How Albanian Democratic Transition Could Inform North Korea By Jun Kwon and Rezart Pinderi
Economic openness, not sanctions, is the best approach for America toward North Korea. This is the main lesson from the fall of Europe’s harshest and long lasting communist dictatorship in Albania. North Korea and Albania differ in many ways, but both share a history of foreign invasion and concerns about geopolitical locations. Albania was partitioned repeatedly during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The London Conference in 1912 was a striking example, where leaders from six major world powers imprudently dislocated Albanians and non-Albanians alike.
Korea was a unified and independent country (Chosun Dynasty) until 1910 for 1,300 years before it was annexed by Japan. Even though Korea was liberated in the wake of the Japanese surrender to the Allied Powers in 1945, the destiny of Koreans was determined by the foreign powers against their will and divided as a result of the international political climate of the Cold War. The two separate (opposing) regimes were created in 1948 and have been maintained ever since.
The former communist state of Albania cut all ties with outside countries but Russia and China. The government later decided to fully isolate itself, believing that it could better form a legitimate and highly functioning communist state. No country imposed any sanctions on Albania, and consequently, most Albanians were interested in the outside world, though prohibited from experiencing it. Sanctions would have emboldened the communist government, by creating a narrative of self-defense, like the one long undertaken by the North Korean regime.
Communism unraveled in Albania in 1985, when Ramiz Alia (pictured above) engaged the West, allowing foreign direct investment, to help a struggling economy. Rather than prolonging communism, these reforms contributed to the collapse of the regime in 1990. Interestingly, the democratic transition unfolded from above, not the streets. 25 years later Albania has made tremendous advancements and now is a member of NATO, the United Nations, and aspires to join the European Union. The economic is stable and productive, while democratic institutions have been normalized.
Unlike Albania, not only has North Korea been isolated from the international community for many years, but sanctions have been imposed against it by various countries unilaterally and collectively by international bodies. Conventional wisdom suggests that economic openness and growth would lead to political liberalization and democratization as in the case of Albania. This is not imminent; however, because of domestic and external factors.
In assessing the domestic factors, one must examine the role of the ideology of Juche in shaping North Korea’s economic policies and the ensuing consequences. The word Juche simply means self-reliance or self-support. In the economic realm, Juche dictates the principle of economic self-sufficiency or the autarkic economy. North Korea has alienated itself from the global economic activities in order to fulfill the Juche-driven economic system. There is no doubt that the policy of economic self-reliance has deterred economic openness and growth in North Korea given its neighboring countries like South Korea and Taiwan employed an export-led strategy regarding economic growth.
Nuclear ambitions and resultant sanctions is the main external factor hindering economic openness. Sanctions are predicated upon two assumptions: 1) North Korea will give up the nukes and will join the international community as a normal country if economic conditions become bad enough; 2) People in North Korea will express their economic discontent and revolt against the Kim’s regime prompting collapse. Neither assumption is likely to turn into a reality. The Kim regime is maintained through pathological nationalism. North Korea cites the hostile policy and possible invasion of the U.S. as the primary reason for their economic misfortune.
One should recognize that external threat (actual or perceived) might empower a regime that otherwise might experience a legitimacy crisis. North Korea is an exemplar case for this. Drawing from a lesson from Albania’s path to economic and political openness, the international community needs to ponder over various approaches (rather than sanctions-only approach) to bring an end to North Korea’s nuclear program and its long isolation.
Jun Kwon is Assistant Professor of Government at Utica College. Rezart Pinderi is a government and human rights advocacy student at Utica College.