Bernhard Seliger describes himself as just a “professional Bavarian living in Seoul,” yet he could be the man to bring peace to the Korean peninsula.
The 46-year-old has lived in the South Korean capital for almost 20 years, during most of which he has served as office manager of the Hanns Seidel Foundation, an NGO that promotes democracy and peace and which is aligned with Bavaria’s conservative Christian Social Union, a sister party of the ruling Christian Democrats.
At the invitation of the South Korean government, and on behalf of the foundation, Mr. Seliger has been tasked with improving understanding between North and South Korea. It’s a position that has placed him at the forefront of the world’s most heated conflict. Is he afraid? “This is the world’s most interesting job,” he replies.
The mood is currently tenser in Korea than anywhere else in the world. North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un is scaring the West with his repeated missile tests and wanton threats, including a recent move to attack the US island territory of Guam. Meanwhile, US President Donald Trump, a key ally of South Korea, is doing little to de-escalate tensions by threatening North Korea with “fire and fury” if it attacks either country.
In recent weeks, the world has felt as if it were on the brink of a military conflict. China and Russia are calling for talks, German Chancellor Angela Merkel wants to see a “reasonable solution” and US Defense Secretary James Mattis is talking about “war.” But despite their disagreements over the choice of methods, they all have the same goal: to curb the North Korean dictator’s constant provocations.
“Years ago, no one saw German reunification coming, either.”
But is it even possible to deter a regime that acts so irrationally? And how effective are sanctions as a deterrent? Mr. Seliger has found some surprising answers to these questions.
Mr. Seliger, an economist, found himself in the role as many Koreans believe that Germany is a role model when it comes to reunification. His relatives also used to live in two different countries: East Germany and West Germany, so he is accustomed to potentially explosive historical situations. Is a war brewing? Mr. Seliger doesn’t think so. But he does think that there are opportunities, possibilities and options.
The situation in Pyongyang has changed tremendously, he says. “The reforms of recent years are a good thing,” he says, referring to the opening of small markets in North Korea where anything from fruit to laptops are available. “There is tacit tolerance of the market by the regime.” These are first steps in a process of change through rapprochement, he adds.
The United Nations, however, has emphasized change through pressure. At the urging of the United States, the UN has just approved the harshest sanctions ever to be imposed on the regime. The export of coal, iron, iron ore, lead, lead ore, fish and seafood to the pariah state is now a punishable offence, and bank accounts are being frozen. In addition to the current index list, in place since 2006, the new sanctions are intended to deprive Kim of $1 billion (€850 million) in export revenues, or one-third of his foreign trade
Most diplomats believe penalties are the only effective tool against the regime. “Sanctions are a way to bring the north back to the negotiating table,” says Park Hyeong-jung of the Korea Institute for National Unification. “If they aren’t working, we simply have to expand them.”
Shin Young-seuk, chairman of the Institute for Peace Affairs in Seoul, also believes there is no alternative to sanctions. “If China and Russia would abide by what was agreed in the United Nations, North Korea would have been in much worse shape long ago.” But that simply isn’t happening, he adds, because a functioning North Korea is in the interest of both countries.
This Monday, the Chinese trade ministry solemnly pledged to fully implement the newly-approved UN sanctions. In reality, however, China and Russia have undermined sanctions again and again.
Can sanctions harm a country if its economic power is so miniscule?
Mr. Seliger’s team discovered evidence of such activity just a few days ago. Staff members from the German foundation discovered an enormous pile of coal in the North Korean port city of Rason. The harbormaster told them that the coal was destined for China.
Sanctions don’t seem to have had much effect. Coal, together with some ores and fish, is North Korea’s only remaining export product, accounting for 40 percent of exports to date. According to the official statistic, trade between North Korea and other countries is worth $3 billion. And even if many goods cross the border illegally, the country is a long way from an economic renaissance. Winters are very cold and the power supply is unreliable.
This begs the question: Can sanctions can harm a country if its economic power is so miniscule? “Often the goal is to express moral outrage rather than achieve a change in behavior,” says Sascha Lohmann of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
US academic Gary Hufbauer adds that sanctions enable Western governments to demonstrate that they are capable of taking action, and predicts sanctions will “remain an indispensable tool of diplomacy.” However, he is contradicted by his own figures. When he and his team examined more than 200 cases of economic penalties, they found that they were ineffective more than two-thirds of the time.
Mr. Seliger concurs with this. “The problem is that the sanctions have had very little effect so far. And even if they did work, they would mainly be felt by the urban population, but not the elites,” he says.
Vienna economics professor Rüdiger Frank, one of the preeminent experts on Kim, believes that change through the market economy should be encouraged instead. “The West’s penalties are well-founded and justified,” says Mr. Frank, “but their effect is completely wrong.” Instead of prohibiting trade, the West should be part of the development of product chains. He hopes that this can bring a new way of thinking to North Korea.
“The West's penalties are well-founded and justified, but their effect is completely wrong.”
Mr. Seliger is also pro-development. But with political initiatives now almost impossible, he has shifted his attention to environmental projects. This is a subject close to Kim’s heart: The dictator has declared a “great struggle” to reforest areas that have been cleared in his country.
Since the declaration, Mr. Seliger and his staff, who have an annual budget of €500,000, have developed environmental programs, invited North Korean forestry experts to Germany to attend seminars at a forestry academy and conducted joint trips to the demilitarized border zone between the Koreas to observe migratory birds.
Mr. Seliger’s idea is to deliberately target researchers and mid-level officials, who are not under particularly strict observation. He has also learned the small tricks of dictator diplomacy. For instance, North Koreans are not permitted to accept direct invitations to South Korea, so the foundation invites the two sides to attend “international conferences” on neutral ground. Of course, he realizes it isn’t possible to fully win over North Koreans in just a few weeks. But he hopes he can at least introduce doubts over whether their worldview is the only correct one.
North Korea itself is making progress in this respect. Partly thanks to Mr. Seliger’s efforts, the country is part of the Paris Climate Accord, as well as being involved in a number of Asian and international environmental and species protection programs. “They are willing to engage in international cooperation,” he says, “and they will be part of the international debate.”
In a sense, environmental protection is Mr. Seliger’s Trojan horse, to bring ideas about the West and freedom to the North Koreans. Whether he will succeed is questionable. He has already received subtle warnings, and not just from German officials. Sometimes his activities go too far for the international community, too. It fears that cooperating too closely with Pyongyang sends the wrong message. After all, the United Nations wants to isolate the rogue state.
So is it right to offer a helping hand to a rogue regime? “Of course, I too sometimes doubt whether we are doing the right thing,” says Mr. Seliger. Still, he adds, Germans of all people should know what dialogue and patience can achieve. “Years ago, no one saw German reunification coming, either.”
A longer version of this article originally appeared in the business magazine WirtschaftsWoche. To contact the authors: firstname.lastname@example.org