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Is it them, or us? Inside the mind of Pyongyang

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 


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 Extemal 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.

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.



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