping the place more or less closed up by sitting on your people with brutal blankets of fear. Get smart: If you want to survive, you've got to modernize.

But doesn't modernization — the worried autocrats in Pyongyang may be thinking — mean regime eradication? No. The failure to modernize means further national-economic downsizing, eventual total decay and regime failure (remember the former Soviet Union?).

What's savvy about the RAND-led approach is that it presents to North Korean officials not the straitjacket of a specific blueprint (that might scare them away) but a broad yet specific menu of economic and policy options to choose from. Instead of offering them a gigantic overnight makeover, the proposal recommends steady continuation of various pilot projects already started, and of those on the way.

"By creating new sources of legitimate income and developing the foundation for sustained opening and economic growth," the study says, "this approach would help meet the key requirement for modernization fostering aspirations for change within North Korea's leadership."

No reformist group in the North Korean elite would dare raise its nose above the Communist policy table if it knew hardliners would chop it off with a meat cleaver. Unless the West is prepared to blow the government elite's own head off with military force (the Saddam Hussein approach), there will be no change within the regime if it regards any substantial economic change as tantamount to political suicide.

Kim Jong Il must know that just about the only thing working in North Korea is that he and his cronies still have their jobs! Now in his mid-60s, leader Kim presumably is no longer in denial about the system he and his father implanted on the country decades ago. Indeed, South Korean intelligence has claimed to have secret verification that Kim's father, the founder of the so-called Democratic People's Republic of Korea, once admitted that the system is broken and someday must be fixed.

Since it is broken (not to mention virtually broke), it's past time to fix it. Without reform, North Korea will remain a windmill of regional insecurity, even if the six-party talks wind up triumphant in denuclearizing the regime.

The RAND-led approach, available in English and Korean, is a smart piece of work. Note that RAND has a history of being anything but dovish on Communist regimes. In this latest study, it is merely being practical, as well as imaginative.

To be sure, the magic of the marketplace system proposed by the RAND coalition of think tanks seems a lot less magical in the West these days as the world slogs through a terrifying financial hurricane. But the truth of the matter is that Kim Jong Il would be lucky to have the West's economic problems right now. This puts matters in perspective.

Syndicated Columnist Tom Plate is writing "Passage to Asia," a book about the region's rise in the last 15 years. © 2008 Pacific Perspective Media Center

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