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Speeches and Papers

The Economics of National Reconciliation

by Marcus Noland, Peterson Institute for International Economics

Paper presented at the fall symposium of the Institute for Korean-American Studies titled "Asia's/Koreas' Challenges Ahead"
October 13, 2000

© Peterson Institute for International Economics

This paper was written while the author was a POSCO Fellow at the East-West Center, Honolulu, Hawaii.



North and South Korea appear to have embarked on a process of national reconciliation. South Korean President Kim Dae-jung has repeatedly indicated his disinterest in undermining the DPRK and has instead called for peaceful coexistence. In his 2000 New Year's message he called for commencement of installation of the core components of the promised light water reactors; development of industrial estates on North Korea's Yellow Sea coast; expansion of the Mt. Kumgang tourism project; increase in processing on commission trade (the primary modality for inter-Korean trade); and improvement in transportation systems linking the North and the South.

Three months later in his "Berlin Declaration" of March 2000, President Kim indicated that the South Korean government was willing to directly support the economic rehabilitation of the North. Prior to the June summit South Korea sent 200,000 tons of fertilizer, valued at roughly $60 million to the North, and afterward sent another 100,000 tons. It has since indicated that it is willing to purchase grain on the international market to furnish North Korea with additional assistance. "Economic cooperation" was identified as one of the priorities for action in the June 2000 summit declaration, and working level groups are expected to undertake negotiations relating to settlement of payments, investment protection, avoidance of double taxation, and arbitration of disputes, along the lines specified in the 1991 Basic Accord and supplemental agreement. The South Korean unification plan is gradual in the extreme, envisioning a process of unification lasting two generations. It put forward a plan for federation at the summit.

For its part, North Korea has proposed a Confederal Republic of Koryo to be governed by a national assembly consisting of an equal number of representatives from North and South Korea. The statement in a 1999 meeting at the Council of Foreign Relations by North Korean Foreign Minister Paek Nam-sun that North Korea could consider a "one country, two systems" model along the lines of Hong Kong and China could be interpreted as a signal that North Korea was open to this kind of engagement. South Korean National Intelligence Service head Lim Dong-won told a press conference in June 2000 that the Korean Workers Party plans to remove the section of its charter stating that "our party's immediate objective is to complete national liberation under a revolutionary people's democracy and to build a juche society under communism," signaling a symmetric scaling back of unification ambitions.

In a formal sense, one can imagine a series of progressively deeper steps of cooperation and integration that the states could undertake. The first steps would presumably be the completion of the aforementioned agreements to create a legal framework for exchange between the two countries, and perhaps some state-led "economic confidence-building measures." In the latter category, Kim Dae-jung has already expressed interest in opening up two rail lines (one along the east coast and one along the west).1 In economic terms, South Korea today is effectively an island, and the successful opening up of trans-North Korea rail links would allow South Korean firms to transport goods to Europe and other destinations over land. These developments would promote private sector-led economic exchange and promote economic integration between the two economies (and indeed contribute to regional integration more generally).

Once basic economic exchange has been regularized between the two countries, the next formal step in economic integration would be the formation of a free trade area, freeing trade between the two Koreas, but permitting each to restrict trade with third parties according to their own interests. This would be equivalent to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in which trade is unencumbered among the United States, Canada, and Mexico, but each country maintains its own trade policies with respect to nonmembers. Even this first step would appear to be far beyond anything that can be seriously expected in the medium-run. The next step would be the formation of a customs union, which would involve applying a common policy to trade with third parties. This would be akin to the European Economic Community (EEC).

Economic union would be a deeper form of integration, permitting the free movement of factors (labor and capital) as well as goods across borders, as exists in the European Union (EU) today. A monetary union would involve the adoption of a single currency, as is in process in some EU member states today. A social union would involve the adoption of common labor and social welfare policies in the two states. The final stage would be political union and the surrender of independent claims on sovereignty. The EU has managed to create an economic union and is in the process of forging social and political union. Within this schema there are differing degrees of surrender of local authority to central governments. Presumably given the radically different social and political systems of North and South Korea, any form of consensual political integration would involve the maintenance of extensive local autonomy. Indeed, given the highly centralized nature of the governing systems of both North and South Korea, issues of local autonomy and control would presumably be highly contentious under any unification scheme.2


Whither North Korea?

Thus the prerequisites for a consensual unification would be maintenance of two independent states and a sufficient degree of convergence of economic and political practices to make the outcome plausible. In the case at hand, this means generating sufficient reform in the North's economic and political system to make some degree of integration with the South sustainable.

