Thursday, January 18, 2018
Opinion

Chance for change in North Korea

TOKYO

Among the many tantalizing questions surrounding Myanmar's flirtation with democracy is this: Might Kim Jong Un be enticed to try something similar in North Korea?

Taking stock of events in the Myanmar capital, Naypyidaw, the brand new leader of the world's worst government might be having second thoughts about the viability of the Kim Dynasty. At least 2 million people starved during the 17-year reign of his father, Kim Jong Il, and North Korea's economy is a disaster area.

Enter Myanmar, the runner-up to North Korea as Asia's worst regime. In a few short months, President Thein Sein won an upgrade in ties with world powers, a visit from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, talk of scrapping sanctions and nibbles from companies including General Electric. He's done it by releasing political prisoners and holding out the promise of a new path for a nation whose 62 million citizens earn an average of $2.20 a day.

Myanmar's abrupt policy U-turn might not be just a model for change in Kim's North Korea, but a catalyst.

First, a couple of qualifiers. Only time will tell if the military-backed government is pulling off an elaborate head-fake. For all the hopes that Thein Sein is Myanmar's Mikhail Gorbachev, there's every reason to — as Ronald Reagan was so fond of saying — trust, but verify. How quickly Aung San Suu Kyi is allowed to re-enter government, prisoners are released and the news media can report there are among the litmus tests.

Pyongyang is a much bigger question mark. If the Soviet Union was "a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma," as Winston Churchill put it, Kim's North Korea is a distant planet beyond the reach of our most probing telescopes.

There are some limits to the Myanmar-North Korea comparison. Myanmar, even in its darkest days, was never as surreal as North Korea. Consider reports that Pyongyang is doling out harsh terms in labor camps to those who didn't mourn with conviction for Kim Jong Il's death last month.

Yet it's not naive to consider some of the forces at work.

One is how geopolitics is closing in on Asia's despots in sudden and unpredictable ways. The Arab Spring squeezed North Korea's finances more than is acknowledged. Moammar Gadhafi's Libya was a steady customer for North Korea's missiles. Syria has long been a key market for the Hermit Kingdom, along with other now-embattled governments in the Middle East and North Africa. Add to that the signs of liberalization by resource-rich Myanmar.

As Barack Obama's White House extends a hand, the administration anticipates a quick end to Myanmar's military ties to North Korea. That's one more customer who won't be stuffing Kim Jong Un's pockets.

Then there's China's patronage. China has grown tired of supporting its unpredictable and thankless neighbor. When the Kim family lobs missiles at South Korea and in the direction of Tokyo, China's phones are the first to ring. China has bigger worries on its plate — averting a financial overheating, for example — than taming Kim's ill-timed dramas.

North Korea is surely paying attention to China's irritation with Myanmar as it cozies up to the United States. The rapprochement reached new highs this week when Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a veteran Myanmar critic, visited Yangon, meeting with Suu Kyi, as did Clinton and billionaire financier George Soros recently. Such visits come three months after Myanmar suspended China's construction of a $3.6 billion dam, raising doubts about Myanmar-China ties.

How all this is playing in Pyongyang is hard to gauge. Little is known about Kim, who is thought to be about 28. We do know he attended school in Switzerland during the 1990s, has a passion for the NBA and, according to North Korea's propaganda machine, began driving at age 3.

Yet Kim has to know that blackmailing the world for food and oil with provocations is a weak strategy in the long run. So is relying on piracy, currency counterfeiting and weapons sales. The net is tightening on North Korea's ability to trade nuclear technology with Pakistan and Iran.

The resulting cash shortage may leave just one growth industry for Kim: diplomacy. Not the usual routine of hollow pledges and confrontation, but a real opening to the world. Choi Se Woong, a banker who fled the communist North, said that Kim will drop the barriers to international business for his creaking economy.

Really, where has isolating North Korea gotten Washington? If decades of sanctions didn't unseat Fidel Castro in Cuba, why do successive U.S. leaders think the strategy will work someday in North Korea? Although appeasement isn't the answer, there is room for a different approach — one that attacks North Korea with capitalism rather than the threat of military hostilities.

Watching events unfold in Myanmar, Kim may just be having radical thoughts. If he is, the world and North Korea would be a better place.

William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist.

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