Despite having followed North Korea off and on for my entire career, I am often reminded of how much I do not know. My conference travel schedule to exotic places took me last week to Preston, in northern England, to attend a scholarly workshop on Korean security. It was the coming-out party, so to speak, for the new International Institute of Korean Studies at the University of Central Lancashire, and it attracted some of the top Korean experts from Europe, Russia and China, as well as the US and the Republic of Korea.

Although I found myself in disagreement with some of the presentations, the way the discussion challenged many of my assumptions made me realise how much about North Korea remains open to debate.

Some participants claimed, for example, that North Korea has the potential to become the next Asian tiger. Its advantages include immense human capital, with universal education for 11 years and another year recently added; mineral wealth, including rare-earth deposits estimated to be among the largest in the world; a powerful partner in China; a strong, functioning state and, it was said, a risk-taking leader who might be able to embark on a serious reform programme.  

I challenged the ‘tiger’ prospect on grounds of the absence of rule of law, respect for property rights and Internet access; confiscatory policies and behaviour such as the abrupt closing of the Kaesong Joint Industrial Zone and the detention of American tourists. The pervasive corruption, policy contradictions and dysfunctional ideology of the state make me think that implosion is inevitable at some point.

Those at the conference who have often visited North Korea pointed to what one called ‘tremendous developments’ of the past 20 years, which the Western media have largely ignored. Pyongyang is booming with consumerism and construction, and was said to now have the appearance of a provincial Chinese city. Malnutrition has dropped dramatically since 1998, and North Korea is enjoying a bumper harvest for the third year in a row. Economic policy adjustments are beginning to kick in. It is thus unrealistic to assume that North Korea is desperate for outside assistance.

Assumptions of political instability were also challenged, with Kim Jong-un said to be firmly in control of a resilient state. (Confession: my 13 October blog post about Kim’s absence meaning something is amiss was disproven within hours when he reappeared.) One hypothesis advanced for why Kim missed visiting the family mausoleum on the founding day of the Korean Workers’ Party on 10 October was that he simply did not want to. The foot injury from which he was recovering for 40 days was not so serious to have kept him bedridden. As with his decision to appear in public with his wife, he is conducting his affairs in a manner different from that of his father and grandfather.

Whether Kim’s different conduct extends to foreign and security policy is a harder case to prove. It was pointed out that most of the North Koreans sanctioned by the United States after the 2012 missile launch which scuttled the two countries’ ‘Leap Day’ deal were gone: ‘Kim Jong-un purged them for us.’ Their support for obstructionist foreign policies was surely not the reason they were removed, however.

As noted by more than one scholar, North Korea does appear to be trying to diversify its foreign relations so as to be less dependent on China. But so far this is only working with Russia, with whom trade is still marginal. Last month, North Korea failed to provide an expected initial report to Japan on the abduction issue. The 21 October release of a detained American tourist is welcome news but does not erase the ill will left by his incarceration in the first place (on grounds of having left a bible in a bar).

Two scholars challenged the contention that the Korean Peninsula is in crisis. There have been no deadly incidents since 2010; indeed no kinetic activity since Kim Jong-un came to power at the end of 2011. The assumption that North Korea provides a useful buffer for China also came under question. It was argued that advances in military technology make the buffer zone concept meaningless. Growing scepticism in China about the North’s utility as a buffer have contributed to a change in the China–North Korea relationship, which was said to be based no longer on ideology but, rather, on the normal weighing of national interests. On the other hand, recently released archival evidence summarised by another scholar shows that China’s treatment of North Korea over the years has been far less accommodating than the ‘as close as lips and teeth’ alliance metaphor suggests.

Surely all nations should treat North Korea in accordance with their national interests and an unblinkered understanding. View the nation with vicariousness (that is, with empathy), not demonisation, was the repeated advice from the most eminent of the conference participants. I didn’t agree with everything else he said, but that advice cannot be faulted.

Mark Fitzpatrick is Director of the IISS Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme.

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