Something positive happened in Asia this week; China’s premier Wen Jiabao has urged North Korea to embrace “market mechanisms” and to turn to such aids as foreign investment to revitalize its catastrophic neo-Stalinist economic model. At the same time, while reiterating China’s support for its difficult neighbor and client, President Hu Jintao also met with the uncle of North Korea’s young new leader, sending what is seen as a signal of support for economic reform efforts that First Uncle Jang Song-thaek is pushing back home.
While economic reforms won’t do much to end the stifling repression that makes North Korea one of the most rigid dictatorships in world history, even modest reforms have the potential to relieve the grim suffering of ordinary North Koreans. Bringing some modest prosperity to their lives would be a good thing, and with China’s help North Korean reformers can probably get this much done.
But there is more. While China itself is hardly a model of liberal democracy, there is no doubt that the economic changes since the dark days of the Red Guard and the Gang of Four have dramatically increased the freedom as well as enhancing the lifestyles of hundreds of millions of people across China. If North Korea finally does start down the Chinese path, North Koreans will also begin to have more chance to think and act for themselves.
And something else will happen. A North Korea in the process of economic reform and development must necessarily look for ways to end its international isolation. Trade relations with countries besides China will be necessary for the reforms to prosper. With a little bit of luck and a lot of careful thought, North Korea’s neighbors and the US can use this opportunity to promote some badly needed changes in the North’s foreign policy.
It is in China’s interest for the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, as the North likes to call itself) to have a soft landing. If the North Koreans really embrace that goal for themselves, and First Uncle Jang seems to be at least open to the idea, then we could see one of Asia’s perennial trouble spots begin to calm down.
The North Koreans have flirted with reform before, sometimes as a way of extracting more aid from China, but over time even Pyongyang seems to be understanding that it is currently stuck on a dead end road.
Via Meadia won’t expect miracles in North Korea until we see them, but as we wait we wish Premier Wen and President Hu well; when China speaks to North Korea it speaks for the hopes of the whole world.