The April 2000 North-South summit announcement stunned the world. The timing, coming three days before South Korean national assembly elections in which Kim Dae-jung's party trailed in the polls, raised questions about whether this rapprochement was genuine, or whether it might be no more than a tactical move on the part of the North Koreans timed to extract maximal concessions out of an electorally weak Kim Dae-jung and to buy some insurance against the possibility of a harder line US administration taking office in January 2001. Skepticism was fed by North Korea's history of extorting resources from foreigners to secure its participation in diplomatic activities, and South Korea's own history of "checkbook diplomacy," most notably in its process of normalizing relations with the USSR. Given the Berlin Declaration and Kim Dae-jung's willingness to directly underwrite the economic rehabilitation of the North, many continue to speculate as to what President Kim may have promised the North in order to secure the pre-election summit announcement. In this light, the first question then is whether the North Koreans are serious about pursuing economic reform at a minimum, or whether the diplomatic activity of recent months amounts to an elaborate feint, undertaken to diversify the North Koreans aid donor base.

The evidence on this point is mixed. One bit of evidence can be adduced from North Korean statements. For the past decade the North Koreans in general (and specifically in writings or statements attributed to Kim Jong-il) have been absolutely scathing in their denunciations of the reforms undertaken in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, which have been likened to "germs," "mosquitoes," and other vermin to be kept at bay. "Reform" has been described as "honey-coated poison" and "opening" as "a Trojan horse tasked with destabilizing socialism."3

In 1994, the North Koreans went so far as to call the Chinese "traitors to the socialist cause" until their own worsening situation and growing dependence on China made it prudent to tone down the rhetoric. During Supreme People's Assembly leader Kim Yong-nam's visit to Beijing in 1999, the two countries adopted an "I'm OK, you're OK" formulation in which they agreed to pursue socialism according to their respective national characteristics.

The language used during Kim Jong-il's May 2000 pre-summit visit to Beijing was very different, however. In remarks widely broadcast in China and reported in the international press, Kim noted the "great achievements of opening up the country" by Chinese reformer Deng Xiao-peng and announced that North Korea "supports the reform policy pursued by the Chinese side." These comments suggest a new receptiveness to economic reform on the part of the North Koreans, and open up the possibility of the Chinese adopting their natural role as mentors in this regard.

That said, Kim's remarks have not been reported in the North Korean press, and indeed, the week after Kim returned from China, North Korean television re-broadcast the "opening" as a "Trojan horse tasked with destabilizing socialism" editorial, which some have interpreted as indicating that Kim's Beijing remarks were insincere and/or made under economic duress. This evaluation may be too harsh. It is probably naive to project onto Kim Jong-il the belief that a firewall can be maintained between statements widely broadcast in China and elsewhere and what reaches the North Korean elite. Moreover, politically it is hard to imagine that Kim could travel onto foreign soil and then, in effect, announce that the previous fifty years of economic policy (undertaken by his deified father) was flawed. Rather, it is more likely that the North Koreans are searching for a face-saving way to introduce these ideas into domestic discourse. Admittedly, this is speculation, however. All we know for sure is that Kim Jong-il traveled to Beijing and made a series of statements at odds with longstanding North Korean positions and that these remarks have not been reported by the North Korean media.

Another piece of evidence can be adduced from North Korean actions. The most prominent example of North-South economic cooperation has been the contract that Hyundai signed with Pyongyang. Although the Mt. Kumgang tourism project understandably has attracted the most attention, the provision for Hyundai to construct an industrial park may have more economic significance in the long run. Establishment of the industrial park has been delayed by a dispute over the proposed location. Kim Jong-il reportedly has expressed a preference for Shinuiju over the Haeju district, despite the latter's greater attractiveness as an economic hub. Some (e.g. Moon, 2000) have argued that the choice between Haeju and Shinuiju will signal whether economics or politics is driving policy. The announcement in August 2000 that the facility would be located at Kaesong would seem to suggest that economic rationality is beginning to assert some predominance over political symbolism. The possibility of a second Hyundai-developed SEZ, located at Tongchon, on the east coast near Mt. Kumgang, has also been reported. The North Koreans may have also begun to relax their stance with regard to Japanese tourists visiting Mt. Kumgang, which would have obvious implications for Hyundai's bottomline.4 Only time will tell what the North Koreans' intentions are. It is hard to argue though that recent developments reduce the likelihood of consensual integration.

