Q. Dr. Lankov, welcome to RFA. The big story in recent months has been the speculation surrounding the apparent stroke suffered by Kim Jong Il. I know that as an historian you don’t like to speculate about succession crises, but I would like you to tell us whether you think a collective leadership of, let’s say, military and party officials might be more open to reform or some kind of change?
A: I am a bit skeptical. The problem is, in the case of North Korea, reforms do not really make sense. There is a common assumption that North Korea should emulate China and that, if it does, it will enjoy growth and prosperity. Unfortunately, this is not the case. At least it seems that North Korean leaders believe it is not the case. Why? Major obstacles exist. One is the existence of a rich and successful South Korea where per-capita income is 17 to 50 times higher than in North Korea. The North Korean population is generally unaware of the scale of South Korea’s prosperity. They know that South Korea is doing well, but they don’t understand how much better off South Koreans are. If they learn about this prosperity, they will become less afraid of the government policy of police control; they are much more likely to emulate East Germany, not China.
The North Korean government is afraid that if they begin reforms, the result will not be economic growth, a Chinese-style economic miracle, but rather Eastern German or Romanian collapse followed by reunification. And they are afraid that in a unified Korea they will find no place for themselves. Therefore, it is highly likely that after Kim Jong Il’s death—and he will die sooner or later—a collective leadership will emerge. But these people’s major goal is not economic growth. When someone asks, “What is the strategic goal of North Korea’s leaders?” I usually answer, “Their major strategic goal is to die in their beds.” They want to stay alive, they want to keep the regime going, and they don’t care much about economic growth because they believe that economic growth will take them to prison. And they are probably correct. So maybe, sooner or later, someone will try reform. But I would not expect it to happen anytime soon.
Q: What can the U.S. and its international partners do about the North Korean nuclear program? Efforts have been made, but all we get out of Pyongyang lately is threatening rhetoric about the possibility of war.
A: Rhetoric should be ignored. They are not about to start a war. They are not a threat to anyone but their own population. But if we are talking about what can be done: honestly, not much. The North Koreans have invested so much time and money and effort in their nuclear program. They began their nuclear program in the late 1950s, and it took on military dimensions in the late 70s. So this has been 30 to 50 years of hard work and sacrifice, and they believe that they need it, that they need it as a deterrent against possible foreign attack, from the United States … They need it as a way to influence the international community—essentially as a blackmail tool. Because without nukes, nobody would pay much attention to such a small impoverished country. They also need it for domestic purposes, because nukes are one of the few things the current government can boast about. I don’t believe that any amount of aid will be enough to persuade them that it would probably make sense to surrender their nuclear weapons.
And talking about sanctions and pressure: Sanctions don’t work because there is no united front to enforce them. China will never participate in sanctions wholeheartedly. Even if, by some miracle, sanctions work, they are certain to kill many Koreans, but it is unlikely they will bring about a collapse of the regime. In the mid-90s, during the famine, something like half a million to one million Koreans starved to death, but nothing happened. There was no revolution, nothing.Q: What if the sanctions were precisely targeted, like the sanctions against Macao’s Banco Delta Asia? Could these have some impact?
A: These are probably the only type of sanctions that might have an impact, because they influence the amounts of money in banks … If the sanctions are decisively followed through, the regime will probably get no foreign currency. Some people say, “This would be wonderful, they will have no currency. They will feel bad and the people will rebel against the government.” No way. The elite will survive without Hennessy cognac or Mercedes cars, and the common people will starve to death. This will be the only outcome. This is why I am against sanctions. I believe sanctions are not efficient in any case.Q: What about the economic reforms in North Korea in which they allowed the growth of a few small markets? Now they are trying to rein in the small markets and also to curb the amount of grain that is traded freely.
A: Unfortunately, they are quite successful in rolling things back. But first of all, I would like to make an important correction. The changes in the economy in 2002 were not reforms. Markets did not happen because the government decided one day decided to allow them. Markets began to grow against the government’s will in the early 90s, and the so-called reforms were simply a belated admission of changes that had happened anyway and that the government knew it was unable to stop. Now, the situation has changed. The government now believes it’s in a position to roll the situation back, and they are trying hard to do this. Beginning in 2004, they have been successful in some cases. The scale of cross-border movement into China has considerably decreased. The number of North Korean refugees in China has decreased maybe five to 10 times. Market activity is still very common, but the scale seems to have very much diminished ….Q: We occasionally hear from defectors that there are reform-minded officials in the middle levels of the government and Party who realize that the whole system—political, economic, and everything else—has failed. Can these people, who have enough information to know how bad things are, have any influence over the long term?
