- Reading and Misreading North Korea
By Leon Sigal, Social Science Research Council
Global Beat Issue Brief 17, November 1996
- North Korea today is generally portrayed in the news media as a
Stalinist rogue state, implacably hostile to the outside world and hellbent
on acquiring weapons of mass destruction
- The news media seem preoccupied with three questions about North
Korea: Does it have the Bomb? Who is in charge in Pyongyang? And when will
the regime collapse, following other communist states into the dustbin
of history? The answers to these questions are unknown, or unknowable,
leading to much speculation whether North Korea will be another Iraq or
- But several other critical questions are rarely addressed: Why has
North Korea tried so hard to sustain political engagement with the United
States? Why has it been willing to suspend its nuclear program? Why has
the United States been so reluctant to engage North Korea? And why is South
Korea trying to impede political engagement between the United States and
- - Leon Sigal, Social Science Research Council, Moderator, "Reading
and Misreading North Korea"
- Media images to the contrary, the scholars, foreign policy veterans,
and journalists gathered at an October 24 Roundtable "North Korea
and Regional Security" were reluctant to accept a "know-nothing"
approach to North Korea. In particular, the panelists in the session "Reading
and Misreading North Korea" agreed on several key points that challenge
popular views of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. First, they
said, North Korea is politically stable, and despite serious economic difficulties,
it is not a society on the brink of collapse. Second, it is not a static
society; rather, it is changing, albeit slowly, in an effort to engage
the international community, and especially the United States. Third, sensationalist
accounts in the media of isolated incidents interfere with responsible
attempts to better understand North Korea and interact with it more effectively.
- John Merrill, Foreign Affairs Analyst at the U.S. State Department
(speaking in a personal capacity), was explicit that a certain amount of
reliable information is available. Denying that North Korea is a black
hole, he cautioned against referring to the country with metaphors like
"a latter day version of the Hermit Kingdom.... There's a lot we don't
know," Merrill conceded, "but there's a lot we do know. How else
could the U.S. have conceived, proposed, agreed to, and begun to implement
the Agreed Framework [halting North Korea's nuclear weapons program]?"
- Merrill also cautioned against attributing much to "the nature
of North Korea." This "essentialist" approach replaces the
need for analysis with simply blaming North Korea for all its problems.
According to Merrill, this can lead to a lack of self-reflection toward
one's own policy or the impact of actions toward North Korea. But North
Korean behavior, like that of any other country, relates to external behavior
- The government, Merrill added, is also not a monolith. North Korea
is a complex society with ongoing political processes, especially within
and between different government bureaucracies. Despite a high degree of
control from the top, such control is not total.
- Columbia University professor, Stephen Linton, a frequent visitor to
North Korea, recommended against relying on rumors or on simplistic distinctions,
such as that between a hard-line military and a soft-line foreign ministry.
Linton noted that North Korean diplomats, in fact, often use such stereotyped
perceptions to their advantage and have proven to be quick studies in dealing
with the West.
- A Stable Society
- K.A. Namkung, a Guest Scholar at Brookings Institution and director
of Seton Hall University's Project on the US and East Asia, stated what
was perhaps the most important point of the panel. North Korea, he said,
is a stable political entity. It is a society with very deep roots, he
noted. Despite obvious problems and stresses, neither the government nor
the country itself is near collapse.
- Linton and Merrill agreed. In fact, Linton noted, North Korea remains
a strongly traditional society. "More than we may realize, this is
a remarkably Asian, and Korean society." However, many South Koreans
don't like to hear this view because it lends some legitimacy to the current
North Korean state, Linton said.
- Opening to the U.S.
- Related to the panelists' belief in North Korea's comparative stability
is their opinion that this is a changing society. While the country and
its leaders are basically conservative, said Linton, politicians and the
public have both clearly begun to alter their attitudes toward the US.
"You can't expect them to turn on a dime," he said, and obviously
North Korea is "not like a democratic society in the West, but there
is a public opinion that matters." The government has for several
years been preparing the public for a gradual opening to the US and shifting
away from the older style of fully antagonistic public rhetoric.
- A context for understanding such shifts, Linton added, is North Korea's
affinity for "one-solution approaches." For example, North Korean
officials focused its hopes for eventual reunification almost entirely
on South Korea until recently. When they judged that this approach proved
disappointing, they moved to an almost exclusive concentration on relations
with the US. Even while ideologists in the North continue to believe that
Marxism will eventually take over in the South-and even in the US-they
now consider making deals of convenience with the West. To a large extent,
they see the US as their vehicle for joining the international community,
moving toward reunification with the South, ensuring peace on the Korean
peninsula, and ultimately, protecting North Korean interests against potentially
hostile China and Japan.
- Namkung echoed the picture of an evolving North Korea. The country,
he said, is entering a period of serious engagement with the West, especially
at the non-governmental level. Many international delegations have now
traveled to North Korea, and, increasingly, North Korea is sending delegations
to international meetings organized by Western NGO's.
- Last June, Namkung traveled to Pyongyang and elsewhere in North Korea
with a Carter Center delegation that explored prospects for increasing
agricultural efficiency in the DPRK. As a result of that visit, North Korea
agreed to send agricultural students abroad for the first time. Moreover,
Namkung said, a striking number of people spoke English at a recent international
forum in North Korea's Shinju and Nambo Free Trade Zone, and enthusiasm
for engaging with the West seemed especially high among young people.
