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‘N. Korea unlikely to collapse’

WASHINGTON (Yonhap News) ― The international community should not expect North Korea to collapse soon through popular uprisings but instead seek an incremental approach to build trust with the nuclear-armed communist state, an expert said Sunday.

Andray Abrahamian, a freelance writer on Korea issues who teaches at Social Science College of the University of Ulsan, South Korea, dismissed chances of any collapse of the North Korean government by a popular movement as being “nearly impossible.”

“First, civil society spaces where counter-government action could develop barely exist in North Korea,” Abrahamian said in a contribution to the Web site “38 North,” specializing in North Korean affairs.

“More importantly, there is an absence of elites willing to risk challenging the existing order to harness a mass movement. Essentially, these elites have nothing to gain and much to lose; people who might benefit from regime change do not have the capacity to act.”

The scholar did not predict North Korea will “repeat the kind of popular uprising that brought down Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak,” claiming, “This leaves a painful, piecemeal engagement approach as the only option for change.”

He is critical of the so-called grand bargain approach the South Korean government proposed in 2009 for the denuclearization of North Korea through a comprehensive deal rather than a piecemeal approach.

The grand bargain envisions a package deal in which members of the six-nation talks provide Pyongyang with security guarantees, massive economic aid and other incentives in return for a complete deal that does not necessitate further negotiations for the North’s nuclear dismantlement.

Critics say the grand bargain is unrealistic due to opposition from the North and the incompatibility with the six-party deal, which calls for reciprocal action in a step-by-step approach for the North’s denuclearization in return for economic aid, diplomatic recognition by the U.S. and Japan, and other benefits.

Abrahamian said that neither the Lee Myung-bak government nor the Obama administration is in a position to offer a comprehensive package to North Korea due to domestic politics.

“The Lee administration is now in no position to soften its stance after the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong Island incidents,” he said, referring to the North’s torpedoing of the South Korean warship and the shelling of the border island that killed 50 people last year.

“The Obama administration has an array of domestic initiatives it must expend political capital on, including health care and unemployment,” he said. “Moreover, amid a number of significant international challenges, the administration now faces a tricky task in balancing U.S. interests in the Middle East while trying to encourage genuine democratic development.”

Lack of trust between the two Koreas after “a 60-year legacy of military conflict, broken agreements and failed efforts at engagement” also make it difficult for the North to make a grand deal with South Korea and the U.S., the scholar said.

Abrahamian doubted the efficacy of the strategic patience the Obama administration has employed for the past couple of years in the hope that sanctions will eventually pressure the isolated and impoverished North to reach out to the international community and abandon its nuclear weapons programs.

If Seoul and Washington “continue on their current course of strategic patience, conflict is by no means inevitable, but the danger of further escalating tensions can’t be ruled out,” the scholar said.

The strategic patience, which lacks active engagement of North Korea, simply helped the North enhance its nuclear arsenal with its second nuclear test in 2009, critics say, adding Washington has focused more on nonproliferation by the North than denuclearization as China, North Korea’s staunchest communist ally, has been lukewarm to go along with sanctions on North Korea and serving as a lifeline to the North by providing most of its fuel, food and other necessities.

North Korea also revealed in November a uranium enrichment plant that observers fear could serve as a second way of producing nuclear bombs, aside from its existing plutonium program. Pyongyang claims it is producing uranium fuel for power generation.

“Despite the desires of some in Washington, Seoul and Tokyo, the DPRK is not going to collapse anytime soon, nor are its people going to foment an indigenous uprising,” Abrahamian said. “Without the potential for an Egyptian style uprising or Grand Bargain for Korea, and heeding the need to prevent war, the only viable option left is an incremental, trust-building approach. This will ultimately be a long and difficult task, demanding both bilateral and multilateral efforts to address the range of concerns of all the major actors.”
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