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Bernard Rowan Headshot

North Korea's Distant Sun

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Amidst the passage of time, leaders and peoples of nations come to be, live, and pass away. There will never be anything different fundamentally. What shines above the reality of human finitude is the call to aspiration on behalf of civilization, peace, and progress. It is a fundamental ethical choice of the human agent, be s/he an individual, a single person, or a collectivity, up to and including the human global population, a collectivity that has not yet achieved its potential in terms of organization, empowerment, and self-understanding.

The death of Kim Jong-il is an opportunity and a challenge for human civilization, for the attentive global population, and in particular for the two Koreas, their peoples, and for the United States, China, Japan, Russia, and their peoples. For the North Korean people, it marks a moment of transition in which the forces of continuity and change must contend for the chance to determine the path of North Korea's movement as a society. There are great and significant problems for the North Korean people's nation. There are great and enormous burdens for the new leader and the party cadres, institutions, and personnel.

For South Korea, the United States, and other concerned nations, this transition in leadership should not be approached with fear-mongering, propaganda, and the normal, nauseating litany of condemnations and calls for regime change, let alone covert actions that would compromise regional and international stability. The military forces of North and South Korea, not to mention those of the great powers in the region, have enough firepower arrayed against each other at present to destroy the people of Korea, in what must never, ever occur, and to the avoidance of which the solemn obligation of all sober-thinking friends of Korea and friends of peace and security throughout the world stands as a perennial icon of responsibility.

Now is a time to watch in waiting the new regime, to state again the fundamental concerns and convictions of our cause, to propose and engage in concerted projects for peaceful change, to avoid new cycles of benefits-and-blackmail, to welcome the new leader of the North Korean people to the table of diplomacy, and to show that his leadership for peace and progress is needed, wanted, and valued.

Jump-starting more sensitive nuclear talks may work, but it likely would put on their heels elements of the existing "old guard" and not yield much fruit. No, when there is a new leader, a leader of a marginalized and impoverished nation, prudence would counsel the avoidance of "military-diplomatic" rhetoric and simple repetition of age-old grievances and concerns for justice, integrity, and even-handedness in mutual relations. There is plenty of time for that, and perhaps for learning that it won't accomplish much.

No, we should try to imagine the enormous, perhaps impossible burden that has been placed on this young man, upon his family, and upon the elites and people of the North. The North Korean people are isolated from the contemporary global community, and they will not soon be rid of juche ideology and the folly of autarky. We can bemoan and castigate, assign blame and scientifically evaluate, and we can postulate and remonstrate on behalf of the North Korean people, a nuclear free peninsula, the end of gulags, and the universal rights of wo/men. But this is not the major part of the hard work ahead for us.

Change in the former Soviet Union may have been spurred by our military/defense posture, by the internal dysfunctions of the Soviet state, and by generational shifts that brought forward new leaders of vision and the temerity to make a difference. Some of these elements exist analogously today in the North Korean context, but others do not.

We appear frustrated with the slowness of North Korea's decline and unraveling, but we should have no particular timetable in mind. Any use of support for democratic transitions akin to the approach with respect to Libya would bring a Korean Winter of disastrous proportions. We should not allow for arms triangles with other rogue states such as Iran, and we should not let ideology and politics stand in the way of preventing mass starvation. We should do some honor to the spirit of Chung Ju-Yung.

Our repute is so low within perhaps the majority of North Korean minds, and by that I include the general public, that we must work from the soft side, as unappealing as that may be to conservatives of both political parties. We must cultivate the supports for democratic development that do not require us to intervene in the determination of North Korea's path forward by the North Korean people. Exchanges, mutual projects, and interest in learning about North Korea are all very low on the budgets of governments, private companies and concerns, and the majority of public and private universities. They're just not popular, profitable, or even condoned. But we're not getting very far with the hard approach of cordoning off, isolating, threatening, and bolstering our security posture, and we ought not continue forever to leave security merely to shoring up the world's most militarized border.

Our call should be to shape the conditions around which an eventual change of regime will occur, according to the life of North Korean society. Just as with other communist and totalitarian societies, the path of progress will bring on regime change, but internationally peaceful, internally-led, and regionally and internationally anticipated and planned for change should be envisaged. The peoples of Korea, the region, and the world deserve nothing less.