From the NY Times:
October 22, 2006
Send in the Fat Guys
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
A North Korean visiting South Korea once sniffed that all the cars must have been brought in from around the country just to make a good impression for his visit. His South Korean host added dryly that it had been even more difficult to bring in all the tall buildings.
Such interactions with the outside world are the best hope to chip away at North Korean totalitarianism, but we’ve missed the opportunity because for decades we’ve conspired with Kim Jong-il to isolate his people.
Lately Americans have been quarreling over who is more to blame for North Korea’s nuclear test, Bill Clinton or George W. Bush.
Well, Mr. Clinton inherited a situation that, if it had continued, would have resulted in North Korea having hundreds of nuclear weapons by now, and producing an additional 50 each year. Instead, Mr. Clinton negotiated a deal with North Korea that resulted in it producing not a single ounce of new plutonium in his eight years in office.
In contrast, President Bush inherited that North Korean nuclear freeze and, if he had just left it alone, North Korea wouldn’t have produced any new plutonium. But Mr. Bush overruled Colin Powell’s efforts to continue the engagement — and so North Korea has churned out enough plutonium on Mr. Bush’s watch for perhaps eight nuclear weapons.
But in a larger sense, the North Korean nuclear test — and the fact that Kim Jong-il is still in power — represent a failure not so much of either Mr. Bush or Mr. Clinton, but of decades of bipartisan American policy that aimed to isolate the North.
Look around the world at the regimes we despise: North Korea, Cuba, Burma and Iran. Those are among the world’s most long-lived regimes, and that’s partly because the sanctions and isolation we have imposed on them have actually propped them up — by giving those countries’ leaders an excuse for their economic failures and a chance to cloak themselves in nationalism.
Kim Jong-il sees that the best way to preserve North Korean totalitarianism is in the formaldehyde of its own isolation. In effect, Mr. Kim has placed sanctions on his own country, and we’re abetting him.
In the 1970’s, North Korea poked its head out of its shell, negotiating with South Korea, seeking foreign investors and sending letters to Jimmy Carter seeking talks. Mr. Carter considered inviting the leaders of North and South Korea to a summit meeting at a place like Camp David — but dropped the idea when his own aides reacted with horror.
Yet if we had held such a meeting, and gradually encouraged trade and other contacts, North Korea’s regime might well have collapsed by now. At least, it would have moderated enough that the country would look like China or Vietnam.
I lived in China in the 1980’s and 1990’s when Communist ideology was collapsing there, and I’m convinced that the best way to undermine North Korea’s government would be to send in business executives — overweight ones, if possible. In a country like North Korea, where the government responded to famine by broadcasting a cautionary “documentary” about a man who exploded after eating too much rice, nothing would be more subversive than tubby foreigners.
Mr. Bush is right that we have to punish North Korea for its brazen nuclear test, and the administration has been sensible and prudent in the last few weeks in devising a series of penalties. But after North Korea drags itself back to six-party talks, we should begin to move away from our long, failed strategy of trying to isolate the world’s most isolated country.
In particular, it’s a mistake for us to reproach the South Koreans — who have more of a stake than anybody, and who understand the North Koreans better than we do — for operating factories in the Kaesong industrial zone in North Korea.
It’s true that those North Korean workers have no rights, and that North Korea will use the hard currency to bolster its military. But those South Korean factories are expected to employ 700,000 workers by 2012.
While North Korea can survive punitive sanctions, I don’t think the regime can survive the shock of having 700,000 of its citizens working for South Korean capitalists — and realizing that the southerners are so rich and spoiled that they refuse to eat rice with gravel in it.
The biggest threat to North Korea’s regime isn’t from American warships, but from the sight of other Koreans dieting, or listening on iPods to love songs, or watching decadent television comedies.
So let’s stop helping the Dear Leader isolate his own people.