What is North Korea’s game? Months of belligerent moves, then a series of conciliatory gestures over the summer, were capped off with the September announcement that Pyongyang was back to enriching plutonium. To find out what it all means, and what the U.S. should do, Columbia’s Michael B. Shavelson spoke to Charles K. Armstrong, the Korea Foundation Associate Professor of Korean Studies in the Social Sciences and author of the forthcoming Tyranny of the Weak: North Korea and the World, 1950–1990.
Columbia magazine: The nuclear test
in May. The missiles fired in July. The arrest of journalists Euna Lee
and Laura Ling. Their release after Bill Clintonís intervention. The
relaxing of some North-South travel restrictions in August. Are these
events part of the same story?
Charles K. Armstrong: Theyíre all
connected inasmuch as they reflect the pattern of how North Korea has
been dealing with the world, and particularly with South Korea and the
United States, over several years. The North Koreans have learned that
the best way to get the attention of the U.S. and the outside world
is to rattle their sabers. Unfortunately, it has tended to work, because
when North Korea isnít instigating such provocations, it tends to
Columbia: In June President Obama
said, ďThere has been a pattern in the past where North Korea behaves
in a belligerent fashion, and if it waits long enough is then rewarded.
. . . [W]e are going to break that pattern.Ē†Is Obama ready to
break that pattern?
Armstrong: Obama has not said a lot
about North Korean policy. Heís been understandably focused on other
issues, and he has not made North Korea a priority. Thatís unfortunate
because it is an issue that warrants attention. Part of the problem
is that the administration has not put the kind of focus on North Korea
that it could have in order to continue the momentum that had been building
since the last year or so of multiparty talks. The administrationís
position is that North Korea has to come forth with verification of
its nuclear program before Pyongyang can continue in the six-party talks,
which is at the moment the sole venue for negotiating. †
Columbia: Those talks ended last
Armstrong: The North Koreans and
the Americans have very different priorities. The U.S. wants nuclear
disarmament and the prevention of proliferation. The North Koreans want
a peace agreement with the U.S. and a guarantee of their security. Itís
not clear how that can really be achieved, but those are the essential
starting points. This leads to the issue of timing. The U.S. has said
since the Bush administration that it wants verification that North
Korea has shut down its nuclear program completely before it can move
forward. But the North Koreans have argued that theyíve given the
information that was expected of them about their nuclear program, and
that the peace talks should move to the next stage of economic assistance
and cooperation. †
Columbia: North Korea would prefer
bilateral talks to the six-party talks.
Armstrong: Right. Theyíve never
been terribly enthusiastic about any kind of multiparty talks. They
have stated repeatedly that the main problem is between themselves and
the United States, and problems have to be solved at that level. When
Obama was campaigning, he said that he would be willing to talk to anyone,
including Kim Jong Il, face-to-face, to resolve pressing issues of foreign
policy. The North Koreans seem to have taken him at his word and were
expecting, rightly or wrongly, that the U.S. would engage in bilateral
talks with North Korea. They have expressed disappointment that this
Columbia: Could Bill Clintonís
recent trip help in that regard?
Armstrong: I think the North Koreans
are very pleased that Bill Clinton met with them, even though the release
of the journalists was theoretically not related to the other issues.
Clearly, this visit was a significant breakthrough in contact between
the U.S. and North Korea.
Columbia: Do we know anything about
Armstrong: The Obama administration
said repeatedly that Bill Clinton was going as a private citizen, and
that his visit had nothing to do with administration policy. But there
is no way we can believe that Clintonís conversations with Kim Jong
Il stuck simply to the issue of the imprisoned journalists. What Clinton
has said to the administration has been kept very quiet, but obviously
he could bring back some useful information. Among the most important
is about Kim Jong Ilís health and his hold on power. †
Columbia: The North Koreans seem
to feel comfortable with Bill Clinton.
Armstrong: Yes, Bill Clinton went
the furthest toward developing a bilateral relationship with North Korea.
Under Clinton, the U.S. and North Korea for a time reached an agreement
over North Koreaís nuclear program in 1994 and again toward the very
end of his second term, the U.S. and North Korea came very close to
negotiating a deal on North Koreaís missile development. As the North
Koreans see it, Clintonís visit last month picked up where he left
off at the end of his presidency.†
Columbia: Kim Jong Il is portrayed
in the West as being a bit mad. Is he?
Armstrong: There is a rationality
to what he does, and there is a pattern that has developed over the
last 15 years of North Korean provocation and brinksmanship. But the
provocations get more intense, the stakes get higher each time, and
thereís always a danger that circumstances could get out of control.
Itís a very volatile situation on the Korean peninsula. †
Columbia: Has that brinksmanship
benefited North Korea?
Armstrong: Letís go back to the
beginning. In October 1994, the U.S. and North Korea signed an agreement
for North Korea to freeze its nuclear program and the U.S. to lead a
consortium to give energy aid to North Korea. Things stalled after that,
until North Korea staged missile tests in í97 and í98, which created
a defensive crisis and panic. This spurred the administration to return
to negotiations and to work on the missile deal, which made considerable
progress in the second Clinton administration. So, yes, it has worked
to an extent, but it occurs within a very risky pattern of behavior.†
Columbia: What is life like today
in North Korea?
Armstrong: Itís difficult to get
a clear picture of everyday life of ordinary people in North Korea.
