We must feel sympathy for the North Korean government officials suddenly faced with slick corporate operators from Koch Industries, or elsewhere, who come in to overwhelm them with gaudy presentations, to bribe them and to do everything in their power to get them to hand over the keys to their resources so they can be exploited for the benefit of investors who will never step foot in North Korea.
That process is all too well known. We saw it done in the case of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states in which originally British Petroleum, and then Standard Oil (and later others) seduced a small group of the elite with the allure of riches and created a society in which natural resources are ruthlessly exploited for the sake of foreign investors, and a handful of Saudis, and the domestic infrastructure, let alone education and social services, are left in a state of deep decay.
North Korea will need our help and our timely advice on how to respond to these challenges in a meaningful manner. The possible rape of North Korea can become the rape of Korea.
Needless to say the United States government, which has been stripped of all experts on climate change and is engaged in a reckless campaign to deny the very existence of this catastrophe, cannot play a role in that assessment of the environmental impact, or social impact, of foreign investment in North Korea. In fact, no corporations, or corporate consulting firms, can play a role because they are all subject to market pressures that force them to distort their findings in the interest of profit.
Here is a suggestion as to what the essential points in a proposal for North Korea’s development might look like. The proposal is so different from what is actually being discussed in government and industry that many readers may perceive it to be fantastic, entirely unrealistic. I hold that it is common for the truth to appear alien and out of place when it suddenly appears on a stage that has been trotted for decades by the deceptive and the duplicitous.
I invite you to take a careful look and to make your own assessment. At the minimum, I hope that Koreans will have the bravery, and the vision, to keep this model on the table as they debate other proposals made by those who are paid lavish salaries by the people who hope to profit from the “development” of North Korea.
What is often forgotten in Seoul is that once the North opens up, North Koreans will become simply Koreans and that South Koreans will be subject to the very same sorts of abuses that North Koreans will be subject to. This is a critical moment to put forth a vision for a better future.
Tentative plan for North Korea’s economic, cultural and political development
The process for making a plan
First, throw away any proposals made by corporations, by consulting firms linked to corporations or by government agencies that have corrupt relations with the corporations that stand to benefit from the exploitation of North Korea’s resources, or of its labor.
We then need to establish an international advisory committee, including a few North and South Koreans, that will provide relevant and helpful advice to the North Korean government and to its citizens as it struggles to respond to the coming confusion born of rapid social and economic change.
The advisory committee should be made up of experts from around the world who are known for their high ethical standards and for their profound understanding of the specific economic and social challenges that North Korea will face. Not one member of this advisory committee should have ties to investment banks or corporations that stand to profit from the exploitation of North Korea’s resources or of the labor of its citizens.
The task of that committee, and for those in North Korea who are involved in the process, will be to draft a plan for the development of North Korea that is focused exclusively on the long-term interests of the country, but does so in accord with scientific principles, without exaggeration or posturing, speaking the truth and presenting a vision for what is possible that is inspiring. The plan should stress that North Korea cannot be successful long-term if it does not avoid short-term fixes that generate income for the few but undermine the livelihoods of its citizens, and that destroy the environment in a manner that will bring terrible costs in the future.
At the center of the plan must be the recognition of two fundamental facts that have been proven through scientific research beyond any doubt, but which are ignored by irresponsible politicians and a sensationalist media to the determent of all of humanity. First, that the greatest threat facing humanity is climate change, which is impacting North Korea primarily in the form of spreading arid land (and eventually deserts) and rising temperatures that affect agricultural production. The response to climate change must be a core concern in any program for development.
Second, that the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few people has done tremendous damage to the social fabric of Asia and that it has undermined a healthy society for all of us. Any plan for the development of North Korea must promote profoundly different economic paradigms that encourage development starting at the local level and which assure that capital is used for the benefit of ordinary citizens. Addressing the problem of the concentration of wealth, and the abuse of finance by the few is critical because the world is poised on the edge of a massive financial collapse. North Korea must avoid, at all costs, getting itself into heavy debt during the first stage of its development because there is a high risk that foreign firms that move in to make short-term profits will pull out of North Korea quickly, with no warning.
There is tremendous interest from multinational corporations in North Korea. That interest has nothing to do with the human rights of North Koreans or the poverty that affects so many. Rather, investment banks are drawn in by the potential profits to be derived from the exploitation of the extensive deposits of coal, uranium, iron, gold, magnesite, zinc, copper, limestone and rare-earth metals (required in the electronics industry now thriving in the region) that lie beneath the surface in North Korea. According to the South Korean mining company Korea Resources, the value of those resources are around $6 trillion.
North Korea is a poor country and its government officials lack the expertise to judge the environmental impact of the exploitation of resources, or its social and economic impact. Underpaid government officials can be easily seduced by shows of opulence, or outright bribery, into making decisions that future generations will regret.
