WASHINGTON, Oct. 23 (UPI) -- North Korea's isolated society seems to be repeating the patterns of the Soviet Union and East European countries prior to the collapse of communism there. This is the conclusion suggested by the observations of Ragchaa Badamdamdin, a Mongolian parliamentarian who has visited North Korea 10 times.
Badamdamdin, who heads the Mongolia-North Korea Parliamentary Group in the State Great Hural, Mongolia's parliament, first visited North Korea in 1997 in the aftermath of several years of devastating famine. "It was a very serious situation. I saw the reality at the time and thought the regime would collapse," he said.
"Many international leaders and South Korean businessmen have paid money to meet (North Korean leader) Kim Jong Il," he observed. He particularly mentioned the money secretly paid to North Korea prior to the 2000 summit meeting in North Korea's capital, Pyongyang, between Kim and South Korean President Kim Dae-jung.
When Mongolia's leaders, the prime minister in 2003 and the president in 2004, visited North Korea, they were asked to pay money to meet with Kim, according to Badamdamdin. They offered to settle an old debt to North Korea worth $1 million that had been on the books from Mongolia's communist time. It was not enough. "They didn't meet because they didn't pay," he said.
That money was part of the financial lifeline the North Korean government had scratched together to help maintain their grasp on power. The critical importance of that lifeline perhaps explains the vehemence of North Korea's reaction to financial sanctions imposed on Banco Delta Asia, the Macao bank through which North Korean money, including the profits of counterfeiting U.S. dollars, was being laundered.
Badamdamdin spoke to United Press International early last week in Seoul at a conference of the Mongolian Peoples' Federation for World Peace. "People of Mongolian descent stretch far beyond Mongolia," explained Kim Min-ha, former senior vice chairman of the National Unification Advisory Council of South Korea. He said that the federation provided a forum to "transcend narrow tribalism and think globally." The current crisis in Northeast Asia was high on the agenda.
Reverend Sun Myung Moon, founder of the Mongolian Peoples' Federation, spoke to participants at the Cheong Jeong Goong peace palace in the mountains outside Seoul. He urged them to become owners of the task of building a "peace kingdom." Rev. Moon spent nearly three years in a North Korean labor camp. He spoke on the 56th anniversary of his release by U.N. forces on Oct. 14, 1950; he was freed on the eve of his execution date.
Rev. Moon is the founder of News World Communications, Inc., a media company whose holdings include United Press International.
During his visits to North Korea, most recently in 2005, Badamdamdin was told by second-tier leaders there that they wanted to open the society and develop the economy. Mid-level leaders "want to keep the current government but follow the Chinese economic pattern. They want to learn how to make a peaceful transition from communism. But their actions are constrained," he said.
With strong encouragement from China, Kim launched limited economic reforms in 1998. Tinkering at the edges of a moribund command economy proved disastrous. Price controls on certain products were lifted, resulting in the quick soaring of the price of basic foodstuffs beyond the meager wages of ordinary workers.
Whether from his own unwillingness to pursue reform systematically or because of resistance from within, Kim's attempts to open the economy have always had a stop-go character. Badamdamdin said he observed quite a few mobile phones in Pyongyang during his 2002 visit. By 2004 they had disappeared.
A South Korean official who had worked with North Korean counterparts on the Kaesong industrial complex just north of the South Korean border confirmed the outlook of mid-level officials. He is in his forties and said that when he and his colleagues spoke privately with their North Korean peers they made it clear they knew their system was unsustainable. They looked to a transformation along Chinese lines.
Mongolia has maintained the diplomatic ties it had with North Korea from the communist era. Mongolian leaders believe they could help North Korea transform its system, especially its economy, because of their own experience emerging from communist central planning.
Mongolians and North Koreans do not need visas to visit each others' countries. As a result there has been a small but steady flow of labor from North Korea to Mongolia. Mongolia has continued to support this movement despite objections from the U.S. Embassy in Ulan Bator. But the North Korean flow has been drying up, as their workers are pushed out by Chinese laborers who simply do a better job.
Badamdamdin runs a small business where he employs North Koreans. Their work ethic does not match that of Mongolians or Chinese, but "after two or three years their attitude starts to change."
South Korean managers and officials at Kaesong, the joint project combining South Korean technology and capital and North Korean labor, have similar experiences. South Korean workers typically arrive on time, but the North Koreans frequently arrive late and then disappear in the course of the day. Managers will find them sleeping in hidden corners of the factories.
This is reminiscent of Soviet workers' attitudes in the years prior to the Soviet collapse: "We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us." If this picture is correct, then the highly disciplined, tightly controlled society that was North Korea has fractured irrevocably.
The leadership remains, holding on to power for dear life, but major change now seems inevitable. The only questions are when and how it will occur.