North Korea: Connecting To The World? (Live Blog)

North Korea remains one of the most isolated countries in the world, yet it appears in international headlines every day. Understanding the current North Korean situation and its moves in foreign diplomacy are not just important for its neighbours – it’s of great significance to the international community. Today, two former top officials from North and South Korea talk about their first-hand experiences on North Korea’s foreign affairs.

As a North Korean soldier   defected to the South on Monday (June 15), more and more Chinese tourists are curious to go to North Korea to see the reality of China’s mysterious neighbour, while former US Security Council member Jamie Metzl writes about the coming collapse of the nation. Although North Korea remains one of the most isolated nations, it is still connected to the world in various ways – foreign diplomacy being one of them. Today, Leiden University and the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs hold a special lecture on North Korea’s diplomatic relations (June 15th, 12:00–14:00 hours), with two former top officials from North and South Korea talking about their first-hand experiences with North Korean foreign diplomacy. What moves this isolated country to stay connected to the world?


“I dare say North Korea’s regime will collapse”


Dr. Kwang-Cheol Kim, former South Korean top official, is the first to address today’s audience in The Hague to talk about the foreign policy of South Korea towards North Korea, the so-called ‘Sunshine Policy’ being a pivotal part of it: “The goal of the Sunshine Policy was to advance the interaction between South and North. One of its main principles was no tolerance of North Korea’s provocation,” Dr. Kwang-Cheol Kim says.

Although the Sunshine Policy had many successes, it also had downsides: the nuclear problem and human rights situation was often ignored by South Korean officials. Kim Jong-il also misused the policy to strengthen the position of North Korea.

“If I talk about the future of the North Korean regime,” Dr. Kim says: “I dare to say it will one day collapse.” The collapse of the regime would not necessarily mean the collapse of North Korea. “A democratic regime would improve the situation and peace in the entire region.”


“There are three different North Korea’s”


Professor Jin-Sung Jang, former North Korean top official, now addresses the audience (in Korean, with an English interpreter): “There are three North Koreas,” he says: “The real North Korea, the projection of North Korea created by the regime and the theoretical North Korea created by the outside world.” Many countries worldwide, including European ones, form their policies on North Korea on the third North Korea – the theoretical one.

“The Korean Workers Party controls the system. Although the outside world sees the military as central influence, but really in NK it is quite simple: there is 1) Party Organization and 2) Party Life Conduct. There is a totalitarian oversight on people – their personal lives and their work.”

Jang explains how people need to submit themselves to the conduct of the Party. Clapping too loud or dozing off in a meeting could have serious consequences, as the conduct is centrally overbearing within every institutional entity. “The absolute power of the Supreme Leader is only ensured by everyone’s adherence to the Party organization.” Not many people remain in their positions for a long time, Jang explains, due to a system of punishment and purging.


“North Korea should not be approached as a nation state.”


“When Kim Il-sung died (1994), many people predicted the regime would collapse, but it did not. Because by that time, the actual running of the country was concentrated in the organizational secretary. The whole system continued.” The OGD (Organization and Guidance Department of the Worker’s Party of North Korea) has been building on its power since the 1970s; it’s not some new power, although many people think that because they hear about it for the first time, Jang says: “For Kim Jung-un to influence the people in the OGD, he needs to have his own people in this OGD – not only those of his father’s. For power to work in North Korea, your own people need to be in the OGD.” Kim Jong-il when preparing for hereditary succession would have known this problem very well, which explains why his family was suddenly given big governmental positions as a way to counter the power of the OGD network, says Jang.

Jang addresses the issue of European approaches to North Korea: “It’s time to move on from critical engagement,” Jang says: “Separative engagement is a better way – to see North Korea as a place with several stakeholders. Not approaching North Korea as a nation state, but addressing the several institutions or the people. It is based on a misunderstanding to see North Korea as a regime with national interests – the regime only secures the economic interests of the Supreme Leader, not that of the people.”

To break the centrality of the leader, there needs to be engagement with the people. “There are a myriad ways to do this,” Jang says, but dealing with people’s economies instead of dealing with central authority is the most essential.


“North Korea and China are actually not close allies.”


On the relations with China, Jang says: “Ever since China pursued reform and opening, it was no longer a political but regional ally of North Korea. Shared security interests became more important than economic or political interests. They are often perceived as close allies, but they are actually not.”

Dr. Kim goes on to talk about the relations between North Korea and Europe: “Different from Russia and China, the European Union has consistently talked about human rights with regards to North Korea,” he says: “That has provoked North Korean reactions, creating a potential problem. They are unhappy about the way Europe is talking about North Korea. With Europe now within missile range distance, this could form a potential problem in the future.”


Should we all go to North Korea?


One participant of today’s event asks about tourism in North Korea and how Professor Jang feels about it. “I see it as a perfect manifestation of making separative engagement choices” Mr. Jang says: “If it helps separative engagement, we should all go to North Korea. But if it only helps to strengthen the central government, it does not help – and then it has major downsides.” Jang continues: “Going to North Korea for tourism can be like going to a movie set. I would fully support it if there were more possibilities to shake hands and engage with locals.”

What would happen if Kim Jong-un loses his position? – one participant asks. “In North Korea a Supreme Leader regime cannot exist without a Supreme Leader. If he would disappear or die they would need to find a replacement,” Jang says: “North Korean officials are not stupid or brainwashed- they do not entrust their entire life just to anybody. In terms of stability, the central authority figures are stable, maybe more so than during Kim Jong-il. During Kim Jong-il nobody in the OGD enclosed themselves, but now they expose themselves to the public and take up various positions. Before it was very secretive; which is one of the reasons why the world knew so little of them.”



“Dialogue alone is not enough.”


Dr. Kim talks about the future and the demilitarization of North Korea: “We cannot just do nothing,” he says: “But dialogue alone is not enough. We need to pressure them and have different methods to force them to give up their military weapons. But to create these conditions is very difficult.”

He continues: “From the South Korean position – we don’t want instability, war or casualties, so we cannot do much alone. It needs to be an international effort.” Conclusively, he says: “In the long run, I believe the best way to find a solution for the North Korea problem ultimately would be to transform the regime itself.”

(This live blog is now closed).

– by Manya Koetse