Saturday, June 4, 2005

Inch'ŏn and the Ryugyŏng Hotel

Note: This post is also known as "the China Rant."

Here's an odd bit of peninsula news from yesterday. We all knew that Inch'ŏn has been trying to jointly hold the 2014 Asian Games with P'yŏng'yang, but the new twist is that the mayor of Inchon said his city will invest the equipment and money needed --about half a billion dollars (or more) -- to fix up and finish Pyongyang's 105-story Ryugyŏng Hotel, the 300-meter-high unfinished phallic shell that dominates the Pyongyang skyline like the water tower in a Minnesota town. (Marmot's Hole has a good intro on this).

The Ryugyong Hotel is the pointy thing in the background.

What does it mean if they fix up the hotel? Yes, it means SK money and equipment pumped into NK, but it also means that Pyongyang will end up allowing a whole bunch of South Koreans (and others?) up into North Korea. Not just in controlled areas like Kaesŏng and Kŭmgangsan or even Najin, but in the heart of the country: the capital.

And I think this is part of the point of the gradualist approach to reunification: aiming not toward collapse of the system, but of a creeping in of southern/Western values for two purposes. First, this gradual influx of capital, infrastructure, and know-how will make things a hell of a lot easier when reunification does come. And second, the more and deeper these connections are, the harder it is for the regime to control thoughts and ideas, which helps build up a critical mass of perception of both the outside world and the inside world, which may become very crucial at some future crisis point in the regime's existence, leading to an East German-style throwing-in-of-the-towel rather than a going-down-with-both-guns-blazing scenario from the military or some other "leadership."

Of course, there is the problem with all the refugees and the starvation, which this seems to fail to address. But are the two mutually exclusive? Can't these ties be fostered while also providing food aid? Of course they can.

But then there's the ugly idea that these ties are actually propping up the Pyongyang regime, forestalling the collapse of the Kim Jong-il regime, thus prolonging the torture and death of many more.

But is this really true? Is South Korea's "Sunshine Policy" really forestalling their collapse while a hard-line approach would hasten their demise? I don't think the evidence is there, considering that nearly fifty years of the latter did NOTHING to lead to Pyongyang's collapse, and perhaps the greatest number of famine-related deaths occurred as a result of policies and actions took during that time.

In other words, decades of a hard-line approach did NOT lead to the collapse of the northern regime and it did not prevent the deaths of hundreds of thousands or millions. Thus, calling the so-called "Sunshine Policy" of engagement morally bankrupt because it props up Pyongyang is a bit specious.

And it also ignores a very, very important point, that there is another elephant in the room we choose to ignore: China.

It is China that props up Pyongyang. China. That's right: China. China props up Pyongyang. It is not Seoul, it is China.

South Korea could double, triple, quadruple, halve, or eliminate (zeruple?) its investment in North Korea and it would make little or not difference on when and if Pyongyang collapses. China controls that switch.

I think this is why it bothers me so that conservatives are so quick to bash Seoul for its political and economic engagement with the North while virtually ignoring Beijing's role. Seoul is playing the piss-poor hand it was dealt, but it is China that set up the table and the rules.

Bash Beijing if you're going to criticize Seoul.

But who is doing that? Virtually no one. China is a major economic cow to be milked, so we don't criticize China. We don't criticize China for torturing its own citizens, much less actively rounding up North Korean refugees and sending them back to North Korea where they will likely be tortured and imprisoned, likely forced to do hard labor, and possibly killed.

We don't criticize China for keeping Pyongyang propped up even though they know that North Korea is a human rights nightmare that makes China look like a kindergarten by comparison.

No. We send them billions up billions of dollars in investment instead.

But we criticize every step South Korean government or business takes as part of the Sunshine Policy.

Not only is this hypocritical, but it may also be counterproductive. At least the Sunshine Policy has a shared goal (eventually) with the hardliners: eventual elimination of the North Korean regime and absorption of North Korea into South Korea. The difference is in tack: Sunshine Policy seeks to kill with kindness while the "Moonshine Policy" (Dr. Lee Jungmin of Yonsei) seeks to isolate it and let it die a quicker death.

But China has no such goal in mind. It wants its buffer state against Japan and the US (and perhaps Korea and democracy in general). It wants to keep propping up Pyongyang. It does not share the goals of Sunshine Policy. China is the culprit. China is country responsible (beyond North Korea itself) for keeping Pyongyang afloat.


The People's Republic of China, whose government still shares, nominally at least, a communist ideology with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

China in which we invest tens of billions of dollars and then tens of billions of dollars more. China which gives us cheap electronics to buy at Walmart. China.