Assuming that the North Koreans have made the decision to undertake economic reform, the issue then is whether they are capable of successfully managing reform. In this regard they face two significant obstacles, and have one tremendous advantage. The first challenge relates to North Korea's composition of output. In Asia, one all too often hears the following syllogism. There are two ways of reforming centrally planned economies: the unsuccessful European big bang approach, and the successful Asian gradual approach. North Korea is an Asian country, ergo it will adopt the successful Asian gradual approach and begin growing 10 percent annually upon commencement of reforms. Needless to say, I believe that this view is gravely mistaken.

There are two large Asian countries that have experienced relatively successful transitions from central planning to the market, namely China and Vietnam. As shown in Table 1, both China and Vietnam had more than 70 percent of their labor forces in the agricultural sector when they began their reform processes, and the relative success of their reforms was strongly affected by the existence of this large pool of extremely low productivity labor in the agricultural sector. The authorities could liberalize agriculture, generating a relatively rapid supply response, and then release surplus labor from the agriculture sector into the nascent non-state owned light manufacturing sector. (In theory one could then tax the light-manufacturing sector to generate financial resources for the restructuring of the old state-owned heavy industry sector.) In essence, this is the Lewis two-sector model of development under conditions of surplus agricultural labor in action.5 This agriculture-led reform process may simply not be available to North Korea due to its very different initial conditions. Economically, North Korea more closely resembles some countries of Eastern Europe or the former Soviet Union than China or Vietnam. Vexing issues such as the restructuring of state-owned industrial enterprises, which no country has handled very well, may play a much more central role in North Korea's transition than they have in the experience of China or Vietnam.

The second obstacle is political. Again, consider the cases of Vietnam and China. In the case of Vietnam, North Vietnam and its Vietcong allies defeated South Vietnam in a civil war and unified the country. The government in Hanoi became the sole arbitrators of what it meant to be Vietnamese. When the reform policy of doi moi was undertaken in the late 1980s, the ideologues in Hanoi could come up with justifications of why the new policy was really what Uncle Ho had in mind. Similarly, while China confronts the rump of Taiwan, perhaps until the recent defeat of the Kuomintang candidate for the presidency, no seriously believed that the government in Taipei presented an ideological threat to Beijing. When Deng spearheaded the Chinese reforms in the late 1970s, the ideologues in Beijing were free to come up with slogans rationalizing the new policy.

The divided nature of the Korean peninsula presents prospective North Korean reformers with a very different ideological challenge. Reforms that bring North Korean society closer to South Korea could undermine the whole ideological justification for the regime—why be a third-rate South Korean when one can head south and become the real thing? The dynastic nature of the North Korean regime makes this political task even harder still, as the son will in effect, have to disavow the policies of the father.6 Balanced against these two significant challenges is one great advantage with other transitional economies have not had—namely the existence of a benefactor in the form of South Korea.


Getting from Here to There

Consensual unification would require a significant reorientation of North Korean policy. Cooperation could be expected to yield economic benefits to North Korea in the form of enhanced trade and investment, assistance from multilateral development banks, and settlement of post-colonial claims against Japan. At the same time, to obtain these benefits, North Korea presumably would have to forego its current revenues from exportation of medium-range missiles and weapons of mass destruction, drug trafficking, and counterfeiting. Furthermore, North Korea would have to settle private claims arising from past international loan defaults were it to reenter international capital markets. Such a deal could well involve the alteration or renegotiation of the Agreed Framework upon which much of North Korea's economic interaction with the rest of the world is conditioned.

Fundamental reform of the North Korean economy would have two profound effects: first, there would be a significant increase in exposure to international trade and investment (much of this with South Korea and Japan, two countries with which North Korea maintains problematic relations), and second, changes in the composition of output could be tremendous, involving literally millions of workers changing employment.7 Both developments could be expected to have enormous political implications, or alternatively, these implications could be thought to present significant, perhaps insurmountable, obstacles to reform under the current regime.