A: In the long term, maybe, yes. But we shouldn’t forget that once these mid-level people become high-ranking people—and this is a necessary precondition for them to have any influence—they acquire a vested interest in keeping the system going. Because if the system collapses, its leadership will be in trouble, and they know it. This is partially because their rule has been exceptionally brutal and, at the same time, economically very inefficient. So the major problem of the North Korean elite—maybe most of them, and probably Kim Jong Il himself—is that they understand very well that the system is not delivering, but they simply don’t know what to do about it. They don’t see any way out. They don’t have any exit option, and honestly I don’t know what can be done about this.Q: The North Korean elite appear to be totally corrupt. Isn’t this kind of corruption ultimately going to have some impact on the people in power?
A: It is certain to have some impact. But once again, we don’t know when. In two years time? In twenty years time? There is no way to say. The old system has disintegrated, because, as you said, the corruption is on an unbelievable scale. Everything is corrupt. You can buy your way out of any trouble. There were a lot of things that could have brought you to an execution ground a few decades ago. Now, these are not a big deal if you can pay a sufficient bribe. The victims of the current crackdown on people crossing the border are only the starving or hungry farmers. Professionals, smugglers, and traffickers have absolutely no problem with paying the bribes to get across. Their belief in the system is gone, but God knows how long this will continue. In the long term, the system is not sustainable. Everybody knows it, and maybe the leaders of the system understand it, but their major goal is to die peacefully in their own beds. Therefore, every year of their high life-style sipping Hennessy cognac is a small victory. They feel that the longer they stay, the better—even if they understand that in the long run they will be out of power. And many of them hope that the system will outlast their own life spans.Q: What is the degree of Chinese influence? And are the Chinese encouraging a few gradual economic reforms just to keep this thing alive?
A: I would say the ideal outcome would be stability and gradual reforms. But is this achievable or not? Honestly, I don’t think it is, but the Chinese still hope to encourage the North Korean leadership to reform the country. I don’t think they will succeed. The North Korean leaders believe that reforms are inherently dangerous, very dangerous … But in talking about Chinese influence, we should distinguish between influence and involvement. Economically, China is the single most important trading partner of North Korea. Roughly half of all North Korean trade is with China. South Korea comes in second, and pretty much no other country has any significant amount of trade. But economic involvement does not translate into political influence. China has the best intelligence, the best understanding, about what’s going on inside North Korea, but I don’t think it has any actual influence over North Korean decision-making.Q: If things in North Korea go badly, does China have a plan to intervene, perhaps militarily? If they see a collapse coming, they are probably not going to just sit there and seal the border.
A: Like any responsible government, they have a plan for any conceivable crisis … And the Chinese government may be a dictatorship, but it is a responsible and efficient government. So they have a plan, of course. There is nothing bad about that. The question is whether they want to intervene. They don’t really want to, because they understand that the political and financial cost of such an intervention would be very high. However, if they are faced with serious instability in North Korea, they will probably decide that they have no choice but to take over and establish a pro-Chinese puppet government.
Such a possibility is real. However, I would like again to emphasize that the Chinese would much prefer the status quo. Alternatively they would not even mind if South Korea took responsibility for sorting out the mess. Because China’s major goal is not to increase its influence … China’s major goal is stability. And they will take measures only if they believe that stability is threatened, that chaos is getting too serious to be tolerated, and that this chaos is going to spread to China proper.Q: Is there any way to encourage China to stop sending North Korean defectors back to North Korea? Or is this impossible because it would encourage a massive flow of refugees into China?
A: This is a problem. Frankly, I would be sort of a Chinese advocate in this regard, because the Chinese are not as bad about this as they could be. Especially a few years ago, they were remarkably tolerant about the presence of illegal migrants from North Korea. But exactly for the reason you have mentioned, they cannot really accept these people as political refugees, as asylum seekers, or even as genuine refugees. Therefore, as long as refugees keep a low profile, they don’t usually mind. Sometimes, it is also too hard to deport somebody.
What to do about this? I would say put some pressure on China, using all measures—from wheeling and dealing and horse trading behind closed doors during negotiations to using open diplomacy. Because if the Chinese government decides that its international image is being tarnished by the North Korean refugee problem, they will probably be more careful with their crackdowns. But, once again, I don’t see any solution for this problem in the foreseeable future ….Q: There are reports of some starvation now in North Korea. I don’t know how reliable these stories are, but they are very detailed.