So what am I advocating? Am I saying we should slap sanctions on China until they come around on North Korea? That may not be practical, given how deeply enmeshed we are, economically, with the People's Republic of China.

But it does mean two things: we need to recognize that China is the one that needs to be pressured. We need to make China feel comfortable -- or less uneasy -- with the prospect of a democratic and capitalist and unified Korea at its doorstep and allied with the US and Japan. We need to plant the idea in Beijing's head that they can and should flip the switch on Kim Jong-il. Whatever that entails.

And second, stop beating up on South Korea for the Sunshine Policy. It's not anti-US. It's not even pro-North. It's an attempt to try something when the hardline way failed to work after half a century. It will take time, if it works at all.

Now, having said that, I do think there are some things that are deserving of criticism. The Roh administration and much of the press seem to go overboard not to offend Pyongyang or Beijing, almost to the point of kowtowing to them.

In particular, I think that Roh's policy of preventing the refugees from coming here to South Korea crosses the line: it is not necessary to do so from a Sunshine Policy perspective, and it borders on moral repugnance. But again, the true culpability falls on Beijing, which is rounding up these North Koreans and sending them back. South Korea is merely slowing its process of accepting them, at a time when few other countries -- including the United States -- are willing to accept any North Koreans except those who make it to that country's shores on their own.

South Korea is given the Hobson's choice between continuing Sunshine Policy unabated but turning down the volume on the refugee issue or endangering Sunshine Policy progress, which (its proponents believe) could end up causing more good in the long run. Both choices may lead to considerable losses.

But Beijing is the one with the real choice: actively maintain its agreement with Pyongyang to round up and send refugees back to North Korea, knowing that they will likely be tortured and possibly killed, or tone down or even end the round-ups and let the North Koreans stay in China or quietly go to South Korea or some other country.

Ultimately, it is China's choice, not South Korea's. China, our economic partner.

Finally, and this is perhaps an entirely different issue, is the idea of Inch'ŏn taxpayers subsidizing a P'yŏng'yang hotel. I'm a Seoul taxpayer, but if I were an Inch'ŏn taxpayer, I might be livid.

But people will do strange things for civic pride, like building stadiums for sports franchises or for Olympic bragging rights. The 2014 Asiad that Inchon and Pyongyang are trying to jointly hold could lead to a 2020 Olympic bid for one or both of them (though I think the only way Pyongyang will get the Olympics anytime soon is as a nod to a newly reunified Korea).

But this does bring an odd twist: would, say, Detroit build subsidize a new stadium in Windsor, Ontario, just to get a sports franchise in the area? Would Seattle do this even for Vancouver, Washington, much less Vancouver, British Columbia? I couldn't even see Los Angeles County doing this for Orange County (not that we need it, because we have Disney dollars).


  1. The idea that we should critize Beijing INSTEAD of Seoul is naive at best, criminally ignorant at worst. That Beijing props up the North is not at all questionable, but then, Beijing makes no qualms about standing up for its decisions to do so. Seoul keeps trying to ride the fence, make everyone happy, and as a result manages to mangle relationships with all parties involved. Should Beijing be criticized? Absolutely- and they have been- does this mean that investment funds should not flow in, in an effort to influence policy through a policy of engagement? absolutely not.
    This investment into Beijing comes with strings attached. Things certainly could be better, but they have improved significantly over the last decade. Seoul's policy of bending over and signing checks while taking shafts is absurd from any point of view, and needs to be criticized loudly and immediately. Seoul is proping up a regime that it is asking the US to defend it against- this contradiction puts it worlds apart from Beijing and as your blog continues to generate well thought out and intellectual pieces, I have to wonder about your motives for being so blind to the truth here...

  2. Kushibo,

    What's your e-mail address? If you don't want to leave one here, could you drop me a note at I think we see eye-to-eye on most of the major political issues concerning Korea, and I'd like to know what you think of some things I've written on the topic--both published and unpublished.


  3. Sending money to North Korea for the inevitable diversion to the Korean People's Army isn't so dumb if you accept that South Korea's government views the United States not as an ally, but as an enemy.

  4. The ROK government is busting its budget to provide a large-scale, multi-billion-dollar military base in Pyongtaek, while at the same time it is the U.S.'s SECOND-largest partner in Iraq, a decision made under Roh's watch.

    The idea that the ROK or even just Roh sees the US as an enemy is absurd.

  5. I myself can't offer any good suggestions for dealing with China, except to use US law to regulate and punish American companies that are supporting censorship (i.e. Microsoft, Google and Yahoo) or allow bad working conditions in their Chinese factories.

    That, and getting these American companies to bring the factories back to the USA instead of sending them off to China or Mexico.


Share your thoughts, but please be kind and respectful. My mom reads this blog.