Reform, openness are only ways for N. Korea's survival
On Dec. 17, 2011, Kim Jong-un took power as North Korea's leader. It was the first third-generational succession of supreme power in communism's 100-year history.
There are now mixed judgments about Kim's first three years in office.
The young, inexperienced leader has consolidated his grip on power by ruthlessly removing potential rivals, including his uncle and one-time mentor Jang Seong-thaek, and replacing top military brass with people loyal to him.
Kim also went all out to resuscitate the North's moribund economy by introducing a market system and opening it up more to foreign investors.
Yet North Korea's relations with its most important neighbors ― China and South Korea ― have worsened, and the diplomatic holes will hardly be filled by the North's approaches to Russia and Japan because of the economic and political limits, hampering Pyongyang's new regional partners.
At the center of this diplomatic setback is the North's adherence to its nuclear weapons program, as Kim III set the "paralleled promotion" of nuclear and economic capabilities as his national goal. Pyongyang is even threatening a fourth nuclear test as a reaction to stepped-up international pressure to improve the country's dismal human rights record.
That would be the surest and fastest way to the further isolation ― and earlier-than-expected collapse ― of the poverty-stricken country. Rather, the first thing Kim should do is to freeze ― if not abandon right away ― the North's nuclear development programs, and mend fences with its two neighbors.
Especially important is restoring ties with South Korea, without which the North cannot do much, politically or economically. It was regretful in this regard that the North's propaganda machine recently lambasted Seoul's various inter-Korean initiatives, such as a "trust-building process" and a"world peace park" project in the Demilitarized Zone, as a "silly dream" that can never be realized.
Also lamentable was the North's refusal to hold high-level talks in October, citing the anti-Pyongyang leaflets attached to large balloons and sent across the border by defectors. North Korea should have come to the dialogue table and discussed all matters, including the handbill issue.
We have criticized Seoul and Washington for setting difficult preconditions to resuming multilateral talks to denuclearize North Korea. Likewise, if the North really wants to improve its relationship with the South, it must practice what it has preached ― the unconditional reopening of talks.
There are encouraging signs in Seoul these days toward restarting an inter-Korean thaw by easing sanctions on the North in return for resuming the reunions of dispersed families. Pyongyang can ill afford to let this opportunity slip away.
In a recent editorial, the New York Times expressed skepticism about peaceful unification of the Korean Peninsula, citing the cooling interest among South Koreans and the North's adherence to the status quo. Will Kim Jong-un be able to disprove it with reform and openness?