Nevertheless, it is possible that North Korea could attempt a less ambitious reorientation of its economic policies and practices supported by help from abroad. The North Korean economy desperately needs two things to meet the minimum survival requirements of its population: food and energy. It may well be that the country obtains enough income through production or aid to attain the minimum survival basket, but chooses not to do so (i.e. the regime has a strong preference for guns over butter). Taking these preferences as given, how much additional income would the country need to hit the minimum survival basket? Under current conditions North Korea runs a structural food deficit of around two million tons. The cost of closing this gap through commercial imports would be on the order of several hundred million dollars, depending on prevailing global prices. For the last five years, this gap has mainly been closed through the provision of international assistance. This reflects both North Korean political interests—why pay for something that can be obtained for free?—and the political interests of Western governments, most prominently that of the United States, which face less domestic resistance to providing in-kind "humanitarian relief" to North Korea than straight aid to the Kim Jong-il regime.

In addition to food, North Korea needs energy. It is reliant on imported oil to generate fuels and fertilizer for use in transportation and agriculture. Electricity is mainly generated using coal and hydropower. Generation has been hampered by difficulties in extracting increasingly inaccessible and low quality domestic coal reserves. Beyond this problem, the power grid (largely underground for security purposes) is said to suffer from extraordinarily large transmission losses.

The 1994 Agreed Framework between North Korea and the United States provides for the construction of two light water reactors and the provision of oil in the interim. The problem is that this is essentially a diplomatic agreement over North Korea's nuclear program, and does not really address the true needs of the North Korean economy. From an economics standpoint, it would be better to renegotiate the Agreed Framework, scrapping the costly light water reactors, and instead building more cost-effective electrical generating systems, refurbishing the existing electrical grid, and building the necessary infrastructure that would allow North Korea to export electricity to South Korea and China, and thereby earn foreign exchange.8 Nevertheless, if these estimates are correct and the Framework Agreement as negotiated is fully implemented, the actual cost of purchasing the estimated shortfalls in grain and energy inputs, as well as desperately needed supplies of fertilizers, pharmaceuticals, etc. might not be very large, less than $1 billion dollars (Michell, 1998).

Assuming no more interruptions in service, the Hyundai Mt. Kumgang tourism deal guarantees North Korea nearly $150 million annually over the relevant time period. This is a minimum. North Korea receives a payment per visitor. If Hyundai were to fill all the berths on its ships, North Korea would stand to net approximately $450 million per year—or enough to cover its grain deficit on commercial terms. Moreover, other South Korean firms have expressed interest in similar tourist ventures.

If the North Koreans went through with the other projects in the Hyundai agreement, including the establishment of a new SEZ at Kaesong, this could generate additional revenues. These figures refer to recurrent flow expenditures. In addition, there are one-time needs to rehabilitate the North Korean infrastructure, and a variety of organizations have come up with estimates of what this might entail. To use a Seoul metaphor, to a certain extent it depends on whether one takes the black (expensive) taxi or the silver (cheap) one. For example, Williams, Hayes, and Von Hippel (1999) estimate that a rural energy rehabilitation program would cost about $2 billion-$3 billion over five years. Their estimated price tag for a more comprehensive economy-wide program is $20 billion-$50 billion over 20 years.

The Construction and Economic Research Institute of Korea, a think-tank affiliated with the Ministry of Construction has estimated that the North Korean infrastructure is at around South Korea's 1975 level, and that it would cost more than $6 billion to bring it up to South Korea's 1990 level. Hong (2000) estimates that transfers on the order of 2-4 percent of South Korean GDP would be needed for an extended period of time to raise the level of North Korea's infrastructure to South Korea's 1980 level.

For $2 billion annually, one could undertake a fairly bare-bones reconstruction program in North Korea that would generate rising living standards and possibly reduce discontent and contribute to political stability, though one should be careful about making too hasty a linkage between material prosperity and political stability. Around half of this would be for recurrent flow consumption expenditures, and around half would be for industrial and infrastructural investments that could be self-financed through export revenues. Most of this trade would be with South Korea and Japan, with China and the US playing smaller roles—even with the US partially lifting its embargo against North Korea in June 2000.9 Thus the necessary recurrent external financing needs would be around $1 billion annually.