An unconditional freeze should be placed on the exploitation of any mineral resources in North Korea until Pyongyang possesses sufficient expertise to assess the long-term impact of the development of natural resources on its own, or with the help of disinterested, ethical international advisers. All proposals for mining of resources must be subject to extensive environmental impact studies conducted by true experts. Strip mining for uranium, coal and other resources, which destroys the far more precious soil and causes irreversible damage, should be prohibited.
What to do with the massive reserves of coal found in North Korea is a far greater challenge for us than the dismantlement of its nuclear program. The overwhelming evidence from scientific research is that the use of coal use has a catastrophic impact on the climate and that if we continue to use coal (and petroleum) we will make our Earth uninhabitable in the next 30 years. The best policy is for North Korea simply to leave the coal in the ground untouched.
Those who hope to make profits off of the sale of coal think about this issue differently, and they offer the only opinion that is presented in the mainstream media, or discussed by business leaders, or by politicians. But what the majority of people believe based on misleading, or false, information is not of any relevance. The only relevant point is the truth, and if the truth is accessible to the people, in North or South Korea, the conclusion will be clear.
The development of natural resources in North Korea should be eventually managed by regulated national monopolies that have no profit incentive and that are entirely capable of ending operations if the resources that they develop are judged through scientific investigation to have a negative impact on the environment or on society. The profits for the exploitation of mineral resources should be focused entirely on the development of the North Korean economy in terms of investments in education, improved governance, and welfare. Above all, developing a new generation of educated and motivated North Korean government officials who have the knowledge, the ethical principles and the bravery to stand up for the long-term needs of citizens will be critical for future development.
The negative impact of the development of natural resources is not limited to pollution. The sudden influx of wealth is often limited to a small number of the power elites and does little to benefit the vast majority of citizens. We need only look at the process by which British Petroleum, and later Standard Oil, developed Saudi Arabia in the 1950s and 1960s. The Saudi royal family became fabulously wealthy and sent all their assets overseas. Saudi Arabia suffered from terrible infrastructure, poor education, spreading deserts and poor wages for the vast majority of citizens.
Such a scenario must be avoided in North Korea. Our goal is to produce a new generation of healthy, highly educated, ethical and motivated North Koreans who can run their country for themselves and for their brothers and sisters. Linking economic development to the exploitation of cheap labor will slow down cultural and social integration of the peninsula.
There is already a dangerous trend in North Korea towards the concentration of wealth in the hands of a tiny elite. If future economic development is further concentrated in the hands of the well connected, who are in turn tied to international banks, they will have no incentive to end the exploitation of workers in factories and mines, or to stop the use of coal-powered power plants.
That is to say that the growing disparity of wealth could be a more serious problem in the long term than the poverty of ordinary citizens in North Korea.
It is common for politicians to show a satellite photograph of the Korean Peninsula at night and to remark that the complete darkness seen in North Korea, in contrast to Japan and South Korea, is testimony to the lack of economic development in that country. Although it is true that North Korea’s citizens have suffered needlessly from corrupt and arbitrary governance over the past few decades, lighting up the sky at night should not be a priority for anyone.
If anything, South Korea should strive to make sure that its territory is as dark as that of North Korea at night by ending the extravagant use of electricity and encouraging a culture of frugality. If North Korea, by contrast, builds dozens of coal-powered plants and lights itself up at night like a Christmas tree, that will be a monumental catastrophe for the entire region.
The smartest plan for North Korea is to stick to 100 percent renewable energy from the beginning and never start the import of fossil fuels, even if that may slow down the process. Encouraging traditional low-consumption habits can go hand-in-hand with efforts to promote better awareness about nutrition.
There may never be a need to import fossil fuels if North Koreans continue their frugal habits. There may be a need to import solar and wind-power technologies, but it will be critical that North Korea quickly acquires the capacity to produce such products on its own. Toward this goal, technologies related to solar and wind power should be made widely available without any payments for patents.
If North Korea becomes 100 percent renewable energy, it will be a point of pride for its citizens and will become something that South Koreans will come to learn about. Such a sense of worth and of purpose for North Korea is absolutely essential. That sort of psychological boost cannot be purchased with money. We must make sure that North Koreans never feel they are behind other “advanced countries” if they do not waste resources or indulge their impulses in response to commercial advertising. They should know, and we should know, that “small is beautiful.” That is the essence of traditional Korean culture.
The frugality we see in North Korea is in part a result of poor economic planning over the past three decades which has limited North Korea’s ability to develop. Yet frugality is not a sin, but a virtue. If anything, South Koreans can learn from North Koreans about how to live meaningful lives without indulging in mindless consumption. Read more of this post