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Envisioning a democratic Northeast Asia

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By Michael Breen

If you were to peer into a crystal ball and summon the best future for Northeast Asia, it is hard not to agree that the region envisioned would be peaceful, democratic and with a free market.

You would think that democratic governments would share this as the explicitly desired goal giving birth to their various policies. But they don't. A peaceful, democratic, free market Northeast Asia seems to be nobody's vision.

Why is this?

The explanations I find are, firstly, that countries don't think that far ahead. That is ironically true in democracies because nobody stays in power that long. In Korea's case, it's hard, besides the 10-year Land Use Plan, to think of anything in the public sector that imagines anything further than five years ahead.

The second explanation is that it's presumptuous. To which, the best response is: so? If the Workers' Party of Korea envisions a future with itself ruling a Unified Korea in the 22nd century, and we decline to imagine anything, who are the idiots?

And the most common reason not to bother is that it's not going to happen. Particularly, people say, for Northeast Asia to be democratic means that China and North Korea must become democracies, and that will never happen.

Really? So hundreds of millions of Chinese who have the wealth to take their vacations in Prague, attend university in Australia and buy summer homes by the beach are quite happy not being able to decide who runs their country? North Koreans find the gulag a valuable learning experience?

What makes us think the Chinese are sufficiently tolerant of dictatorship to live with it forever?

The point of imagining a better future is not to make a prediction about what will happen but to take a step towards its possible realization.

Right now, China is like South Korea in the 1970s under the dictator Park Chung-hee – unfree but going in the right direction. It needs to have its democratization moment, to pry the fingers of the Communist leadership off the neck of the electorate and allow freedom.

As for North Korea, it now is like China was under Mao Zedong, hurtling backwards in the name of revolutionary progress. If it's unrealistic to expect a North Korean democracy moment, it is not unrealistic to expect that it will at some point go the first step and have its equivalent of Park Chung-hee's coup.

That would not mean liberal democracy for North Koreans but it could be the point at which reconciliation with the South begins.

How could such a change take place? It's hard to predict. But what we can see is that once democracy was established in one place in the world, it became possible for others to adopt it in their various ways and spread, historically speaking, at a very rapid pace. There's no reason to think that it has stopped.

Besides war or an unexpected palace coup or a (much-fantasized) change of heart by Kim Jong-un, people power is a likely scenario. If popular unrest were to break out in North Korea in such a way that the security authorities were no longer willing to kill their own people, history could change in a day. That's what happened this week in this country in 1987.

As a vision for a democratic Northeast Asia makes sense for Korea, so it does for the United States. The implications are obvious for its security and economic relations with China. But also with North Korea.

The United States has made zero progress in 30 years on the issue of North Korean nuclear weapons because there has been no meeting of objectives and neither side has given up. The North Korean objective is survival (or reunification) and nuclear weapons is its strategy. The U.S. objective is a North Korea with no nuclear weapons.

In the interests of peaceful diplomacy, it should be possible to reframe the issue in a way that allows us to reach our goals via a different route.

Michael Breen ( is the author of "The New Koreans."


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