Korean Déjà vu: North Koreans Back Begging for Money

The world has moved on to the latest crisis du jour, but it wasn’t that long ago when North Korea’s Kim Jong-un was dominating global headlines threatening to nuke places like Austin, Texas.  (Why Austin?  Maybe because Cato Senior Fellow Ted Galen Carpenter now resides there, but that’s only speculation on my part!)

Since then Pyongyang has gone largely silent.  But on Sunday representatives from the so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea met with South Korean officials and plotted expanded talks for later this week.  As Yogi Berra once observed, it’s déjà vu all over again.

The DPRK has been threatening the peace in Northeast Asia since its founding in 1948.  In the 1990s the Republic of Korea decided to try appeasement, providing roughly $10 billion in aid and investment to the North in ensuing years.  Alas, Pyongyang simply took the cash from the so-called Sunshine Policy and built more nuclear weapons.

Andrei Lankov, who as a Soviet student studied in Pyongyang and now teaches in the South, argues that the Kim family regime is unlikely to ever reform, since doing so would threaten its survival.  Any change is likely to lead to an eventual South Korean takeover.  So the DPRK regime tries to extort money out of other nations.

The ROK again is the chief target, since the upcoming talks were expected to focus on reopening the Kaesong Industrial Complex, closed by the North during its recent provocative cycle.  The KIC provides Pyongyang with $90 million annually in salary revenue alone.  Apparently the North also wants to restart tourist tours elsewhere, which would provide more hard currency.

Seoul would be foolish to agree.  As I argue on American Spectator online:

What possible argument is there for keeping the subsidies going after Kim Jong-un’s recent fire-and-brimstone tirade?  South Koreans are putting money into the hands of the North’s barbaric elite which is threatening to destroy the ROK.  Every won sent north can be used to add more nuclear weapons, miniaturize nuclear bombs, and extend the range of nuclear-capable missiles.

The argument that making North Korean officials feel warm and fuzzy will convince them to cast off their collective security coat has been disproved by experience.  Lankov still argues that in the long-term the subversive impact of KIC on the North Korean population makes it worth the cost.  That might be true if the money didn’t act as a direct subsidy for the regime.  Cutting the North’s financial windpipe would seem to be a better strategy.

Of course, the South Korean government can set its own policy.  But American taxpayers should not protect a country which is subsidizing its potential enemy.  In effect, Seoul is paying Kim & Co. to build weapons which would be used to kill the very Americans guarding the ROK.

At the last minute the Kim government pulled out of the planned talks.  The official reason was a tiff over relative rank of the negotiators.  More likely the DPRK is playing its usual game of raising positive expectations and then creating tension, with the plan to soon return to whisper sweet nothings in Seoul’s ear.

Whatever happens to the latest round of talks, as I’ve long argued it is time for Washington to disentangle itself from the Korean peninsula.  American troops should come home; America’s defense guarantee should end.  North Korea should become its neighbors’ problem.  Then maybe Seoul would spend millions more dollars directly on the South Korean military rather than indirectly on the North Korean military.