Forgo the embargo on North Korea

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 March, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 01 March, 2004, 12:00am

As the second round of six-party talks got under way in Beijing last week, one might wonder who is the most unpredictable - the rogue state or the imperial superpower? The United States clearly has weapons of mass destruction, and uses them, while North Korea's erratic diplomacy has bought the embargoed and impoverished state survival time, by keeping America confused and at bay. In some ways Kim Jong-il, a hermit leader besieged by historic cold-war baggage inherited from his father, may be more predictable than one thinks.

Clearly, all six parties want a peaceful solution towards a non-nuclear Korean peninsula. This time, South Korea came up with a sensible 'three-step' proposal. First, North Korea commits to destroying its nuclear projects. Then, the US gives promises of security in exchange for North Korea dismantling its nuclear programme. Finally, after everything is dismantled, solutions for 'other problems' may be discussed, meaning an economic bailout package. North Korea, predictably, wants to reverse the order.

Predictably also, there has been no visible breakthrough. But by talking (with a promise to keep talking), all parties achieved exactly what was in each nation's interest - to prolong the situation. In parallel, North and South Korea are undertaking their own ministerial talks aimed at eventual unification. America does not really want a quick solution, as North Korea remains a double-sided card, which can be used to pressure South Korea, Japan and China, none of whom wants another Iraq on the Korean peninsula. China prefers the status quo, as North Korea is its last buffer against US troops being right on its border. Russia favours all of the above.

Mr Kim observed the Iraq situation closely. He understands the power of uncertainty; it is what keeps America at bay. So against a background painted in images resembling the Cuban missile crisis, Mr Kim coolly bargains for a package of security assurances, plus aid.

Ironically, North Korea faces the impoverishing effects of the same American embargo which once starved China, Vietnam and Cambodia, and continues against Cuba today. Slapping embargoes on states which have different ideologies and political systems may, unfortunately, be the very fuel which fires nationalism, secures leaders in power and stimulates radicalism. Maybe the effectiveness of America's policing of the world through embargos should be questioned. Maybe, in fact, it is counterproductive.

Remember, Washington put an embargo on China from 1949-79 and labelled it a rogue state. Vietnam was considered the 'enemy' from 1975 until its embargo was lifted in 1994, which was followed by a flood of foreign capital. Today, both nations epitomise a brand of freewheeling capitalism, not the communism which cold war hawks in Washington so feared. In both cases embargos solved nothing, merely forcing the countries to rely on Soviet aid. The planned economic systems and related political functions evolved from Soviet reliance due to a lack of options. Similar situations persisted in Laos and Cambodia, and it is true of Cuba today.

With hindsight, China has transformed at an amazing pace since America lifted its embargo and established diplomatic relations. Similar transformations have followed in Vietnam and Cambodia. If politicians in Washington had not feared 'communism' so much in 1949, but had traded with China instead, could the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution have been avoided? Mao Zedong preferred relations with America over the Soviet Union, and moreover wanted US trade and investment. Remember, the same Mr Kim who holds Stalinist military parades also gives gambling licences to Macau operators.

When America slapped an embargo on China, Mao observed: 'We want to do business. Quite right, business will be done ... Everybody should know that it is none other than the imperialists ... who hinder us from doing business and also from establishing diplomatic relations with foreign countries.'

Sadly, America's embargoes are motivated by ideology rather than pragmatism. Has anyone in Washington's mighty establishment ever wondered whether the embargoes themselves are what gives rise to so-called rogue states, whose roguishness could otherwise be diffused through trade and investment, which create jobs and raise standards of living? Has anyone asked whether these might be the real issues which the people care about?

Laurence Brahm is a political economist and lawyer based in Beijing