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M.L. Sondhi

Jawaharlal Nehru University

The frustration and disillusionment in North Korea resulting from its economic decline cannot be ignored even by those who were hypnotized by the concepts and rhetoric of Juche ideology, and allowed revolutionary fervour to sanction the systematic distortion of South Korean motivations and intentions. The defection of Hwang Jang-Yop has compelled them to face the truth about the anxiety and pessimism in which an entire people are trapped by the ingrained peculiarities of the regime set up by Kim Il Sung and continued by his son Kim Jong Il.

Clearly there is a rapidly deteriorating and unpredictable situation in North Korea, but there is a certain irony in the position adopted by countries as differently placed as USA, Japan and China, all of whom tended to discount South Korean scenarios of North Korean collapse. What does appear to be reasonably obvious from the defection of the leading ideologue of North Korea is that the cohesion and morale of the regime have reached such a low point that bellicosity may take on even more reckless dimensions. There is no sure prescription about how the reconciliation between North and South can be achieved, but after the Jwang defection the situation is destined to undergo many changes and modifications after the diplomatic give and take over defusing the present crisis in the South Korean embassy in Beijing.

In terms of contextual factors, South Korean decision-makers will have to prepare for a flow of refugees if the economic collapse is aggravated to an extent where unrest and mass violence spread their effects beyond North Korea’s boundary. While expressing in its readiness for unification through peaceful negotiations, Seoul will have to maintain its vigilance and military strength to ensure that North Korea does not undertake aggressive actions to divert public attention from the grave domestic crisis.

Admittedly some enhancement of South Korean military strength is necessary to cope with the acute instability in the North, but it is even more important for South Korea to maintain the momentum of its economic growth without which the cohesion of its national community will be in danger. The trade deficit and the crippling strikes following the enactment of controversial labour legislation have created problems in the economic policies that will mitigate the structural problems which are responsible for high cost and low efficiency. He has also announced support for small and medium-sized businesses and measures to stabilize employment.

While North Korea threatens to become gridlocked, South Korea has proceeded to dynamic engagement in world affairs. Seoul has taken bold steps towards accelerating deregulation in the financial sector. These will integrate Korea in the international capital markets and give her a pivotal position for global economic cooperation.

Given the basically cordial relationship which South Korea enjoys with many countries with different political systems and divergent ideologies, it would not be wrong to assume that it is North Korea which will have to open up and bring itself into alignment with the global trend of economic reform and give up the confrontationism of the Cold War era.

The India-Korea relationship can become a constructive force contributing to the political and economic interests of both countries and also help to check the destabilizing developments originating in the crisis in the North Korean regime. The surging trade and investment between India and South Korea constitutes a major achievement. What both countries are witnessing now is a momentum for economic and political reform in their respective societies, and each can learn from the experience of the other. Kim has provided a solid institutional mechanism for rooting out corruption although this has not been an easy task. The greater openness and institutional renewal in South Korea suggests that Kim will surmount the problems which confront the country in the remaining period of his incumbency. By pursuing political reform and economic liberalization in tandem he has laid a secure foundation for an enduring democracy in Korea and also removed apathy and cynicism by providing a new social meaning to economic growth. The contrast between the rigid and militaristic position of North Korea and the overwhelmingly transparent attitude of South Korea could hardly be more pronounced.

The Indian image of South Korea still remains one which emphasizes the authoritarian nature of its leadership, and even those who praise its meteoric economic achievements continue to train a critical eye on the emerging democratic order in Seoul. Both countries, India and South Korea have to deal with their own respective political and economic problems, but in the interest of reinvigorating bilateral ties, it would help if there were less sloppy reporting and more critical but sympathetic assessments based on reality testing and clear perceptions of the political fault lines which have long checked South Korean democratic institutions from achieving optimum performance.

The question of corruption has been one of the most intractable problems of democratic reform. Until Kim Young Sam was elected President the vicious circle of mutual complicity in the clientistic systems at various levels of Korean society was really never broken. The need for transparency and responsiveness was acutely felt but ultimately the system of double standards prevailed. It is to Kim’s credit that he has seized every opportunity to restore legitimacy in the public sphere by effective action against corrupt elements reaching even to former Presidents and undermining clientistic privileges without caring for the political costs involved. The most recent Hanbo scandal has of course exacerbated the problem for both President Kim and the country, since aides of the President are alleged to be involved, and the political Opposition has also alleged the involvement of Hyun-Chul, the President’s son. So far no evidence has been found against the son, but the manner in which this scandal is handled will have a great impact on the future of South Korean structural reform. If such a scandal had erupted during pre-Kim authoritarian regimes, the matter would have been hushed up on account of public apathy and the unresponsiveness of the Presidency. Kim has shown that he is totally committed to openness and structural change and has himself eased the way to a more responsive politics.

It is no longer a case of taking a few sporadic steps in favour of public ethics. In dealing with the Hanbo scandal, the South Korean public holds the key to further reform and the President has shown that he is highly sensitive to the assertive political demands for ending the system of money-laundering, privileged access to credits and all forms of clientilist protection. One thing is certain: the era of covert politics in South Korea is over, and Kim’s legacy to his successor will consist of not only economic liberalization and globalization but also a crucial contribution to the anti-corruption agenda. No matter what happens next in Korean politics, political dynamics will henceforth favour a very strong anti-corruption stance. The impression that anyone can get away with anything provided he has connections in the higher political echelons has been replaced by a new sense of accountability. Kim has shown both statesmanship and political alertness in adhering to the highest standards of probity in spite of nagging pressures from some of his supporters.

The focus has hitherto been on economic interaction between India and Korea. The potential for political cooperation can now progress beyond the initial stages, and if both countries find innovative ways of building faith and credibility in favour of their respective national interests, democratic ideologies and engagement against corruption and scandals, it will have a very positive impact on the rest of Asia.

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