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Talking to North Korea

Ending the Nuclear Standoff

by Glyn Ford

 

Pluto Press (London), 240 pages, Softback, 9780745337852, 125 mm x 195 mm, 34 b/w photographs, 2 tables, 1 map, October 2018, RRP £8.99

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It was during the 1966 World Cup in England (North Korea 1—Italy 0) that I first discovered the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). It was longer before they found me. When I was elected to the European Parliament (EP) in 1984, one of my first interventions in committee was to propose that a report be prepared on EU-North Korea trade relations. In that report, the External Economic Relations (now International Trade) Committee concluded there were neither relations nor trade. The North was out of sight and out of mind. As with all EP reports, it concluded with a standard formula instructing that a copy of the report ‘be sent to the Commission, Council, Member States and Government of the DPRK’.Two years later, when I finally visited the DPRK embassy to UNESCO in Paris for the first time, I asked them for their response to the EP Report. They replied that they’d never seen it. Back in Brussels, I asked the EP’s administration what happened. The official response was, ‘We didn’t have an address.’ 

     That was to change. By 2004 the EP had a standing delegation for the Korean peninsula. But it was not all for the better. Pyongyang has now spent a quarter of a century plastered across the world’s front pages, as it apparently threatens the world with its nuclear weapons and missiles, if no longer with its ideology. I initially decided to write North Korea on the Brink; Struggle for Survival (Pluto, 2008) because the only books I found either—largely—painted it entirely black or—rarely—totally white; ‘axis of evil’ or socialist utopia. It’s neither. The North is fifty shades of grey—some dark—rather than black or white, a product of its enemies as much as of its friends and itself. Ten years later, history has moved on. Everything has changed, and nothing. The last year has seen the Peninsula closer to war than peace. The book needed an update. 

     North Korea is a poor, beleaguered country run by an unpleasant regime that has served its people ill. However, the alternatives proffered by its enemies would only compound its pain.

While acknowledging that it is both deeply flawed and repressive, former Labour MEP Glyn Ford challenges the idea of North Korea as a rogue state run by a mad leader. Instead, informed by unique access and nearly 50 visits, he argues that parts of its leadership are keen to modernise and end their global isolation, and that more creative dialogue is needed to avoid a disastrous North-East Asian war

I wanted two things with the first book: first, to provide an appreciation and understanding of North Korea’s history, politics and economics, taking into account that the North went from feudalism to colony to Communism with no democratic detour or interregnum; second, to advocate the application of ‘soft’ rather than ‘hard’ power. I argued for ‘critical engagement’—for ‘changing the regime’, not ‘regime change’— to provide ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’. 

     I still want to deliver on those two promises the second time around. But you can never step in the same river—or nuclear crisis—twice. Events and I have moved on apace. When I wrote North Korea on the Brink I had visited the country barely a dozen times; now I am approaching my fiftieth visit and for the last seven years have been involved in an extended political dialogue I established with the Vice-chairman of the International Department of the Party. In some facets I understand some things more and others less, but for both I have a more nuanced appreciation. 

 

Introduction: The Pyongyang Paradox 

Pyongyang is trapped in a paradox. The very measures it has felt essential to ensure its long-term survival are precisely those that put it in short-term jeopardy. Kim Jong Un’s byungjin line—which gave equal weight to building the nuclear deterrent and developing the economy—was designed to provide the security, time and space to allow the economy to grow. The ultimate intention was to transform the country into an unattributed variant of Vietnam or China. Yet the nuclear strand of the policy threatens to precipitate a ‘preventive’ strike by Washington and its ‘coalition of the willing’, triggering a second Korean War—with devastating consequences.

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Washington sees North Korea as an undeveloped Communist state in hock to Beijing, led by an irrational playboy with an odd haircut—and thus as a dangerous pariah that is unsusceptible to the normal political leverage of cause and effect. It would be more accurate, however, to see the DPRK—as it prefers to be known—as constrained in a situation where its choices are narrow. With a failed industrial economy rather than an emerging one, its ruling regime has legitimate reasons to distrust the outside world and is desperate to ensure its survival in the face of clear existential threats. From Pyongyang’s perspective, its actions are the inevitable corollary of this struggle for survival. Here the political stratigraphy of North Korea is revealing: the base feudal layer overlaid by the deep lessons of brutal Japanese colonialism (Japan occupied Korea from 1910 to 1945), then the careless division imposed by the United States in the aftermath of World War II. All followed by initial victory in a civil war, converted into a surrogate clash of civilisations that ended in a half-century stalemate, before it was in danger of being buried under the rubble of a collapsing Soviet empire. North Korea’s recent behaviour is less a war cry than a cry for help. 

