So, what can North Korea learn from Cuba?
That’s what the editorial staffs of the Chosun Ilbo and Dong-A Ilbo were asking today. And the answer they reached was, essentially, if the North Koreans were to just stop being a-holes, good things might happen for them.
Both papers noted that what made the normalization of U.S.-Cuban relations possible was Cuba’s efforts to undertake economic reforms and promote greater openness. They also note that with Libya, Myanmar and Cuba coming in from the cold and even Iran currently engaged in negotiations with the United States, North Korea was pretty much the only really isolated country left on the planet.
The way to improve relations with the United States is not to threaten them with nukes, but to open up and reform, the papers say. That Cuba was North Korea’s brother in international communism should make Havana’s efforts even more meaningful for Pyongyang.
Of course, other papers suggest that the United States should apply lessons learned with Cuba to North Korea, too. The JoongAng Ilbo – no friends of North Korea, mind you, given that they were cyber-attacked by the North in 2012 – said the United States, as a party to the Korean War armistice, should take a greater interest in ending the Cold War structure on the Korean Peninsula. In particular, it said Washington should drop its insistence on North Korea giving up its nuke program as a precondition to improved relations, and instead make the nuke issue a long-term project to be resolved. It also noted that President Obama admitted the embargo on Cuba, which lays just off the American coast, had failed, suggesting, I guess, that it should also admit its isolation of North Korea had failed, too.
The Hankyoreh also calls on both North Korea and the United States to learn lessons from the Cuban example, and hopes South Korea helps the learning process:
The normalization of relations between the US and Cuba could be an opportunity to change the mood in the international community, which has focused on conflict over cooperation in recent years. In particular, South Korea needs to play an active role so that the goals of addressing North Korea’s nuclear program and normalizing relations between North Korea and the US can be achieved simultaneously. The departure point should be improving inter-Korean relations and resuming the six-party talks.
Even if the North Koreans were open to learning lessons from Cuba – and I’m not entirely sure they are, given that they’ve had decades to study China and Vietnam and have apparently decided there wasn’t much to learn – I imagine they’d wait awhile to see how developments with the United States play out. Congressional Republicans – whose support President Obama is going to need to lift sanctions against Cuba – and even some Democrats aren’t thrilled about the president’s Cuba surprise. And at any rate, if you’re North Korea, there are lots of lessons to learn, and not all of them point to a happy ending. Pyongyang likely remembers what happened to Muammar Gaddafi, another former Cold War enemy who made nice with the United States only to find himself riding a bayonet after a NATO bombing campaign.
Then there’s the question as to whether the United States can try the same thing with North Korea, or even wants to. With President Obama set to take a major league shellacking from Congressional Republican over Cuba and Ukraine and the Middle East going to shite, the White House could be all out of political capital to spend on foreign affairs. President Obama might also decide to make up for Cuba by taking a tough line against Pyongyang, especially if they really have determined that North Korea was behind the Sony hacking and subsequent threats against U.S. theaters. And outside the United States, improving ties with Cuba seems to be a pretty popular choice, especially among the Western left. You don’t get the same kind of international brownie points for making nice with North Korea, which seems universally disliked, even by Pyongyang’s own allies. Still, the Nobel committee gave Kim Dae-jung the Peace Prize for meeting with Kim Jong-il, so I could be wrong here.
Then there’s the fact that North Korea ain’t Cuba. Cuba was never nearly as isolated, either in terms of its foreign relations or private interactions with the outside world, as North Korea was and is. While both ostensibly communist, they have vastly different histories, cultures and polities, which means even if U.S. trade and interaction with Cuba yields positive results, there’s little reason to believe it would work with North Korea. I suppose this isn’t an argument against at least trying to improve relations with North Korea as long as you a) don’t mind the risk of subsidizing Pyongyang’s nuclear program with U.S. taxpayer money and b) are OK with possibly bankrolling the North Korean regime. But it does breed a healthy dose of skepticism.
Photo by Alex Brown.