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Thursday, August 10, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM


Tom Plate / Syndicated columnist

North Korea's evolution

LOS ANGELES — Don't call it a Stalinist state anymore; don't even think of it any longer as a pint-sized former Soviet Union. All around the world, the times are changing, and nowhere is the change more quiet but also irrevocable than in the one place where you thought change had all but been outlawed if not imprisoned: North Korea.

This is the astonishing and almost unbelievable picture painted by one of the world's most incisive and informed experts on the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. The master painter is Andrei Lankov, and his cliché-shattering portrait of the land of Kim Jong Il is to be found in the inaugural edition of "Asia Policy."

Lankov is a senior lecturer from the prestigious Australian National University, now on leave at Kookmin University in Seoul, capital of South Korea. "Asia Policy," published by The National Bureau of Asian Research in Seattle, sports a board of editorial advisers — from Stanford University's Richard Armacost to UC San Diego's Susan Shirk — that reads like a virtual Who's Who in the field of Asian policy scholarship. If Lankov's groundbreaking essay is remotely suggestive of the high standards to be expected from this new journal, then "Asia Policy" has a good chance of becoming required reading across the country and perhaps elsewhere in the world.

Lankov writes colorfully but carefully to create a sense of North Korea as being one of the most dynamically changing states on the face of the Earth. He writes of the country's youth from the best-connected families sporting "mod" haircuts and dressing like any other street-savvy South Korean kid. He describes the stream more like a flood of steady if technically illegal videotapes of South Korean soap operas and pop music making their way northward (generally through China); of the proliferation of mobile phones; of the enormous popularity of South Korean goods of all kinds; and of the rise of female North Korean entrepreneurs, whether working in the country's growing service industries or peddling their sexual favors to "newly rich and corrupt minor officials."

Lankov notes that the rise of the private entrepreneur was a survival necessity in the aftermath of the series of devastating famines in the '90s and the evaporation of Soviet aid after communism collapsed in Russia. The emerging economy is a trade-driven, feral struggle to live: "Those who could not trade are long dead," he quotes a North Korean source as saying, "and now we are only left with survivors hanging around."

The well-regarded Australian scholar adds: "These market operators now boast large fortunes of several hundreds of thousands of dollars. While such sums are still well below the fortunes attained bycadres-turned-capitalists in China and the former USSR, they are still unimaginably large by North Korean standards, and especially by the standards of a Stalinist state with its emphasis on income equality."

The policy implication of Lankov's explosive essay is obvious. Economic exchanges are opening up North Korea as never before, and so more such exchanges will only accelerate the further opening up of this otherwise miserable nation, bringing it closer to more normal integration into the world economic system and perhaps even closer to some kind of co-federation with the capitalistic South.

One last quote: "Such exchanges should be encouraged, as they expose North Koreans to the wider world and show them the prosperity and freedom they are deprived of at home. The privileged North Koreans who are allowed to travel overseas and interact with foreigners inside the country are increasingly dissatisfied with their government. Such determination in the USSR eventually produced Gorbachev."

Let me go the final mile: North Korea, if his analysis is correct, can no longer stand as it is. Regime change needs not to be produced by sudden military action but by continual, patient, steady economic interaction. Collapse and oblivion of the current regime is the only way out for the North Koreans.

In time — in a year, in five, but not much longer than that — surely the end will come. Koreans, by nature, are survivors. This includes those in the North, especially. They cannot possibly hope to survive in the old way. So some kind of irretrievable evolution and perhaps even revolution — is in the destiny of North Korea. God knows the people there deserve a break.

UCLA professor Tom Plate, a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy, is a veteran U.S. journalist.

2006, Tom Plate