A: There may be some parts of the country where there is starvation, but generally this year the harvest has been quite good. It was the second-best harvest in 20 years, maybe in 15 years. It’s a bit unexpected, because this year they did not receive fertilizer from South Korea, and the amount of foreign aid was remarkably smaller than in previous years. However, much to everyone’s surprise, it has now become clear that the food situation in general is relatively stable. The problem is that the agricultural system cannot really maintain this success. So this year it was quite good, but there are good reasons to doubt that next year it will be as good as this … because they still have the same inefficient system of state-owned cooperative enterprises and cooperative farms. They still have serious problems with any kind of machinery, with spare parts, with fuel. And I don’t see how the situation can significantly improve….Q: How do you explain the North Korean decision to kick South Korean companies out of the Kaesong industrial complex? What is the point of this pressure on South Korea? Does it really add up to anything significant?
A: The point is to teach a lesson; they want to drive a wedge between the United States and South Korea. Up until this South Korean administration, North Korea provoked the Americans whenever possible and tried to be nice to the South Koreans. Now, it’s vice versa. They try to be nice to Americans to some extent, and they try to annoy South Korea, but the net result is that they believe there is growing disagreement and tension between the two countries.
For example, if the Americans continue to go with their soft engagement policy—which I find quite a good idea actually—a lot of people among the South Korean right-wingers will feel uncomfortable. They will feel betrayed. Secondly, and this is probably more important, this kind of bellicose rhetoric from North Korea is aimed not so much at this South Korean administration, but at future ones. North Korea is sending a message that says, “If you want to interact with us, if you want to deal with us, this is possible. But there can be no conditions attached. We will not accept any conditions. If you want us to behave ourselves and to be quiet, and not to beat our chests and launch missiles, you will have to pay your tribute without asking too many questions.” Q: There seem to be indications that North Korea will allow a little more inspection or monitoring of food aid.
A: Yes, this is true. Why not? … People say, “We are afraid the food aid we are delivering will feed the military and the privileged groups, so we need monitoring.” But if you have four million tons of grain in the country, and if you say the country needs five million tons to feed its population, and if the government has already decided that, say, the top 10 percent will get 25 percent of the food, it does not really matter. And if you send one million tons of food on top of this, does it really matter whether it is rice from your country that will be eaten by this elite? Or that it is locally produced rice that can be distributed among the elite? If you are shipping rice from overseas—well, they get American rice. They can distribute this among the people who are really in need. But this means that some rice, locally produced and more valued rice, will be given to the elite. I think that all this farce about inspections is a bit funny from both sides ….Q: Recently we had a report that North Korea is moving a long-range missile around—maybe putting it in a position to launch. This is a type of missile that theoretically could reach the West Coast of the U.S., though North Korea’s record has not been great in terms in success. Would you be surprised if that happens, or if there is a naval provocation?
A: I wouldn’t be surprised. I think that this is very likely—especially a missile launch, but maybe a provocation as well. This is meant to ask for attention in Washington, because the usual question in Washington is, “What if we start ignoring them? After all, they don’t matter. What if we just forget about this small country that makes so much noise?” My answer to this is that if you ignore them, they will get noisier and noisier. They will start raising the stakes, and at a certain point they will reach a level you will be unable to tolerate … Now, they just want to make sure that Obama will not forget about them in spite of the economic crisis and the Middle East and Afghanistan—that somewhere in a part of his brain there will be ringing, “North Korea, North Korea, North Korea.” And to reinforce this activity of presidential neurons, they will launch missiles and, if necessary, conduct half a dozen nuclear tests. Why not?Q: Let’s talk about access to information in North Korea. How much information do the elite have, and how much do the ordinary people have?
A: The top elite probably know everything … It is no problem for them to watch DVDs. Many of them go overseas … If we are talking about the top 10,000 people, they go to China. And in China they are exposed pretty much to free information when compared to North Korea. So they know a lot. For the common people, there have been two major changes over the last 15 years. The first has been cross-border movement. A large number of Koreans go to China, but only a small number make it to South Korea. The vast majority who go to China stay there from a few months to a few years and then go back to North Korea. This is a kind of illegal border migration not so different in some ways from that of the Mexicans in Texas. These people bring money into North Korea—very moderate amounts by Chinese standards, but unbelievably large amounts by North Korean standards. They also bring in stories from the outside, because this part of China is populated by Korean-speaking Chinese and by ethnic Koreans, most of whom have been in South Korea. So people are bringing in stories about Chinese prosperity and South Korean prosperity.