Where could this money come from? The government of South Korea has set up a special development fund but the resources are far to small to meet the North's rehabilitation needs. Instead, the single biggest potential source of additional financing would be the resolution of North Korea's post-colonial claims against Japan. This issue was raised by former US Secretary of Defense William Perry during his visit to Pyongyang last year. The Japanese government paid the South Korean government $800 million in compensation for colonial and wartime activities at the time of normalization of diplomatic relations in 1965, with $300 million in the form of grants, $200 million in development assistance loans, and $300 million in commercial credits. The North Korean government expects similar compensation. Adjusting the South Korean payment for differences in population, accrued interest, inflation and appreciation of the yen since 1965, one obtains a figure in excess of $20 billion.10 An additional issue raised by the North Koreans that was not included in the South Korean package is compensation for "comfort women" who were pressed into sexual slavery during the Second World War. Reputedly settlement figures on the order of $5-8 billion have been discussed within the Japanese government. In comparison, Yi Chong-hyok, Vice Chairman of the Korea Asia-Pacific Peace Committee, a KWP organization, in remarks before a Washington audience in 1996 indicated that $10 billion would be the minimum bound for compensation. Japan will certainly argue that its food aid and its one billion dollar contribution to the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO) should be counted against this charge. Some have speculated that Japan will even try to claim credit for the costs of recapitalizing bankrupt Chochongryun-controlled financial institutions in Japan. In any event, such sums, properly deployed, could go a long way in restoring North Korea creditworthiness and financing economic modernization.

If North Korea were to accept the Perry review's terms of engagement, another carrot that the US, Japan, and South Korea could hold out would be membership in the international financial organizations and the prospect of multilateral economic assistance. Pyongyang has periodically expressed interest in joining the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, and Asian Development Bank (ADB), and formally applied to join the ADB in August 2000. Membership talks have never made much progress, however, for they have snagged on North Korea's unwillingness to permit the kind of access to economic data and information required for membership in these organizations, its position on the US list of states supporting terrorism, and Japanese opposition relating to unresolved political issues, most notably the alleged kidnapping of Japanese citizens.11

Under normal circumstances, if North Korea were to join these organizations, in the absence of considerable reorientation in domestic economic policies, it would be unlikely that the multilateral development banks would make significant loans. However, given the political importance of North Korea to the United States and Japan (influential shareholders in the World Bank, and the dominant shareholders in the ADB), one would expect that North Korea might receive favorable treatment.12 Technical advice and assistance would really be more important than direct lending activities, which would ultimately only complement the activities of private investors.

Working from the case of Vietnam (another Asian transitional economy where the government undertook rapid economic reforms) and scaling down the multilateral development banks' lending program for the smaller size of the North Korean population, one obtains lending on a scale of $150million-$250 million annually. Not trivial, but not enough to finance even a bare-bones recovery program. More money might be available if the US, Japan, South Korea and others set up a special fund for North Korea at the World Bank or ADB.13 Such a fund might be a particularly useful way of politically laundering Japanese reparations. It is possible that under some circumstances North Korea could obtain international financial institution loans even if it were not a member.14

For example the World Bank maintains a special program for peace and sustainable development in the Middle East through which it makes loans in the areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority. It also has adopted a policy that allows it to assist countries that are emerging from crises even though they are not members in good standing of the Bank. This policy was adopted after the Bank was precluded from lending to Cambodia because of a debt arrearage problem. The key attributes in these cases appear to be a cooperative recipient government and strong support from major Bank shareholders. Bank staff have also expressed the view privately that an independent, poor North Korea would probably be able to access more lending than a unified middle-income Korea. Either way, the settlement of post-colonial claims with Japan would dwarf anything North Korea could expect from the multilateral development banks.

These developments might be thought of as the necessary, though not sufficient, conditions for consensual unification. Even if they were to occur they would only get the two Koreas part way down the road. Moreover, these developments do not necessarily imply progress toward consensual unification. North Korea could adopt the minimalist reform program and reject unification overtures from the South. Indeed, while implementing such a program, the North might feel compelled to limit discussion of unification precisely to prevent system overload and a loss of control.



How this all plays out depends, at least in part, on the intentions of the North Korean elite. A necessary condition for consensual unification would be a willingness of this elite to countenance a certain degree of reform of current practices. It could be that the Kim Jong-il regime has made the calculation that the best way to preserve their own power and perquisites within the North Korean system is to constructively engage South Korea and the rest of the world, and that moving down the path of economic reform, though risky, presents them with the highest likelihood of ultimate success in preserving themselves within their system. Or, it could be purely opportunistic. It would be that North Korea intends, essentially, to adopt the techniques of economic reform without adhering to either the ethos of the market economy or to the dominant values embodied in the international system. In this case the US and South Korea could be confronted with a strengthened adversary on the Korean peninsula.

