"Washington Needs to Accept Some Facts in its Attitude to Pyongyang"

Glyn Ford
March 08, 2013

Victor Cha was the Director for Asian Affairs in George W Bush’s National Security Council from 2004-2007, and his book The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future (The Bodley Head, £25) is being promoted as “the definitive account of North Korea”. Cha’s engaging writing makes the 530 pages turn quicker than they might with a different author. The Six Party Talks – brokered by China – loom large, even as they meandered nowhere. They were central to Cha’s work. Part of the problem is the United States, which, like North Korea, lives in a parallel universe. Washington, despite the nuclear tests by Pyongyang, refuses to acknowledge the North as a nuclear weapons state.

The US persists in staying in denial because the only alternative would be to implicitly acknowledge that North Korea is in the same category as India, Pakistan and Israel – namely, nuclear weapons states outside of the control of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. But, consequentially, then the North Koreans might dare to argue that they should be treated in the same way and with Washington engaging in nuclear arms reduction talks.

Cha amusingly describes his visit to Pyongyang and, more seriously, the visits of refugees such as Kang Chol Hwan, the author of the concentration camp memoir The Aquariums of Pyongyang from the Kim Il Sung period, to meet President Bush in the Oval Office.

All in all, we learn less about North Korea and more about Washington’s (mis)perceptions of and attitudes to the North. Here The Impossible State is seriously schizophrenic and the same is true of Washington’s policy. We are told both that the US has no belligerent intentions against the North and that, during the 1994 nuclear crisis, the Pentagon prepared for a pre-emptive strike on the Yongbyon nuclear plant. We are informed that North Koreans are engaged in the drug trade – although not recently – and that Pyongyang counterfeit dollars may make as little profit as $15 million a year – surely not enough to get the average Mafia boss out of bed in the morning.

We are told that the North has abducted 180,000 foreign citizens over time from France, Italy, Guinea, Japan, Lebanon, Macau, Malaysia, the Netherlands, Romania, Singapore and Thailand. Certainly, Japan and its citizens are rightly incensed by Kim Jong Il’s admission that the North abducted 18 Japanese, but the sheer number claimed by Cha reminds us that former Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s wife firmly believes that she was abducted by aliens.

Cha also records that only one in 10 refugees say they left for political reasons. There are 1,211 refugees spread between England, Germany and Canada, but a mere 96 in the US. He doesn’t explain why they are not in South Korea, as all North Koreans have an automatic right to South Korean citizenship – although others suspect that many of may be ethnic Koreans from China’s Jilin Province who would fail to pass the tests Seoul applies to weed out genuine North Korean sheep from Chinese goats.

Cha’s problem is that, for him, time stopped a generation ago. He still thinks the captured spy ship the USS Pueblo is in Wonsan harbour when it was sailed around the Peninsula to Pyongyang a decade ago.

In Western terms, the North's regime has little, if anything, to recommend it. Nevertheless, today the citizens of Pyongyang have never had it so good. In the past five years, enormous resources have been funneled in to raising living standards in the capital. In the city’s markets, almost anything is available at a price. There are 100,000 new apartments. There are fun fairs and a new water park and dolphinarium where the denizens leap in unison to North Korean martial music. There are two varieties of credit cards, a million mobile phones and fleets of taxis.

Certainly, the privileging of Pyongyang – which is where the people who matter live – has been done at the expense of the rural population, where living standards have marginally improved with the agricultural reforms of 2002 that allowed them to sell production above target in the markets, and without alleviating the dire situation of the inhabitants of the north-eastern rust belt where hunger still stalks the streets, schools and orphanages.

Yet this triage plan has a brutal logic. The new regime of Kim Jong Un has a breathing space to allow it to attempt to suck in investment to its special economic zones and get the economy to recommence the long march back to where it was in the early 1970s as one of Asia’s most successful industrial economies.

The new South Korean President, Park Geun-hye, looks more favorably on Pyongyang than the previous incumbent, Lee Myung-bak, so this decade we just might see up to half a million North Korean workers commuting daily to produce goods for the South in the Kaeson Industrial Complex. Equally, we might see a similar number within the Rason SEZ on the Russian-Chinese border producing for the Chinese and global market. This could be the North’s Deng Xiaoping moment.

Washington will play a key role in either killing or nurturing these possibilities. The first would drive North Korea back into a dangerous corner; the second could bring sunshine. We can only hope that, in his second term, President Barack Obama has a Director for Asian Affairs who thinks Back to the Future is a film and not a policy paradigm.

Originally published in the Tribune Magazine on March 8, 2013, p. 15.

PN member Glyn Ford has been Member of the European Parliament for over 25 years. After leaving the Parliament, he founded POLINT, focusing on European Internal Politics, International Relations and International Trade; Board of the EIAS (European Institute for Asian Studies), and started a collaboration with another Brussels-based consultancy company, GPlus Europe. In a personal capacity Glyn is a Board Member of the European Institute for Asian Studies (EIAS) and the North East Asian Economic Forum (NEAEF).