"The pen is mightier than the sword." For nearly a decade, Brahm has used newspaper articles, magazines and authored over 20 books to explain current affairs, reshape stalled negotiations, and provide a communication platform to Asian leaders and policymakers. His writings reveal underlying central challenges facing Asia over the past decades.

Going Soft on Kim

Written by Laurence Brahm - Published by South China Morning Post on 04/21/2009

Ancient Korean Zen philosophy purported that reality is only a question of perception, and that soft power can overtake hard power. North Korea’s recent missile (disguised as a satellite) launch reveals how different perceptions can be among nations, while sparking a debate over responding with soft or hard power.

Following the launch, the differing news reports from the countries participating in the six-party talks were revealing. Japanese news media reported that “North Korea has launched an object that has crossed Japanese air space flying in the direction of the Pacific Ocean”. South Korean news media confirmed that “North Korea this morning has launched a man-made satellite”. News reports in the US and Russia simply confirmed the launch of a North Korean missile. North Korea’s news media, meanwhile, said: “This morning we have launched the number two bright star communication satellite.” China’s media predictably reported verbatim what North Korea’s state news agency had said.

Given such different perceptions, how can these nations ever hope to achieve a consensus through talks?

On April 9, mass celebrations were held in Pyongyang. “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il used the opportunity to declare the launch a “great success in politics, diplomacy, and status in the international world, demonstrating our achievement in the world”. He then cleverly requested UN sanctions be removed.

Actually, this should happen. It is good that China has been demonstrating the pragmatism of soft power by hosting the sixparty talks. Talking is always better than not talking, and a lot better than brinkmanship. But it is not an end-game solution, either. In fact, China does not have a clear path in mind towards any solution. Unlike US diplomacy, which looks for clear resolutions even when none is in sight, classic Chinese diplomacy will delay an issue as long as necessary in the hope that a solution will arise in time or in changing circumstances, or so that the problem can be passed to the next generation of leaders. Sometimes this approach works.

But, this time, it might not be enough. So, while keeping the sixparty talks going, a parallel approach may be needed. This should come from Washington. President Barack Obama hinted at change when he called for a global reduction in nuclear weapons in response to the missile launch. But that will not solve the North Korea imbroglio. A specific, co-ordinated response is needed. Embargoes do not work. Mr Obama is in a position to recognise this, and Mr Kim has given him the opportunity. The problem that Mr Kim faces, like most dictators, is one of managing internal politics and factions by presenting everyone else as a common enemy. His rocket launch served this purpose.

Have the experts ever wondered that, maybe, our usual assumptions are wrong. Mr Kim is not “crazy”, but a clever and calculating survivor. Washington can work with someone like that. Let us try a new assumption – that Mr Kim is a closet reformer. He has proved this by opening casinos and once granted an entire special economic zone to a flamboyant Chinese entrepreneur.

Rather than undertake regime change, a more pragmatic (maybe Chinese) strategy is to simply adopt “regime buyout”: offer Mr Kim power for life. Neither of his sons is capable of succeeding him, so he might not care about the dynasty ending with him. Then, as part of the power guarantee, ask for investment concessions. The other five parties sitting around the table are the regional stakeholders. Each should invest in this new cheap labour market. They should become joint stakeholders in a North Korea infrastructure development fund that would allow the creation of special economic zones along the lines of China’s model. The next stage would be direct corporate investment. This would change Korea, alter its economic base, prevent a humanitarian disaster, and allow a rational evolution after Mr Kim. In short, the six parties should invest, not just talk.


Laurence Brahm is a global activist, international mediator, political columnist and author. He is the leading advocate of a fresh development paradigm - The Himalayan Consensus - an innovative approach to development.

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