An Idea About How to Deal With North Korea’s Poverty, Isolation and Aggression
Last summer I taught an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation course at the University of Hawaii. It was part of UH’s APEC Certificate and Internship Programs. During the course students asked me whether it would be a good idea for North Korea to become an APEC member economy. This led me to form a four part argument. First, North Korea is internationally isolated, militarily powerful, menacing to its Asia-Pacific neighbors, historically unpredictable and unreliable, internally anti-democratic and mysterious and an external threat as it moves toward becoming a nuclear state. It is so profoundly poverty stricken that three million North Koreans face famine and starvation and millions more suffer from widespread resource depravation. Second, North Korea is clearly “military first” in its domestic and external orientations--but it is not “military only.” High ranking government officials recently acknowledged the need to generate economic growth, eradicate poverty and alleviate food deficiency. Third, international sanctions, political confrontations and threats, acrimonious debates and international condemnations have only hardened the way North Korea’s leadership views the external world. Consequently it’s reasonable to explore new, problematic and even risky forms of economic statecraft as ways of engaging North Korean decision-makers. Fourth, a potentially useful form of economic statecraft is APEC: its conditions of membership, organizational structure and programmatic activities are consistent with North Korea’s needs while posing neither high costs nor risks to North Korea and APEC member economies. There’s no per se reason to fear its accession to the organization.
The fourth part of the argument is based on facts about APEC: it is significant, innovative, accommodating and transforming. It’s significant because APEC’s 21 member economies account for 45 per cent of world population, land mass, global product and external trade. Its condition of membership is highly innovative: members are referred to as member economies and not sovereign nations thereby enabling, for example both the People’s Republic of China PRC and Chinese Taipei (to which Taiwan is referred within APEC) to cooperate on economic matters within APEC. Membership neither requires nor acknowledges national sovereignty. Doing so could cause non-economic conflicts among members based on their national political and cultural differences, competing and diverse aims and objectives and rival territorial claims. APEC also avoids intervening in member economies’ domestic affairs, it requires no legally binding set of obligations associated with membership and it refrains from mandating that member economies follow its policy advice.
APEC is accommodating when it comes to diversity: some member economies are capitalist and market-driven (Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea and Chinese Taipei) while others are more socialist in their orientation (Viet Nam, PRC and Russia). Recent combatants and rivals including the United States, Viet Nam and Russia are member economies. Economic diversity ranges from relatively low income developing member economies (Papua New Guinea, Chile, Indonesia and Peru) to middle income member economies (Malaysia, Thailand and Mexico) to higher income ones (Brunei, Canada, Japan, Australia and New Zealand). An important aspect of APEC’s history is that it played supporting roles in transformation processes in the PRC, Russia and Viet Nam.
APEC’s programs and projects offer precisely the type of support that North Korea would need if it were to confront successfully its stagnant growth and plethora of poverty driven problems. They focus on strengthening regional cooperation, expanding trade and opening markets within the Asia-Pacific, facilitating business activities and developing, sharing and bringing scientific, technical and managerial knowledge to member economies. Beyond the direct benefits that North Korea would receive from membership, APEC could be useful in two indirect ways. First, at the working level programmatic activities are conducted in year-round technical working groups, expert committees, seminars and workshops. By participating in them North Korea’s representatives would come into contact with their Asia-Pacific counterparts and over time professional working relationships could lessen gradually North Korea’s extreme isolation. Second, at the policy level North Korea’s senior officials would participate in summits with other APEC Economic Leaders and this would give them opportunities to cooperate in formulating the organization’s policy and program directions. APEC summits would provide non-hostile settings that differ substantially from the fruitless and dysfunctional “combat zones” that currently characterize North Korea’s acrimonious relations with its Asia-Pacific neighbors.
APEC membership faces limitations and uncertainties. First, there is a limit to the organization’s ability to support North Korea’s daunting task of generating economic growth and reducing poverty but it definitely can assist in the process. Second, there’s no assurance that North Korea’s leadership (particularly the military) would “buy into” the idea. If it did, and a pathway to membership could be created, APEC membership could be a small, low risk and modest first step for North Korea to take in a long run process aimed at transforming the country into a less poverty stricken economy and a less threatening regional neighbor.
Prior to taking the argument further it would be helpful to me to learn from you whether the idea makes sense.
Click here to email Bob