Lifting the Veil on North Korea

Lifting the Veil on North Korea

Mini Teaser: Is North Korea an irrational state or a survivor against all odds?

by Author(s): Bruce Cumings

Lankov’s account of the state system’s collapse in the early 1990s and the subsequent famine is cogent and accurate. Being forced to pay world market prices for oil cascaded North Korea into industrial decline and agricultural catastrophe, given how much chemical fertilizer it had been ladling on the fields. The author also is correct in estimating the dead from this crisis at five hundred thousand (deduced through the careful demographic scholarship of Daniel Goodkind and Loraine West), rather than the two million routinely tossed out in the U.S. media.

In portraying the contemporary standoff between the two Koreas, Lankov is thorough and accurate. He knows there is no military solution to the North Korean problem. The North would lose a war with the United States and the South. But any victory for America and South Korea would unleash overwhelming and probably insoluble challenges, including the daunting need to occupy the mountainous North, fending off the three to four hundred thousand crack troops in the DPRK special forces and guerrilla units, and actually governing. This last challenge, in turn, would generate cascading problems. For one, the South sees the North not as a country but as an antinational entity, its laws and practices null and void since 1945. Since then, it has maintained shadow provincial governments. (I remember attending a wedding in Seoul in 1968, and being introduced to the South Korean “governor” of North Hamgyong Province, which is in North Korea.) For another, the former landed gentry—an aristocratic elite that monopolized land throughout the five-hundred-year Choson dynasty (1392–1910) and subsequent Japanese colonial rule—regrouped in the South before and during the Korean War. Families still maintain land registers from their estates in the North. They would want to enforce them after unification, as other exiles have done in post-1989 Eastern Europe. Lankov argues strongly for retaining the land as it is in the North or perhaps selling it off to the farmers who work the cooperative farms, lest land squabbles unleash bloody internal strife. Finally, the Pyongyang elite fears the consequences of defeat: not just oblivion for their families and their histories—a terrible fate in a country with long genealogical memories—but trials and even executions.

Instead, Lankov urges engagement with the North and applauds the many gains that came when two successive South Korean presidents (Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun) pursued—with North Korean counterpart Kim Jong-il—a decade-long “sunshine policy.” The name itself was unfortunate, for it suggested a kind of softheaded engagement with an “axis of evil” power in the vein of perhaps a Jimmy Carter. And the concept couldn’t survive a five-year hard-line drumbeat against it from South Korea’s subsequent president, Lee Myung-bak. But Lankov shows that it worked, with years of “truly astonishing increase[s] in inter-Korean exchanges.” Its biggest legacy is the massive Kaesong industrial zone, where more than fifty thousand North Koreans work for a multitude of South Korean and foreign firms. That is the last surviving artifact of that brief period of North-South reconciliation.

LANKOV ENDS his book with a thoughtful and provocative rumination on what the future holds for the North and for the world it lives in. It is a pipe dream, he argues, to expect the DPRK to give up the plutonium and missiles that it appeared to forgo in two separate negotiations with the United States: first, the 1994 agreement that froze its plutonium facilities for eight years, and second, the agreement that Kim Jong-il and Bill Clinton were ready to sign in December 2000 to mothball the missiles (a formulation that George W. Bush quickly walked away from). The reason can be summed up in some important recent history. The North, writes Lankov, finds it difficult to deal with a country that agrees on a joint communiqué stating that neither party “would have hostile intent toward the other,” as both nations did in October 2000, and then places its partner in an “axis of evil” and threatens it with preemptive attack. A Democrat such as President Obama might have been able to go back to the status quo ante and rejuvenate these agreements, but the invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi have rendered that all but impossible. As Pyongyang views recent events, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein got inspected, gave up his weapons of mass destruction and then was invaded. Qaddafi did likewise, was overthrown by an internal revolt supported by a multinational intervention and then was cruelly murdered. The North Koreans, looking at this history with a cogent logic, have resolved that this isn’t going to happen to them.

Nor is there much chance that sanctions will change North Korean behavior in the future any more than they have in the past. And there is little utility in Washington’s persistent belief that China should do the right thing and rein in the North Koreans. If China coddles and cajoles Pyongyang into good behavior, it faces inevitable North Korean extortion; if it hammers North Korea to end the current regime, it will face a flood of refugees into China, while South Koreans and Americans once again position troops at the Yalu River (this time for good). Americans kid themselves into believing that capitalist China is no longer run by hardened Communists. This idea ought to have been dispelled when former president Hu Jintao gave a secret speech lauding the DPRK’s political system (while excoriating its economic pratfalls) or when the newly ensconced president Xi Jinping also gave a secret speech praising the early Mao period, and demanding a return to strict Leninism. Xi asked, “Why did the Soviet Union disintegrate? Why did the Soviet Communist Party collapse? An important reason was that their ideals and convictions wavered.” That was exactly what Kim Jong-il said throughout the 1990s: by giving up on ideological indoctrination, the Soviets prepared their deathbed.

Washington and Seoul have no choice but to talk to the North Koreans, Lankov writes, and try to get what they can. He suggests this most likely would work along the lines of former Los Alamos head Siegfried Hecker’s suggestion that the current programs be capped through the “three no’s”—no more nukes, no better nukes and no proliferation. Given the North’s labyrinthine underground facilities, we will never locate every bomb anyway, and a small handful of nukes will provide security and deterrence for the leadership but be otherwise useless.

All people-to-people foreign exchanges should be pursued, Lankov argues, because they truly do influence those North Koreans lucky enough to participate—just as they did Soviet citizens from the 1950s onward. He also advocates efforts to use technology and social media to penetrate the population, not in efforts to overthrow the regime (a hopeless endeavor, he thinks), but to work toward a long-term future where the regime will be undermined from within. This will only happen after a prolonged period of North-South reconciliation, perhaps even through a confederal scheme whereby North Korean elites would retain their autonomy for some time. Here we become aware of our losses, because Lankov resuscitates ideas that former South Korean president Kim Dae-jung first voiced in his inaugural address in February 1998.

I was amazed on that warm and sunny day when I attended that inauguration (a good day for a “sunshine policy”) as President Kim mounted the podium and completely transformed South Korea’s strategy toward the North. He pledged to “actively pursue reconciliation and cooperation” with the DPRK, seek peaceful coexistence, and support Pyongyang’s attempts to improve its relations with Washington and Tokyo—in complete contrast with his predecessors, who feared any hint of such rapprochement. Kim explicitly rejected “unification by absorption” (which was the de facto policy of his predecessors), and in effect committed Seoul to a prolonged period of peaceful coexistence, with reunification put off for twenty or thirty more years. The key to a workable future, for Lankov and President Kim, is to let Koreans handle it. As Lankov puts it in contemplating the DPRK, “What can the outside world do? Frankly, not all that much.” Let’s call that hard-won wisdom.

Bruce Cumings is the chairman of the History Department at the University of Chicago and the author of Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Nicor. CC BY-SA 3.0.

Pullquote: The Korean People's Army—not the Worker's Party—was always the real basis of the Kim family's power.Image: Essay Types: Book Review