How can we tell? Despite the reported stabilization of the economy (or even its revival), and enhanced revenues from the Hyundai deal, North Korea has increased its reliance on international food assistance. The share of food imported into North Korea has risen from nil in 1994 more than 80 percent today. In other words, concessional assistance has almost completely crowded out imports on commercial terms. Food is fungible and food aid acts as implicit balance of payments support—funds that would have otherwise been expended on food can be spent on other items. The issue is then the preferences of the regime, and in the case of North Korea, in the past year there is reason for unease.

According to the South Korean National Defense White Paper (1999), North Korea has increased its reserves of chemical weapons, boosted KPA manpower by 10,000 troops, created a missile division, and added 10 submarines to its fleet. In August 1999 it was revealed that North Korea had purchased roughly 40 aging MiG-21 fighters and eight military helicopters from Kazakhstan. It was subsequently reported that North Korea was trying to obtain more advanced MiG-29 and SU-30 fighters as well. In September 1999, a classified US Air Force report allegedly describing continued North Korean work on its Taepodong missile was leaked to the press. In October, in testimony before the Senate Armed Forces Committee General Thomas Schwartz, the newly appointed commander-designate of US Forces Korea stated that North Korea had accelerated its arms build-up and was forward-deploying artillery and rocket-launchers in underground facilities. In March 2000, Admiral Dennis Blair, Commander-in-Chief US Pacific Forces, indicated that North Korean military exercises during the winter of 1999-2000 had been the most extensive in recent years. Other US military sources indicate that the 2000 summer exercise cycle too, was the most extensive in years.

So what are the policy implications of this? From the standpoint of South Korea, Kim Dae-jung is fundamentally correct that the focus of policy should be aimed at supporting the constructive transformation of the North. Militarily, North Korea already holds Seoul hostage with its forward-deployed artillery. The South Koreans might as well engage North Korea in an attempt to reduce tensions and ultimately achieve reconciliation and unification, because the marginal increase in North Korea's threat capability that might be achieved through economic reform is relatively small. The South Koreans are already over that Rubicon.

Therefore the goal of the South Korea should be to domesticate North Korea, pursuing a two-track strategy of trying to defang it militarily while at the same time rehabilitating its economy. The problem from the standpoint of South Korea is the impact that increased integration with North Korea could have on the South Korean economy. The financial crisis has at least temporarily reversed a 20-year trend toward reduced direct state involvement in the South Korean economy.

As a consequence of its increased presence in the financial sector and other, more indirect levers on power, the South Korean state has a bigger influence on strategic decisions by the chaebol then it did on the eve of the crisis. The difficulty is that despite the good intentions of the South Korean government, politics and economics are inseparable in the North—even in theory. Any significant interchange with the North will be highly politicized. The South Korean government inevitably will be tempted to directly intervene in the economy to promote its foreign policy goals.15

In this light, South Korea should promote two goals in its dealings with the North: transparency and the transformation of the North Korean system. With regard to the first goal, economic integration between the North and South may convey positive externalities to South Korea and the social rate of return on South Korean investment in the North may exceed the private rate of return on such investment. As a consequence, there is a public policy justification for encouraging investment in the North. It would be better though, to introduce broad tax incentives for investment in the North than use the state's influence over the financial system to encourage such investment on an ad hoc basis. The notion behind a tax-based policy would be to divorce the overarching societal goal of investment in the North from state influence on particular investment decisions. The advantage of such an approach is that it would preserve the microeconomic efficiency of private firms selecting among potential investment projects on the basis of expected rates of return, while taking the broader social imperative to encourage such investment into account.

With respect to the second goal, one can imagine a hierarchy of modalities of engagement. The worst would be projects such as the Mt. Kumgang project, which can literally and figuratively be fenced off from the rest of the North Korean economy and society and offer little prospect of structural transformation. Given the historical enmity and distrust between the North and the South, the Mt. Kumgang project may have been a necessary first step to build confidence and trust. But having successfully made that step, future projects should be evaluated with a more critical eye. Marginally preferable to the Mt. Kumgang project would be mining concessions or special economic zones in remote areas such as Rajin-Sonbong. These are classic enclave economies with little prospect for spillover into the broader society.

Industrial parks, bonded warehouses, and other preferential investment zones in urban areas would be preferable, and free investment by South Korean firms throughout the country would be the best of all. The latter would not only maximize the contact between North and South Koreans (and thus demonstration or educational effects with respect to the operation of a market economy), free investment would create competition between local authorities to attract investment.

