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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

Third Annual Turkey Shoot: The Circular Firing Squad Edition

by | November 29th, 2013 | 06:18 am

I’m back from Myanmar where the government has taken on an ambitious agenda of economic reform, political reform, and the resolution of longstanding civil conflicts, all while experiencing a resource boom.  That is to say that they are implementing an agenda that the North Korean government has failed to embrace. The odds are that the Myanma won’t succeed, but at least they are trying. I was there advising them on how they could use external policy anchors such as the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative and the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act to leverage their own internal governance reforms.

While I was gone, a post that I did on tourism in North Korea generated a surprising number of responses and I thought that I would respond to some of the comments, “Every Dollar Spent on Tourism in North Korea is a Dollar Spent Building Nuclear Weapons, Part 2” or, as they would say in a Charlie Sheen movie, Part Deux.

Someone suggested that when the Witness to Transformation blog hit the 1,000th post mark that we have a top ten retrospective or something. I’m not that self-referential, but if we ever do a Top Ten Comments list, Richard’s suggestion that we defund the North Korean nuclear program by selling Kim Jong-un an NBA franchise will probably make the cut. Brilliant. It’s so funny that when the play-offs heat up in the spring we might even make a contest out of it. Sample entry: “We should sell Kim Jong-un the Toronto Raptors. He could party with Rob Ford, and the mascot is a flesh-eating dinosaur.”

Rim shot.

Come to think of it, if that one worked out we could sell him the local Washington NFL franchise as well. He could party with Marion Barry. The team would cost Kim a couple of billion dollars, and he couldn’t be that much worse than the current owner.

I wouldn’t sell him Arsenal, though.


There was also some discussion of PUST.  It seems to me that the advisability of many of these endeavors comes down to a judgment of how much good one does against the fact that one is funding the regime even if only indirectly. So, for example, I have been a supporter of food aid on the grounds that 3-year olds in Chongjin or working class families in Wonsan shouldn’t pay for the sins of a political regime over which they have absolutely no control. But I’ve made that argument completely cognizant of the fact that North Korea uses aid as a form of implicit balance of payments of support, and when we send grain we are indirectly supporting the production of missiles. I’ve never bought the pseudo-Marxist “starve ’em out” argument that if we just make those conditions bad enough the people will rise up.

PUST strikes me as a less compelling case than food aid. Yes, some good is probably being done through people-to-people contact. But set against this, one of the PUST founding committee members also told me some amusing stories of the, ahem, challenges that they faced in constructing the campus, which involved the usual North Korean rent-extraction ploys. So I will go back and look at my notes and maybe do a stand-alone post on PUST in the future.

Which brings me to tourism, where it seems to me the claim for doing more benefit than harm is the weakest. Max Fisher at the Washington Post wrote a pretty good column on this earlier this year—there are some possible benefits in terms of people-to-people contact, but there is also a widespread tendency to exaggerate these in light of the high degree of control imposed on visitors.

Which brings me to Robin Tudge. He was understandably angry about being ridiculed in the original post and I sent him an apology. He accepted and we have buried the hatchet. (For our non-American readers, that last phrase was a really bad Thanksgiving allusion.)

Finally, a shout-out to Walter Keats, who is either blissfully ignorant of this tempest in a teacup, or was at least not highly discomfited by it.  When I needed someone to rescue Comrade Park from the toil of the nuke farm, who could it be? Not Koryo Tours, nor Uri Tours, Young Pioneers Tours, Political Tours, and definitely not Juche Travel Services (what’s next, Mein Kampf Tours?), but Walter Keats, who has always struck me as an honorable man.  I was relieved to see that he didn’t book Merrill Newman’s ticket.

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.