Schmidt, A Show of Respect and Hope for Change in N. Korea

By going to N. Korea Monday against the express wishes of the State Department Google vice chairman Eric Schmidt is playing into Pyongyang’s hands. At least in this instance, that’s probably a good thing not only for N. Korea but for the US, East Asia and the world’s general sense of well being as well.

At the moment the only prospect for improving the lives of N. Korea’s 24 million long-suffering people — and paving the way for ultimate reunification with the South — is to feed the status of its new leader Kim Jong-un, the closest thing to a powerful reformer to emerge in the reclusive nation in two-thirds of a century.

Schmidt’s trip does precisely that by creating the impression — which the State Department wants to avoid — that Pyongyang’s successful rocket launch has prompted a respectful homage from the west.

Of course whatever incremental boost the launch may have given N. Korea’s military and technological capability is too small to transform the west’s prevailing attitude of scorn and annoyance into anything likely to elicit a show of respect.

And that’s the problem. A show of respect by the west is what the young Kim regime needs to secure the stature and respect to move away from a regime supported by military bluff and bluster to one supported by its ability to improve the welfare of its people.

So far evidence of Kim’s desire to improve his people’s living standards has been scant albeit encouraging to close observers. In speeches he has repeatedly emphasized the need to raise living standards. He has embraced a populist leadership style involving frequent contact with the people. He has shown a willingness at least to tolerate American cultural icons like Mickey Mouse and Rocky in a highly publicized musical performance last year. He has shown a more modern mindset in being accompanied by his wife to public functions. He has implemented limited reforms allowing farmers to keep a substantial share of their crops. And unlike his unsavory dad, the youngest Kim hasn’t been linked to the kinds of grotesque excesses that make even the most debauched rock stars of the last century look like boy scouts.

For a product of the family into which he was born, Kim Jong-un has shown himself to be remarkably attuned to the priorities of a reasonably conscientious person in his position.

He has also gone a step farther and shown steel in his backbone by bringing to heel what has been perceived as the biggest obstacle to true liberalization of N. Korea — the nation’s huge military headed by ultra-conservative Stalinists bent on clinging at all cost to their ruinous prerogatives. Among them were control of the nation’s vast mineral resources and first dibs on its food and energy supplies.

Recently obtained accounts of persistent food shortages among even relatively elite soldiers suggest a high degree of corruption at every level of the military leadership. Only by making the military subordinate to the government would the Kim regime be able to exercise the control needed to attract the scale of foreign investments needed to modernize the nation’s economy.

A visit to N. Korea by someone of Schmidt’s stature does more than afford Kim a facsimile of a tributary visit from the west; it affords him the opportunity to show western executives that they will be given free access to the nation. Kim is also likely to reward Schmidt’s visit by releasing Kenneth Bae, the Korean American travel agent detained since November — a PR coup for Schmidt and Google — creating the impression that visits to the North will be rewarded.

As things stand nothing is likely to defuse Pyongyang’s monomaniacal and impoverishing quest for nuclear armaments better than an economy and a society dynamically engaged with the outside world. That would advance the ultimate goal of the US and its allies of ending tensions on the Korean peninsula.

If Schmidt’s visit does anything to enhance Kim’s stature at a critical juncture in his new regime, it will be a small but significant step toward a more open — and consequently, more engaged and prosperous — N. Korea. In turn that will be a boon for East Asia and, ultimately, the whole free world.