Even the NGOs and the humanitarian agencies that visit North Korea have
limited access, although access is much better now than it was 10 years
ago. The general sense we get is that life is quite spartan. People
are not starving as they were at the end of the 1990s, although malnutrition
is still a problem, especially in the more remote areas. The 10 percent
or so of North Koreans who are privileged to live in Pyongyang lead
a pretty good life, relatively speaking. They have enough to eat, and
adequate housing, but outside of that, life is pretty grim.
The industrial infrastructure has
largely broken down. Food production is still far from sufficient to
feed the people. North Korea is still dependent for perhaps a third
of its food on outside aid from China primarily, and also from Western
donors. The state distribution system collapsed for much of the country
in the late 1990s, though it has picked up to some extent. In the past
the citizens were primarily dependent on a ration system to get their
food, but now many citizens, most of them in the countryside or towns,
get their food from markets. The informal bottom-up marketization of
the North Korean economy began in the early 1990s because there was
simply no other way for people to survive other than to sell goods on
the market. †
Columbia: Does the government tolerate
this informal market economy?
Armstrong: It did for 10 years. Then
in the summer of 2002, the authorities decided to formalize it and put
into place laws that allowed people to buy and sell on the markets.
A lot of large ones were set up in Pyongyang and elsewhere, where farmers
could bring their goods. Prices were lifted on certain staples, such
as rice. This had positive and negative consequences. It allowed for
much more freedom of flow of goods, and access to more people, but it
also created inflation and a dramatic rise in prices for ordinary people.
Also, the North Korean government allowed for certain goods to be purchased
in foreign currency, including dollars, so people who had access to
foreign currency ó members of the elite ó were able to do better.
That went on for a while, and then in 2005Ė2006, the government started
clamping down. A year or so ago, for example, the government instituted
a law that no woman under the age of 59 could work in a market. This
meant that there were no more of those young, energetic, entrepreneurial
people staffing markets. So, the government is very ambivalent about
economic reform. Officials see the advantages of greater production
and access to consumer goods, but they donít want to open the country
up to foreign influences, corruption, and what they think is excessive
Columbia: What about human rights?
Armstrong: The human-rights situation
is one of the worst in the world. People do not have the freedom to
say anything critical of the government. For example, if you deface
the image of Kim Il-sung or Kim Jong Il in a newspaper by cutting it
up or wrapping your garbage in it, you can go to jail. Itís reminiscent
of the Japanese emperor worship of the 1930s. †
Columbia: Including the spiritual
dimension of that?
Armstrong: Itís all couched in
quasi-Marxist language. But thereís a strong emphasis on Korean nationalism
and the perfection and glory of the great leaders, Kim Il-Sung and Kim
Jong Il, his son. It is a strange sort of political religion.†
Columbia: We do not know much about
the heir apparent, Kim Jong Un. What little we know does not suggest
that he will be a serious leader. What are the possibilities of a collapse
after the death of Kim Jong Il, of a coup, or even of an overthrow?
Armstrong: Anything is possible,
but I think that the window of opportunity for that would have been
in the early 1990s. The country was starting to fall apart, there was
a ripple effect from the collapse of communist regimes in Eastern Europe,
the first great leader, Kim Il-Sung, died, and there was a famine.
Today the situation is more stable
and it seems unlikely to me that you would have a revolution, or even
a coup. On the other hand, the North Korean people do have more access
to outside information now than they did a decade ago. Despite strong
government controls, there are broadcasts from the South and China on
radio and television that North Koreans are getting access to, a lot
of movement back and forth across the border with China, so North Koreans
arenít as isolated as they once were.
The military and the Kim Jong Il
family have come to be codependent. The family has been ruling for 60
years, and anyone who wants to achieve power in North Korea has to work
through the Kim family. I would guess that if Kim Jong Il were to die
some time soon, then Kim Jong Un, if he is indeed not ready to be a
hands-on ruler, would probably be a figurehead, through whom people
within the party and military leadership would work.†
Columbia: Are we likely to see unification
in our lifetime?
Armstrong: Korea was a unified state
for over 1000 years before it was divided in 1945, so there is a strong
historical basis for unity. But the question is what will happen to
North Korea. The North and South have talked for decades about some
sort of cooperation, even a confederation of the two systems. But theyíre
so different that itís hard to imagine how that could happen. After
Germany was unified in 1990, a lot of people speculated that a similar
thing would happen in Korea, that North Korea would collapse and be
absorbed. That could still happen, but the South Koreans donít want
it. Younger South Koreans donít feel that strong an emotional attachment
to the idea of a unified Korea, especially if itís going to come at
a great economic cost. It would be enormously expensive to absorb the
North into the South.
What may happen, if there is a change
in North Korea, is that the two sides might come together to increase
cooperation, and eventually achieve unity. That was the hope of South
Korean president Kim Dae-jung, who recently passed away. He tried to
encourage cooperation between the two Koreas, and economic reform within
Iím confident that there will be
unification, and it might happen quite suddenly and unexpectedly, but
we really canít predict when or how that will take place.†
Columbia: On September 3, after a
month of conciliatory gestures, North Korea announced that it was in
the final stages of enriching uranium and that ďplutonium is being
Armstrong: If the Obama administration
wants to put a stop to North Koreaís nuclear program, both plutonium
production and uranium enrichment, it had better take advantage of the
window of opportunity opened up by the Clinton visit and begin intensive
negotiations with Pyongyang. Past experience has shown that threats
and sanctions only push North Korea toward more aggressive behavior,
whereas focused negotiations have led to positive outcomes.†