The Brood: Watching the developments surrounding the North Korean nuclear crisis would be enough to give anyone whiplash. Things seem to be settling down, but for how long? And what would a new North Korea mean for the world?
It seems just yesterday that we were telling ourselves that Trump was going to kill us all. He threatened to “annihilate” North Korea (read this for a picture of what that might look like) and has even threatened friends and potential partners like China and South Korea with trade consequences if they hinder progress towards a settlement.
Yet, miraculously, it turns out his Nixon-style “Madman” approach worked. If that sounds like I’m giving Trump too much credit, keep in mind I’m not saying it wasn’t risky. In fact, the only reason it worked is that it scared all actors involved into, well, acting! Threatening war is not Nobel Peace Prize stuff, but global politics being what it is, Trump may just win one. (Unless his pulling out the Iran Deal has the worst possible result, but that’s another Brood article.)
Negotiations are taking place in Singapore on June 12th. It’s unclear what deal, if any, will arise. American takes on the situation vary from skepticism to tempered optimism. In exchange for denuclearization, the North Koreans want the US to lift trade sanctions, remove troops from the Korean peninsula, and if possible scale back their relationship with South Korea. Hopefully, Trump is not so eager for a deal that he says yes to all conditions.
Of course, its impossible to predict what will happen. But North Korea already offered to destroy their only known nuclear test site later this month, a meaningful offer but a hard to verify one. If we’re optimistic, the result will be an inspection regime that keeps an eye on North Korea’s existing nuclear stockpile and a concrete plan to scale them back. In this world, North Korea will also be able to open up to the world for the first time in nearly seventy years.
While the world watches the US and North Korea dance, North Korea’s most important relationship is actually with the Chinese. So what do they think about North Korea and recent developments?
Talking with everyday Chinese people, most seem to have negative opinions of North Korea. “They are greedy to the point of shame [about China’s assistance]”, complains one man in this ABC documentary. My students vocalized fear about North Korea’s nuclear weapons threatening China, and specifically about the environmental effects of nuclear tests on Northeastern China.
Nevertheless, a few students also voiced some sympathy for North Korea. Though there aren’t many civilian-to-civilian relationships between China and North Korea, one of my students has a friend studying Korean in Pyongyang whose experience was “good”. That’s just as hard to verify as the exact number of Chinese students in North Korea, but these ties are strategically important to both countries.
The second kind of sympathy was more common — the idea that what North Koreans are suffering now is precisely what China experienced under Mao Zedong. Expanding that idea in a more realistic way, that same minority of students extended that historical parallel by claiming that what North Korea is doing today is “改革开放 – gǎigékāifàng”. That’s the same term used in China to describe Deng Xiaoping’s historic 1979 “Reform and Opening Up” that set the stage for China’s four-decade streak of economic growth.
A small minority of people’s are so optimistic about the future, that they’ve decided it’s a good investment decision to buy homes in North Korea. The “fever” for it is enough that you can find “guidebooks” on buying homes in North Korea like this:
“Looking at the turbulence of the housing market over the last decade or more, Chinese people are saying that buying a house is an unattainable dream. Luckily in Northeast Asia there’s a hot new property market to speculate in — North Korea. But the road to success won’t necessarily run smooth. Before you go to [the border town of] Dandong to speculate, perhaps you need to read our housing market guidebook.”
Despite the very fascinating read that follows, detailing everything from little-known cities to invest in, to where nuclear fallout may be an issue, it’s still quite a bold investment decision, to put it lightly.
If North Korea really is experiencing a “Reform and Opening Up” though, the number one beneficiary, besides the North Korean people themselves, may be the Chinese. The parallels between North Korea’s potential future trajectory and China’s past are too strong for even top officials to ignore. It’s been reported that a North Korean delegation will “participate in a meeting to understand China’s domestic economic reform accomplishments in order to promote the exchange of the two Communist Party’s experiences.”
It’s not just that this moment may signal North Korea becoming a more responsible partner of China’s, it’s that it may be a chance for China to extend its political and economic model beyond its borders. China is increasingly confident in its global leadership, and especially in its model, which it believes could be a viable alternative to liberal democracy. Transforming its poor neighbor in the Northeast into a successful spitting-image of China could be a visible win for that model on the world stage, and a signal to other poor, authoritarian nations that China’s model might be for them, too.