- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 8, 2000

In one long train ride from Pyongyang to Beijing, Kim Jong-il's first venture into international diplomacy would suggest that something new is afoot on the Korean Peninsula even if a still bigger event, the North-South summit, was not planned. Together, these two unprecedented actions by the "Dear Leader" offer hope of a positive answer to the fundamental question on which success or failure at the historic summit starting Monday hangs: Is North Korea changing?

The possibility of peaceful reunification, of a "soft landing," has long depended on the ability of North Korea to follow a course similar to that pursued by other Asian Leninist regimes particularly China and Vietnam of opening up its economy and pursuing market-reforms. During last week's trip, the Chinese offered Kim Jong-il a glimpse of what an alternative future might look like, taking him to visit Legend Computer, perhaps the most globally competitive Chinese company.

In fact, for more than a decade, Beijing has tried to persuade Pyongyang that North Korea's post-Cold War survival tactics of essentially blackmailing the world into providing just enough food and fuel to muddle through was not really an answer to its problems. Two decades of progressively more liberal economic reform while maintaining the Communist Party political monopoly in China should suggest to Pyongyang that market-oriented reform is not necessarily a near- or medium-term threat to regime survival.

But to date, Pyongyang has been extremely cautious, though compared with a decade ago, there has been modest, incremental change. Its foreign-investment law, clumsy as it is, suggests a desire to engage. The North Koreans tolerate the existence of numerous farmer markets in the countryside where there is a touch of capitalism. But that is forced by necessity: North Korea's food-distribution system began breaking down in the mid-1990s. But North Korea has gone to extreme lengths to prevent its people from having any contact with South Korean tourists at the Hyundai tourist project at scenic Mount Kumgang. This underscores profound fears that opening up to external influences would threaten North Korea's uniquely totalitarian system. This mentality must change if genuine, reciprocal North-South reconciliation is to occur.

The logic of South Korean President Kim Dae Jung's "sunshine" or engagement policy was articulated in his Berlin speech in March. Through open interaction with the global economy, he argued, "North Korea will emerge as a responsible member of the international community."

But it is at least as likely that Kim Jong-il will try to have it both ways: pocket concessions, keep his regime's military threat and pursue economic engagement only on Pyongyang's limited terms.

Even before Kim Jong-il's Beijing trip, Pyongyang's behavior has been pleasantly unusual. It has launched a peace offensive, normalizing relations with its first Group of Seven industrial country, Italy, as well as Australia, the Philippines and Brunei. It even wants to join the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) regional forum. Does this new outward policy signal an internal shift as well? North Korea cannot really absorb (or attract) large amounts of investment unless it reforms and opens up its economic system.

There are no clear signs that Pyongyang is prepared to go beyond experimenting at the margins with new openness. It is tempting to conclude that Pyongyang's new diplomacy is designed to find new sources of life support, having reached the limits of what it can get from the United States for free, or that U.S. failure to deliver on easing sanctions has led it to turn elsewhere, especially to Seoul.

No doubt this is part of North Korea's motive. But it may be also that with Kim Jong-il more firmly entrenched in power, he is seeking assurances from Beijing and Seoul before adopting new economic policies, though any reform will be step by step and relatively limited at first. There is no way to read his mind. The challenge to Seoul is to test Pyongyang's intentions.

Kim Dae Jung is seeking nothing less than a new detente, which depends on an economically viable North Korea. In his Berlin speech, he proposed the summit and offered a grand bargain. Seoul, he said, is making three important promises to the North Koreans: Seoul would guarantee their national security, assist in their economic recovery and actively support them in the international arena. In return, he wanted the North to abandon, once and for all, armed provocation against the South, to comply with previous pledges not to develop nuclear weapons and to give up ambitions to develop long-range missiles. The summit is the crucible in which this bargain will be pursued.

Kim Dae Jung hopes the summit will facilitate a soft landing by initiating a new North-South relationship that he has called a period of "peaceful coexistence." In his Berlin speech, he spoke of "economic collaboration including the social infrastructure, including highways, harbors, railroads, and electric and communications facilities." Gradually rehabilitating the North is obviously a smarter option than an economic collapse and a precipitous, crisis-induced reunification, which South Korea can ill afford.

But detente must be a two-way street. It is difficult to justify strengthening North Korea with a new transportation, energy and communications infrastructure, all of which aids the North militarily, without reducing the military threat. The Hyundai tourist deal is a demonstration of good will on Seoul's part. The North should not expect that this is the norm of business deals. Future business should be conducted on market principles and linked to threat reduction if Kim Dae Jung's cardinal principle of reciprocity is to be taken seriously.

The North's willingness to engage in threat reduction is a measure of its intentions. Activating the Economic Commission envisioned in the 1991-92 North-South Accords largely benefits the North. It should be linked to starting a discussion on security by activating the Military Commission. High on the agenda should be conventional-force reductions. After all, even if nukes and No Dong and Taepo Dong missiles were negotiated away (another important goal), 11,000 artillery tubes and Scuds could reign terror on Seoul. If Pyongyang is unwilling to reduce the enormous burden of its military spending perhaps more than 25 percent of its total gross national product it is difficult to justify substantial aid or investment, or to envision more than a very limited degree of national reconciliation.

To be sure, even if it proves more symbol than substance, if the summit initiates a new inter-Korean process, it will be an achievement of Nobel Peace Prize proportions. After a half-century freeze, it is unfair to expect huge breakthroughs.

But shifting the center of gravity of diplomacy from U.S.-North Korea to North-South is key to peace on the Korean Peninsula. However, the shift in the venue must be accompanied by a shift in the pattern of diplomacy away from rewarding bad behavior to a diplomacy of reciprocity. In the end, that is the measure of change in North Korea and of the possibilities for national reconciliation. Kim Dae Jung has gone the extra mile. The ball is now in North Korea's court.

Robert A. Manning, a former State Department policy adviser, is a senior fellow and director of Asian studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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