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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 East Germany.
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 North Korea?
- 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 and policy.
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 urban areas."
* 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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