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Understanding North Korea – Part 1

Professor Andrei Lankov is the head of Korean studies at Seoul’s Kookmin University. As a citizen of the former Soviet Union, he was able to complete part of his undergraduate studies in Pyongyang as part of an educational exchange. This has given him a unique perspective on North Korea, the country that is arguably the most talked about on the news, while also being the least understood. Also a columnist for the Korea Times, I was lucky enough to hear him speak about the world’s last closed nation while photographing the third week of the Network for North Korean Democracy and Human Rights conference in Seoul.

I decided to split this article into three parts to make it a more comfortable read. Read the second part here

Professor Andrei Lankov i

Professor Andrei Lankov in Sinchon, Seoul

Illogical. Irrational. Unpredictable. These are the kinds of words that are likely to be associated with North Korea and its dictatorial government. The infamous Kim family dynasty has been described as the world’s only remaining communist monarchy and they rule over a malnourished population, commanding an enormous military funded by a broken economy. There are few countries on earth that garner as much international curiosity as North Korea, possibly because so little is understood about it. So how have three generations of Kim males maintained control for so long? Are they as irrational and unpredictable as they may seem? What is the actually happening in North Korea and what does its present reality mean for its future?

“They are the best bunch of Machiavellians in existence,” Andrei Lankov, Professor of Korean studies at Kookmin University, says of North Korean leaders, “They know exactly what they are doing, and they have survived”. Survival, according to Lankov, appears to be the main objective of the current North Korean regime. While 20-30 years ago grand aspirations of a unified Korean peninsula under the control of Pyongyang may have existed, now it would seem that North Korea’s elite are simply trying to ensure that they are able to die comfortably in their beds at an old age. Those in power (an estimated 1-2 million of the countries approximately 25 million citizens) have become accustomed to rule and they have no desire to live out their days in exile – or worse.

One of the more remarkable things about North Korea is the fact that it still exists. Lankov remembers how people in the Soviet Union, as early as the 1980’s, were speculating on how quickly the regime would collapse. The country was economically backwards even then; survival after the death of Kim Il Sung seemed extremely unlikely. It was thought that perhaps Hungary or the former Czechoslovakia would be among the few possible Communist dictatorships able to stand the test of time, but while leaders like Tito and Husák  have long since been deposed and vilified in the passages of history, the Kim family marches on. Though by relative global standards the North Korean elite cannot be considered fabulously rich, living perhaps as luxuriously as a successful Manhattan lawyer, they are certainly comfortable. And they have gotten used to their power.

With the death of his father, Kim Jong Eun now has the precarious job of maintaining his family legacy. While some speculate that his Western education in Switzerland may encourage him to reinvent North Korea following the Chinese example, there are some major obstacles he faces. According to Professor Lankov, there are four foundational principles which the Kim family has used to hold dominion since the 1970’s – No Reforms, Keep the Nukes, Kill the Dissenters (All of Them), and Control the Market.

An inexperienced and untested leader, Kim Jong Eun is heavily influenced by his advisors, many of whom are left over from his grandfather’s administration. “There is no one in the government who could be considered Kim Jong Eun’s drinking buddies. They are relics of the 60’s and 70’s and he has to follow them,” says Lankov. There is no way to know if he likes or hates this situation, but it seems clear that the same policies will continue for the foreseeable future.

No Reforms

There has been speculation that North Korea has been on the cusp of reform since the 1980’s, yet very little has happened. While logic might suggest that the surest way to reinvigorate the dismal North Korean economy would be to institute gradual reforms as China did after the death of Mao, there is one major obstacle standing in the way – South Korea.

In China’s case, there was no “South China” to contend with. The income gap between North Korean and South Korean citizens is estimated to be between 1:15 and 1:40. Even if the most conservative estimate is true, this is still the largest disparity in wealth of any two countries in the world which share a land border. Any reforms initiated by Kim Jong Eun would necessarily open North Korea to the outside world, exposing North Koreans to “mind-blowing pictures of South Korean success. Though South Koreans will admit that there are problems in their [own] society, from a North Korean’s view, it is a very attractive life,” asserts Lankov.

From a dictators perspective, this poses some serious problems. Unlike in China where the population was aware of the successes of the outside world, North Koreans are largely without international awareness. Most Chinese knew that countries like the United States enjoyed very different circumstances than they did, yet they did not blame their government for failing to match American prosperity. North and South Korea, however, were the same country dealing with the same circumstances until the 1960’s. Opening North Korea’s borders after roughly 50 years of isolation would lead to a veritable tidal wave of information flooding the country. Images of South Korean prosperity would reflect poorly on the North Korean regime and place the blame for their dismal situation squarely on their shoulders. North Korean citizens will certainly demand to know why they are malnourished and poor while their neighbours to the South are “rich beyond imagination”.

“Even if [North Koreans] prove to be the best geniuses in the history of economics, it will not be enough. The North Korean people will be impatient, and they will want [improved living standards] now,” says Lankov. There will be a general sentiment that if they unite with South Korea they will immediately be given the same quality of life that the South enjoys. The likely result is an aggressive push to reunify as quickly as possible and the swift deposition of the current North Korean regime. From the perspective of Kim Jong Eun and his advisors, this must be a terrifying prospect.

Following the break-up of the Soviet Union, it was typically the former elites who gained the most. They were experienced, wealthy, politically savvy, and they had connections. They prospered more after the dissolution of the Soviet empire than they ever could have under the communist party apparatus. This will not be the case for the elites of North Korea, who fear a vengeful South Korea.

According to Lankov, the North Koreans know how they would have treated the South Koreans had they won the war, and they have no reason to expect anything different in return. Tyrannical as they may appear to be, the elites love their families like everyone else, which is why they won’t change. They are well aware of the fate of the Gadaffi family in Libya, and they do not want to suffer the same. From their perspective, reforms essentially equal suicide.

“Find me an elite in the world who is happy about surrendering power,” says Lankov. “It is nice for us to talk about reforms while we are enjoying a latte, but for these people it is a life and death matter. Even if their chances of survival are 50%, they are not likely to take the gamble, simply because they love their families. But I put their chances well below 50%.”

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