The bottomline is that South Korea has been traumatized by its financial crisis. Although the economy is currently experiencing a cyclical recovery from the depths of 1998, the July 2000 bank strike and the ongoing travails of Hyundai are reminders that the country has not put the financial crisis completely behind it. Hopefully, the crisis has dealt the process of constructive disengagment of the state from the economy only a temporary setback. The continuance of structural reform and constructive disengagement would be a difficult process for any country under any circumstance. The existence of the North adds a tremendous additional layer of complexity to the challenge that South Korea now encounters.

Yet North Korea faces a fundamentally supportive international environment. South Korea, Japan, China, even the United States want to see a less belligerent North Korea survive until a consensual process of reconciliation and unification can take place on the Korean peninsula. The three questions are whether North Korea is willing to change, whether it is capable of successfully managing change, and to what purposes would it apply the fruits of change. I am hopeful on the first question, skeptical on the second, and wary about the third. I believe that the most likely outcome is a continued muddling through in which the regime makes series of ad hoc adjustments in economic policy while supported by external powers which would prefer to see a less belligerent North Korea muddle along to the risks of instability or collapse. The outcome could well be what I have described elsewhere as "apparatchik capitalismin which the political elite would use their control over state power to channel lions share of rents generated by a partially marketized and nontransparent economy themselves.16


Table 1: Percentage distribution of labor force at time of reform









Czech Republic




















Soviet Union

























North Korea















Source: Noland (2000), table 3.7.



Eberstadt, Nicholas. 1998. North Korea's Unification Policy: 1948-1996. In North Korean Foreign Relations, ed. Samuel S. Kim. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hong, Soon-jick. 2000. North Korea's Infrastructure Conditions and Strategies for Investment. VIP Report. Seoul: Hyundai Research Institute (July)

Manyin, Mark E. 2000. North Korea-Japan Relations: The Normalization Talks and the Compensation/Reparations Issue. CRS Report for Congress, Washington: Congressional Research Service, 21 April.

Michell, Anthony R. 1998. The Current North Korean Economy. In Economic Integration of the Korean Peninsula, ed. Marcus Noland. Washington: Institute for International Economics.

Ministry of Defense. 1999. White Paper. Seoul: Ministry of Defense.

Moon, Chung-in. 2000. Korea and Asian Security in the 21st century. Asian Voices: Promoting Dialogue Between the US and Asia. Washington: Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA.

Noland, Marcus. 1996. The North Korean Economy. Joint US-Korea Academic Studies, 6, 127-178.

Noland, Marcus. 2000. Avoiding the Apocalypse: the Future of the Two Koreas. Washington: Institute for International Economics.

Noland, Marcus, Sherman Robinson, and LiGang Liu. 1999. The Economics of Korean Unification. Journal of Policy Reform 3: 255-99.

Noland, Marcus, Sherman Robinson, and Monica Scatasta. 1997. Modeling North Korean Economic Reform. Journal of Asian Economics 8:1, 15-38.

Noland, Marcus, Sherman Robinson, and Tao Wang. 2000a. Rigorous Speculation: The Collapse and Revival of the North Korean Economy. World Development (September).

Noland, Marcus, Sherman Robinson, and Tao Wang. 2000b. Modeling Korean Unification. Journal of Comparative Economics (June).

Park, Han-shik. 1993. North Korea's Ideology and Unification Policy. In The Prospects for Korean Unification, eds. Jay Speakman and Chae-Jin Lee. Claremont, CA: Keck Center for International and Strategic Studies.

Von Hippel, David and Peter Hayes. 1998. DPRK Energy Sector: Current Status and Scenarios for 2000 and 2005. In Economic Integration of the Korean Peninsula, ed. Marcus Noland. Special Report 10. Washington: Institute for International Economics.

Williams, James H., Peter Hayes, and David Von Hippel. 1999. Fuel and Famine: North Korea's Rural Energy Crisis. Paper presented to the Pentagon Study Group on Japan and Northeast Asia, Washington, 22 October.


1. Discussions have already begun with respect to clearing mines from the demilitarized zone (DMZ) in order to establish the rail links. It has also been reported that at the Okinawa G8 summit, Russian President Vladimir Putin asked Japanese Prime Minister Mori to cooperate on the east coast rail line, which could link Russia and South Korea.

2. This is not to say that successful national reconciliation is the only possible outcome of this process. See Noland (2000) for a discussion of other alternatives.