- Perhaps most surprising, Namkung said, North Korea had even arranged
for David Copperfield to give three performances in Pyongyang. National
television would televise the American magician's performances, and cans
of Coke would be distributed to the audience in the 7,000-seat auditorium.
- In this respect, John Merrill stressed the importance of comprehensive
approaches to understanding North Korea. Specifically, he advised looking
at economic issues in addition to the more common focus on military and
security issues. He cited, for example, the recent appearances of North
Korean premier Kim Jung Il at the construction site for a new tourist resort.
Especially because this took place immediately after the September crisis
over the North Korean submarine incursion into the South, it represents
another small signal of the DPRK's gradual shift towards economic reform.
- Merrill warned against dismissing such apparently minor events. Comparing
North Korea to a turning oil tanker, he said that change will likely be
slow and uneven. "But it is still important to highlight the small
steps," he said. He suggested looking for "markers," such
as the promotion of new economic ties with foreign investors, and the reported
adoption of a reformist, Chinese-style "sub-work team" responsibility
system in agriculture.
- The Big Picture: Spy vs. Truth
- Perhaps the biggest danger for North Korea watchers, noted the panelists,
is the temptation to dramatize discrete events, such as the incursion of
a North Korean submarine into South Korea, and the massive South Korean
search for the North Korean infiltrators who went into hiding after the
submarine sank off the South Korean coast.
- With South Korean officials (at least partly for domestic reasons)
asserting that the sub incursion suggested commando raids and preparations
for an invasion, much press coverage followed suit. Reactions to the submarine
incident, Linton said, emerged largely from treating North Korea as an
"evil genius octopus," with Pyongyang's central authorities in
total control of its many tentacles. This view, which Linton said especially
dominates the South Korean press, ironically assumes that actions make
the most sense when they appear inexplicable; it is simply that the South
is not smart enough to figure out the North's evil design.
- In reality, noted all three speakers, a more likely scenario is that
the North Korean submarine was on a relatively routine mission of landing
spies. This is an ongoing effort on both sides of the Korean peninsula,
not a special sign of increased military preparations. From North Korea's
perspective, the event may have been more of a diplomatic blunder like
the US U-2 spy plane mission that went awry in 1960 on the eve of then-President
Eisenhower's summit with Soviet Premier Krhuschev, which had been intended
to improve US-Soviet relations.
- The speakers related the twin themes of stability and change in North
Korea directly to the value of keeping the long term in mind. John Merrill
stressed the necessity of considering a context of past statements and
actions when viewing incidents like the submarine incursion. Look at general
trends, he recommended, as much as at specific events. "Don't focus
on the exact date when Kim Jung Il is finally invested with all his father's
titles," Merrill said, "but rather look the general movement
of his gradually gaining more power and authority."
- Overall, Namkung said, the North considers today's "three-ring
circus" of spying accusations (which include parallel assertions of
a US spy in the North, and South Korean spies in Washington) to be a threat
to improving ties with the US and with the Korean Peninsula Energy Development
Organization (KEDO) - the agency set up by the October 1994 Agreed Framework
to build nuclear reactors in the North and to supply the country with oil.
- North Korea's long-term desire to improve relations with the US also
explains its reactions to recent conflicts, Namkung said. For example,
while the North initially highlighted the submarine story and that of South
Korean spies in the US, it then tapered off its attention to these incidents.
Instead, North Korea now stresses humanitarian grounds as it tries to convince
South Korea to return the bodies of dead submarine crew members. It is
also significant, Merrill noted, that the North publicly acknowledged the
submarine incident, diverging from its past behavior in similar cases.
- The Dog That Didn't Bark
- All that said, the speakers recognized the immense difficulties of
getting accurate information from and about North Korea. For example, Linton
said that he had considered titling a recent article, "North Korea
Through a Limousine Window," since even after repeated visits it remains
difficult to get past the "guided tour" restrictions imposed
by the government. He denied that he is an expert about North Korea, and
even asserted that no one could be a real expert, given the severe restrictions
on visiting the country.
- Merrill added that the broad cultural divide between North Korea and
the West, which is exacerbated by a political divide and mutual hostility,
creates huge barriers for analysts. Moreover, because North Korean communications
are often indirect and subtle. Thus, Merrill repeated the journalistic
rule to "look for the dog that didn't bark." For example, North
Korea did not celebrate a month of anti-U.S. struggle this year. Dropping
old statements, Merrill said, is often a sign of a new policy.
- Limits on information-gathering, of course, also underlie many disputes
among even serious North Korea observers. In one key example, the panelists
disagreed on the severity of this year's famine in North Korea. Merrill
pointed to evidence of "thousands dying," but Namkung called
for care in reading famine reports. "My [June 1996] visit included
hunger experts, and we didn't see much," he said. "I haven't
seen any examples of distress in ten trips," Namkung added. "I
assume the problem is severe, especially as you go north into the mountains
and villages. It's likely a regional problem, though, and not as bad in
- * This Issue Brief is drawn from presentations made at the Center's
Roundtable on North Korea and Regional Security, October 24, 1996, at the
International Center for Journalists, Washington, D.C.
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