     There have been numerous attempts to explain North Korea, some less successful than others. Among the most risible is John Sweeney’s North Korea Undercover, which parleyed a standard week’s holiday into a heroic feat of daring and deserves marks for chutzpah, if nothing else. Victor Cha knows his stuff, without question; nevertheless, his The Impossible State reveals much about America’s outdated misperceptions of the North. Yet Pyongyang hardly welcomes contemporary cutting-edge analysis. James Pearson and Daniel Tudor’s North Korea Confidential, which illuminates the further shores of Pyongyang’s market reforms, sufficiently irritated the North that Seoul felt it necessary to place the authors under round-the-clock protection. 

     For sheer encyclopaedic knowledge of the road to war, Bruce Cumings’s two-volume The Origins of the Korean War is unsurpassed, but is matched page for page by Robert Scalapino and Lee Chongsik’s Communism in Korea, charting the regime’s first decade. For something to challenge the West’s more recent received wisdom, Andrei Lankov’s collection of books does exactly that. For those who like to cut fact with fiction, the pseudonymous James Church’s early ‘Inspector O’ stories serve. 

Glyn Ford began his career as an academic before moving into politics. He was a Member of the European Parliament from 1984 to 2009, and sat on its Japan Delegation and the Korean Peninsula Delegation. Between 1989 and 1993 he was a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee and is currently a member of its National Policy Forum. Ten years ago he founded the Public Affairs and International Relations consultancy POLINT. He has published widely and is a regular contributor to Tribune 

I first visited North Korea in 1997, during its darkest days since the war, at the height of the famine. I have been back almost fifty times since then, under a variety of guises. I served on a series of ad-hoc delegations dispatched by the European Parliament consequent upon my visit in 1997 and in 2004 I successfully proposed the establishment of a standing delegation with the Korean Peninsula that still exists. Early on in my peregrinations it became clear where power lay in Pyongyang. Like in China, it was the Party, not the Ministries, that makes its mark. 

     Thus the majority of my visits have been under the auspices of the Workers’ Party of Korea’s (WPK) International Department. 

     In 2012 I was asked if I could set up a dialogue with politicians from the European Union. This I did, with Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s former chief of staff and founder of the mediation charity Inter Mediate. Since then we’ve had an ongoing series of track 1.5 meetings; our current host is a member of the Politburo’s Executive. In parallel, Pyongyang’s perspective on the South is delivered by the Korea Asia-Pacific Peace Committee (United Front Department). In the twelve months leading up to this book’s publication, I have been back to Pyongyang five times. This unique access has opened doors, from the White House to the Blue House, the Japanese cabinet office to the Chinese foreign ministry, the United Nations to the US Pacific Command, the EU’s External Action Service to the National Security Councils. 

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One thing I have learnt is that the North is steeped in history and precedent. For them, history matters. They imbibe from birth a national narrative that shapes their comprehension of the world and their adversaries. Unlike in the West, where ‘vision’ means thinking beyond the next electoral cycle, North Koreans think long-term. The past is the key to the present. Thus any attempt to understand the DPRK and its people needs the vision to at least glimpse reality through their eyes. I hope this book will help you do that. 

     First, let us begin by dispelling the fabulous. The five biggest myths about the DPRK are that: 

  1. It’s a Stalinist state run on the basis of Marxism-Leninism. No, it’s a theocracy with communist characteristics whose catechism is Kimilsungism-Kimjongilism. 

  2. Beijing and Pyongyang are like ‘lips and teeth’. No, the regime deeply distrusts and resents China. For the last decade they have barely been on speaking terms; Pyongyang is prepared to fight if necessary. 

  3. Pyongyang wants early unification. No, the North’s leadership is all too well aware that with its GDP at barely more than 2 per cent of the South’s, early unification would only be assimilation by another name. 

  4. It’s a command economy. No, since the famine in the late 1990s it has increasingly become a malformed market economy. The future of the Peninsula is ‘Two Countries, One System’ until Pyongyang’s ‘tiger economy’ and wealth of mineral resources allow it to catch up to Seoul. 

  5. Lifting American sanctions is the key. No, the North has never exported or imported goods from the US. What they want from Washington is sufficiently robust security guarantees that liberate them to take the road to denuclearisation and allow China and South Korea to lift their sanctions ... 

Talking to North Korea.jpg

Talking to North Korea

Ending the Nuclear Standoff

by Glyn Ford

 

Pluto Press (London), 240 pages, Softback, 9780745337852, 125 mm x 195 mm, 34 b/w photographs, 2 tables, 1 map, October 2018, RRP £8.99

Save £3.24

£11.75 inc. free UK delivery

Click here to buy

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