3. See Noland (2000) for specific references to these formulations.

4. North Korea and Hyundai have been in conflict over Hyundai's desire to significantly increase the number of tourists that it brings to Mt. Kumgang by including large numbers of non-Koreans. At present, foreigners, though not Japanese, are permitted to join the Hyundai tour, although a Japanese newspaper has reported that plans are in the works to permit limited visits by Japanese.

5. See Noland (2000) chapter 7 for a more extensive treatment of this issue, and citations to the relevant literature.

6. The dynastic aspect of the regime could convey certain short-run advantages, however. Presumably Kim Jong-il will claim that in private conversations Kim Il-sung expressed one view or another that will conveniently support the policy that Kim fils wishes to pursue.

7. On the first point, see Noland (1996, 2000). For detailed analyses pertaining to the second point, see Noland, Robinson, and Scatasta (1997), and Noland, Robinson, and Wang (2000a).

8. See Von Hippel and Hayes (1998).

9. This assumes that liberalization in the North was on a non-preferential basis. As shown in Noland, Robinson, and Liu (1999) and Noland, Robinson, and Wang (2000b), the formation of a customs union between North Korea and South Korea would have a big impact on the North while it would have a trivial impact on the South. The customs union would represent a major trade liberalization on the part of the North, while the North's economy would be too small to have much of an impact on the South's economy. (Think of the impact of NAFTA on the United States or the accession of a small central European economy on the EU.) This story—big impact on the North, small impact on the South—would change considerably if integration were to come through collapse, as discussed in Noland (2000).

10. See Manyin (2000) for alternative estimates and additional discussion of compensation issues.

11. Under US law, the US executive directors at the development banks could not vote in favor of extending loans to North Korea until it was removed from the list of countries engaging in state sponsored terrorism. At the ADB annual meeting in May 2000, US Treasury official Ted Truman reportedly stated that "our position on membership is unchanged. Both because our own legislation requires us to do so [and] because North Korea is an international terrorist long as that situation prevails and the North Korean regime is one which is fundamentally incompatible with the principles of institutions such as the ADB, we would oppose membership" (Agence France Press, 7 May 2000).

12. World Bank President James Wolfensohn already signaled as much, writing in a July 2000 letter to South Korean President Kim Dae-jung that "We at the World Bank stand ready to support inter-Korean economic cooperation. We hope to assist in the development of North Korea, within our capacity and mandate, whenever the North Korean authorities are ready to work with us."

13. The ideas of a Northeast Asia fund or a Northeast Asia Development Bank have also been mooted.

14. An April 2000 statement to this effect by the IMF resident representative in Seoul, David T. Coe, was immediately denounced by Rep. James Saxton (R-New Jersey).

15. A good example of this would be Hyundai's Mt. Kumgang tourism project, which, according to South Korean press reports is losing more than $100 million annually. The fear, of course, is that the South Korean government will be tempted to reward Hyundai or other firms that do its bidding in the North with preferential treatment. For example the government might be tempted to steer Daewoo Motors to Hyundai (effectively giving Hyundai a monopoly on the South Korean passenger car market) as a kind of reward for its activities in the North. The designation of Ford Motors as the sole bidder for Daewoo Motors seemed to eliminate this outcome, though Ford's subsequent withdrawal from the bidding would appear to reopen the possibility of using the disposition of Daewoo Motors as a political quid pro quo.

16. See Noland (2000) chapter 9 for further elaboration on this theme, and a comparison to the Romanian case.


Book: Witness to Transformation: Refugee Insights into North Korea January 2011

Peterson Perspective: North Korea's Immunity to Outside Pressure: Part I December 12, 2012

Policy Brief 10-1: The Winter of Their Discontent: Pyongyang Attacks the Market January 2010

Working Paper 10-2: Economic Crime and Punishment in North Korea March 2010

Paper: FTAs and the Future of US-Korean Trade Relations November 2009

Paper: Implementing the KORUS FTA: Key Challenges and Policy Proposals February 2008

Policy Brief 08-6: North Korea on the Precipice of Famine May 2008

Policy Brief 07-7: The Korea-US Free Trade Agreement: A Summary Assessment August 2007

Policy Brief 06-4: Negotiating the Korea–United States Free Trade Agreement June 2006

Working Paper 07-7: North Korea’s External Economic Relations August 2007

Book: Avoiding the Apocalypse: The Future of the Two Koreas June 2000

Book: Free Trade Between Korea and the United States? April 2001

Working Paper 08-4: Migration Experiences of North Korean Refugees: Survey Evidence from China March 2008