North Korea Mulls 'Arab Spring' Risks: The Ticker

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By William Pesek

If you're looking for a Muammar Qaddafi-like drama in Asia, a place where many of us would love to see an “Arab Spring” uprising, North Korea is it.

So worried is Kim Jong Il about such a risk that he's banning North Koreans in Libya from returning home. What if they spread word of what happened to Qaddafi? We're not talking about a huge number of Kim's 23 million people. According to the Los Angeles Times, there are roughly 200 construction workers, doctors and nurses there sending home much-needed hard currency to their impoverished nation.

Kim was close to Qaddafi before the late Libyan leader's regime collapsed. Qaddafi's inglorious downfall may have Kim thinking two things, neither of which would be good for peace in Asia. One, nuclear weapons are more important than ever to protect the Kim Dynasty. Two, economic reforms can wait.

Watching one tyrant after another fall, Kim may feel on the defensive. He may double down on nuclear weapons as he prepares to hand power over to his son, Kim Jong Un.

Economic opening is now more complicated, too. There's been much soul searching over the hard-line policies of South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak. He undid efforts by his two predecessors to engage Pyongyang and has little to show for it. Seoul is setting up a fund to begin raising 55 trillion won ($50 billion) to pay for an eventual Korean reunification. Yet Lee is just as likely to be remembered as the president who lost North Korea.

Really, where has isolating North Korea gotten us? Decades of sanctions did more to buttress Fidel Castro than topple Cuba's government. The same goes for Myanmar's repressive regime. Officials in Seoul and Washington ignore a simple fact: The last thing Kim wants is for his economy to become vulnerable to outside influences. Rather than military brinkmanship, perhaps we should attack North Korea with capitalism.

Imagine what would happen if tomorrow big democracies recognized North Korea diplomatically, named ambassadors, dropped sanctions and allowed companies to do all the business there they want. Rock music, Coca-Cola and blue jeans are said to have helped bring down Soviet communism. Let's flood North Korea with names like Adidas, Starbucks, Samsung, Sony and Lady Gaga.

That's not remotely possible in the short run. Yet when a policy doesn't work, what's the point of sticking to it?

(William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist.)

-0- Nov/01/2011 15:14 GMT