North Korea has continued to make headlines with yet another missile test over Japan - its second in three weeks, as well as news that its recent nuclear test may have been even stronger than initially thought. Amidst growing tensions as well as stricter sanctions, there are still many who are convinced that North Korea’s actions are rational – as opposed to suicidal - as a means of preventing regime change (see Fareed Zakaria’s opinion piece from September 15 in the Washington Post).
We talked about North Korea’s current strategy and direction, but I began by asking about his personal experience in a country so guarded it is often referred to as the Hermit kingdom.
“It was a good opportunity because I had been doing Korean studies here in Prague. Before 1989, things were different and basically anyone doing Korean studies in the former Czechoslovakia was able to visit Pyongyang. But after the fall of communism, that changed of course. All the exchanges stopped.
“In 2003, North Korea had students who were studying here and therefore offered scholarships to us. A colleague and I were chosen and we got to go to North Korea after no one had gone to study there in around 15 years. We went there for six months and we were the first Czech students after all that time. That meant that no one here knew what to expect or could give any particular advice.
“If I remember correctly, we didn’t have a Czech ambassador to Pyongyang and so it was a kind of an adventure as well as an opportunity to see the other side. I was doing Korean studies, so I thought, Why not.”
Were you warned not to break certain guidelines or not to break any rules?
“I went over there not knowing all that much about North Korea, especially compared to my colleague who had focussed more on the North and the Kim family, so I was pretty open. It was a strong experience emotionally because the first thing was that I was immediately reminded of my childhood. I grew up in communist Czechoslovakia.
“I was 11 when the Velvet Revolution came, and many things there, from all the propaganda and posters and monuments, reminded me of what life had been like here. We had had all those things at our elementary school and elsewhere.
“It was a very strong atmosphere but not the easiest to define: everything was kind of drab and grey, propaganda signs, and all that but very emotional. There was one moment which I never forgot which was when we were headed for the dormitories with our guide at he asked for our passports, took them and put them in his breast pocket. And we didn’t get them back for a month and a half…”
So that made you understandably nervous, I guess.
“It was a good start to the trip! But to answer your question: we didn't get a lot of advice ahead of time. We were told to connect with the Polish embassy, which we did.”
Was there any contact with ordinary North Koreans? And what was that like?
“We looked into it, since basically we could move freely around Pyongyang and we didn't have a monitor, but all of the people we encountered, well, they have rules there how to communicate with foreigners. So it git a little bit boring, because the nature of the conversations was always the same. Others were afraid to talk to us because they could get into trouble so at a certain point we kind of withdrew and didn't pursue the matter. We weren’t really eager to after that.”
Did you ever have any personal experience where you felt the weight of state oppression was more greatly felt or more visible?
“Not really. But I have to say that Pyongyang is kind of a special place. In a way, it’s kind of a shop window for the North Korean regime for foreigners. Only the elites live there. It is not possible for anyone to just move there. Many North Koreans visit only once in their lives and it is of course heavily controlled.”
I was reading about juche - how does that doctrine fit or dovetail with classic communist ideology?
“Well the North since the late 1940s adopted Marxism-Leninism with the then Soviet presence and then moved away from that when Kim Il-sung began to build the cult of personality around himself and Marx and Stalin faded into the background. Stalinism changed into this juche and later Kim Il-Sungism. The leader began to expand his own theories and system and even tried to export his ideas in the 1970s and 1980s and there used to be juche circles in friendly countries around the world. These days, it is everywhere there and also there are also other propaganda threads such as songun which put the military first.”
North Korea has been in the news because of its nuclear weapons testing, because of the UN response, and also because of the Trump administration. It has gotten to a point where things seem to be escalating and some media and political players have suggested we are even approaching a kind of brink. The US ambassador to the UN said just a few days ago that North Korea was “begging for war”. What is your perspective on this, obviously, you know the culture and the mentality.
“There are a number for factors in the North Korean problem: the newest is the Trump factor. President Trump began using the same kind of rhetoric as the North Korean regime has long used and it makes the situation seem even worse than it is, probably.
“Another thing is that the North Koreans are quite consistent in what they say and what they do: it is quite obvious why they have followed a certain path. The regime feels in danger from American military power, from the end of the Korean War until now. The fall of the socialist bloc only heightened those fears and now it is even more intense.
And backed out of the non-proliferation treaty…
“Exactly. And from my point of view, they now fear being attacked by the United States.”
It is a deterrent.
But they do want to develop the technology and they have done so at a faster pace even than, we now know, most experts expected.
“Very fast, especially when you consider the conditions there. There are two important precedents which changed everything and that was the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the fate of Libya and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. In one case, the United States acted without UN approval and in the other Gaddafi went along with the US and ended up the way he ended up. Those were very important moments for North Korea when they realized it could happen.”
North Korea was also referred to as being part of the Axis of Evil by President George W. Bush…
“That’s right. So I think those were the moments when the mindset became to deter the United States from taking action by building up nuclear arms.”
There were articles as late as earlier this year in the hopes of reviving the long dead six party talks… aimed at getting North Korea to back away from the path it has taken…
“This is a platform which North Koreans do not want. They have a problem with the US and in my view don’t want to speak to six countries. South Korea, on one level, they see as still one country, Russia and China they can get along with, they have a problem with the United States.”
That’s actually a very interesting aspect for anyone on the outside looking in: the countries have been split since 1948 and since the Korean War and one, the North, developed in a radically -different direction, Many people have seen that footage of the North and South from the space station and how South Korea is all lit up while the North is almost entirely dark. How do South Koreans feel? Obviously, you have several generations of families that were broken and destroyed. There have been steps by officials on both sides in the past towards some kind of reconciliation and yet something like that seems impossible. How do you do that when you have a democratic and economically strong South and totalitarian rule in the North?
“That of course is the big question. I have experience in both countries and I can say that they are indeed one people. They are the same, despite the differences, it is the same nation, the same way of thinking, the same culture. When I went to South Korea from the North I had so many deja vu, it is unbelievable how much they are the same.
“On the other hand, South Koreans are very pragmatic. They have a very developed economy, a very high standard of living, and any unification, they know, would bring both down.”
The price tag would be enormous…
“Yes. The other way that they are pragmatic is in how they go about their daily lives and how dangerous they consider North Korea to be. I think that they see things much more coolly than we do. Czech news sites, like American ones, have the view that the North is very dangerous, but the South Koreans are pragmatic. Of course, they have to respond to aggression, the government and army have to react, but basically I don’t think they see it as such a big deal when they test a missile.
“It is true that South Korea would be happy if the North developed better economically as fast as possible. Then some steps towards reunification might be possible. What many do not like, especially men, is mandatory military service, two years that they have to serve now which is entirely because of North Korea. That is painful for them.”
“I find it hard as well. We had kind of a lite-version in Czechoslovakia, but how they would deal with all the changes, from combining the military to freeing prisoners but punishing the previous regime or the level of the elite, the numbers would be the same, according to some studies. If it did happen, the North Koreans would be second-class citizens for two or three generations at least. I always say that the most painful thing for Koreans will be after the change.
“Any scenario where the North would change step by step is very unlikely. The change which will come, I think will be difficult and it will be sudden and a spontaneous process.”