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North Korea Showdown

May 19, 2017 • Volume 27, Issue 19
Can a military confrontation be averted?
By David Hosansky

Outlook

Signs of Prosperity

John Delury, an assistant professor of international studies at Yonsei University in Seoul, says that when he used to travel to North Korea he could easily keep track of how many cars he saw. But when he went in 2013, there were too many cars to count, as well as a surprising number of people with cellphones.

“The crude economic indicators that we get are of steady growth,” said Delury. “You can see the emergence of a public-consumer culture.”69

Delury and other Korea specialists say the North Korean economy, while still lagging far behind most countries, seems to be in somewhat better shape since Kim Jong Un eased government restrictions on commercial activities. A booming black market is boosting the importation of consumer goods, largely from China. Residents, especially in Pyongyang, have more access to South Korean soap operas through cellphones, flash drives and other technologies, many made in China.

Some observers of North Korea say the greater affluence and access to information may lead to an increased openness and perhaps an eventual softening in government policies. “There are more cellphones, more North Koreans doing business,” says MIT's Walsh. “North Koreans are more aware, and you might make an argument that opening up is a first step toward a resolution.”

Like Delury, other recent visitors to Pyongyang have been surprised at signs of prosperity despite years of sanctions. Journalist Jean Lee, who opened up an Associated Press bureau in Pyongyang five years ago and then returned to the country this year as a global fellow with the Wilson Center, said nearly everyone in the city had smartphones and plenty of shopping options.

It's “just amazing the kinds of products that they have on the shelves,” she said. “I saw so many varieties of potato chips, varieties of canned goods, what would be their equivalent of Spam, for example, but all kinds of things — computers, tablets, PCs — all kinds of things that you might not expect to see in a country that is still very poor.”70

An increasing number of goods appear to be made locally, reportedly driven by government policies designed to make the country more self-sufficient and to diminish the potential impact of sanctions. “Around 2013, Kim Jong Un started talking about the need for import substitution,” said Andray Abrahamian, associate director of research at the Choson Exchange, a Singapore-based group that trains North Koreans in business skills. “There was clearly recognition that too many products were being imported from China.”71

If sanctions and negotiations don't work, some foreign policy experts wonder if Washington could play for time, in the hopes that North Korea — like the Soviet Union and Maoist China decades ago — will becomes less of a military threat as it moves toward a more market-oriented system.

Some say the consensus in Washington is that the United States must stop North Korea from developing intercontinental missiles, even if that means covert actions to topple the Kim government or a military strike. “Otherwise, we're staring down the barrel of an ICBM,” said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.72

But some long-time Korean observers say the calculus may not be so clear-cut. “We lived through the Cold War with Soviet missiles aimed at every American city,” Walsh says. “It wasn't pretty, but we got through it.”

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[69] Mark Bowden, “Understanding Kim Jong Un, the world's most enigmatic and unpredictable dictator,” Vanity Fair, Feb. 12, 2015, http://tinyurl.com/q4qczez.

Footnote:
69. Mark Bowden, “Understanding Kim Jong Un, the world's most enigmatic and unpredictable dictator,” Vanity Fair, Feb. 12, 2015, http://tinyurl.com/q4qczez.

[70] “In North Korea's capital, more abundance than expected in everyday life,” NPR, May 5, 2017, http://tinyurl.com/lryqn6n.

Footnote:
70. “In North Korea's capital, more abundance than expected in everyday life,” NPR, May 5, 2017, http://tinyurl.com/lryqn6n.

[71] Sue-Lin Wang and James Pearson, “Made in North Korea: As tougher sanctions loom, more local goods in stores,” Reuters, May 8, 2017, http://tinyurl.com/k96ghk7.

Footnote:
71. Sue-Lin Wang and James Pearson, “Made in North Korea: As tougher sanctions loom, more local goods in stores,” Reuters, May 8, 2017, http://tinyurl.com/k96ghk7.

[72] Fifield and Gearan, op. cit.

Footnote:
72. Fifield and Gearan, op. cit.



Document APA Citation — See Alternate Citation Style
Hosansky, D. (2017, May 19). North Korea showdown. CQ researcher, 27, 433-456. Retrieved from http://library.cqpress.com/
Document ID: cqresrre2017051907
Document URL: http://library.cqpress.com/cqresearcher/cqresrre2017051907
ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
Korea
May 19, 2017  North Korea Showdown
Jul. 05, 2011  North Korean Menace
Apr. 11, 2003  North Korean Crisis
May 19, 2000  Future of Korea
Aug. 12, 1977  Relations with South Korea
Apr. 24, 1968  Divided Korea
Jan. 27, 1960  Korea: Problem Protectorate
Aug. 24, 1951  Rehabilitation of Korea
Nov. 01, 1945  Freedom for Korea
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War and Conflict
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