North Korea is at the End of Its Rope

Victor Cha: You might think that a country like North Korea so close to China would simply follow China’s model.  China was also a deeply ideological communist country that, in 1979, took a big decision and decided to modernize, decided to allow for economic reforms that have made China the huge economy that it is today.  And many of my friends who are China scholars feel terribly optimistic about North Korea because they think if China can do this then certainly North Korea can.

And while I want to believe that, the problem I think that we have to contend with is, first, China had Deng Xiaoping, very charismatic leader who had the courage to make this decision. Right now, there is no Deng Xiaoping in North Korea.  And secondly, for the Chinese, Deng Xiaoping said, very famously, he said, “To get rich is glorious.”  As a communist leader, he said, “To get rich is glorious,” which meant that communism was still consonant with becoming wealthy.

The problem, I think, for North Korea is, especially as they’re going through this leadership transition, political control is still more important than money.  Political control is still more important than getting rich.  And as long as the regime continues to think that way, I think it’s going to be very hard to imagine that they’re ready to make the sort of leap that China made or that Vietnam is making or that other countries like this have made in the past.  

So for many who study Asia and look at the history of Asia, probably one of the most unfinished pieces of business is the whole question of the unification of the Korean Peninsula.  When you think about this, you have to think about how this was a country that has had a 2,000-year history, the majority of which it has been a single unified country.  Korea was a victim of circumstance in 1945, at the end of the Second World War, when the U.S. and Soviet forces decided to cut the country in half because of the emerging Cold War.  Neither wanted the other to have full control of the peninsula.

And so for many Koreans and many who study Asia, this is an unnatural history, and it’s a history that has to be finished at some point.  And so when people think about the future of Asia and the Korean Peninsula, I think many see it as unified, a unified Korea, like the south, that is free and democratic and a market economy that is fully integrated into the regional economies of East Asia.

And I think that North Korea is now sort of reaching the end of its rope.  It is one of the last remaining regimes from the Cold War, in fact, probably the last remaining country of the Cold War era, and it is now going through a third generation leadership transition to someone who’s not really ready for the job.  So, for many, this is coming to closer and closer.  Unification is coming closer and closer, and I think for many in South Korea, the United States, China and elsewhere, we have to start preparing for this.

Directed / Produced by
Jonathan Fowler & Elizabeth Rodd

One of the unfinished pieces of business from the Cold War is the question of the unification of the Korean Peninsula.

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