What is even more important is the spread of videotapes and, recently, DVDs, which are gradually replacing the tapes. This year, they have become very available at around 1,000 or 1,200 won. And now they are getting DVD players, which are also very cheap in China. But if something is cheap in China, this doesn’t really mean it is cheap in North Korea, because in North Korea the average official salary is something like two dollars per month. Actual monthly income would be something like five to six dollars, because most money is made on the black market. So, for North Koreans, paying 25 dollars for a DVD player is a bit like buying a cheap car in America, but it is doable. And people buy them, and officially it is legal … It is assumed that people buy them to watch pictures of the elite and to know more about the greatness of the North Korean ruling clan’s history. But this, of course, is not what they are really watching. They’re watching foreign movies; they’re watching South Korean soap operas. Hollywood films and martial arts are also very popular.Q: But it seems to me there is still a role for radio. Defectors I have spoken with recently say that people in the elite are listening to Radio Free Asia.
A: Radio is widely used, and it is very important that short-wave radios with free [instead of fixed] tuning are being smuggled. Radios are used largely by the elite—not by people who want fresh entertainment, but by people who want information about what’s going on outside of the country. So most listeners are intellectuals or officials or people who are serious about getting out of the country. Five or six stations broadcast into North Korea right now, and these stations are mostly listened to by these people. They are clearly a minority, but politically they are very significant … A person who has been making a bit of money by selling pancakes on the market may buy a DVD player and watch romances. But radio is for, say, a secret police captain who knows that the system is in trouble and wants to figure out what’s going on and how to save his skin. Radio broadcasting provides him with the intelligence he needs to do this.Q: We had some independent research last year showing that some of these border traders, some of these smugglers and so forth—they call themselves “businesspeople”—are also listening to radio. It’s quite a significant percentage in a rather limited survey.
A: If you look at people who are in China, you will see that radio listeners are overrepresented among this group when compared to the general population. Because if you go to China, you have to listen. Most of these people want to know the current trends. If you look at the history of modern media worldwide, newspapers were essentially newsletters issued by international traders and smugglers who, by the nature of their profession, needed to have fresh information about the international political situation. It’s how newspapers emerged in Europe in the early 17th century.
So what would you expect them to do? To go to China without any knowledge about new political trends or something that might influence the price of rice or DVDs or whatever? Impossible! You cannot get such information from official sources inside North Korea, because they are just rubbish. They can read a few pages in Rodong Shinmun
about international politics and South Korea, but they cannot find much reliable information in there.Q: I know you studied Korean in Russia, and you studied in Pyongyang for a year. But how did you get interested in the field of North Korean studies?
A: It’s an interesting field. At first, I was doing Chinese studies because North Korea was not widely known in the Soviet Union when I was growing up. And actually, North Korea had a very bad press, partly through its own efforts, because they disseminated very cheap and highly subsidized glossy magazines with hilariously bad Russian, hilariously bad translations—always unintended comical effects with some unintended sexual references to their Dear Leader that they didn’t quite understand … Basically, the country was seen as a joke, and quite a bad joke, actually. South Korea was also not a major focus of interest. We learned in high school whatever we were told, and our teacher told us, “South Korea is a pro-American military dictatorship. North Korea is a crazy Stalinist dictatorship. Enough about Korea, let’s talk about Japan.”
And this is basically how it was, so I decided to pursue Chinese studies and specialized in classical Chinese. But there were no jobs in Chinese studies, and someone proposed that I switch to Korean studies. I agreed, and I went to North Korea … And it was a strange, interesting society, and I said, “Yes, I want to understand how this came into existence.” Because even for someone with a Soviet background, it looked absolutely outrageous, strange, bizarre—strange, strange.
I began to pursue North Korean studies in the mid-80s and was encouraged by some people from the Soviet bureaucracy, strangely enough. This was still the Soviet era. And I got some encouragement from the Foreign Ministry … and then the Soviet Union collapsed, and this meant even more opportunities to study North Korea. And this is what I have been doing for the last 20 years.Q: Obviously, what we have in North Korea is a dynasty. How would you describe it? I heard you say the other day it could be called Confucian Stalinism. What’s the best description, and how much of that old influence is there?
A: I think this is a discussion that could continue forever. But we can clearly see three major components of modern North Korean ideology. One is Soviet Marxism-Leninism, or more precisely Soviet Stalinism. It’s a Stalinist country. Q: I thought you once told me that Stalinism is inadequate to describe it, because it’s too moderate a term—that actually it’s more “hyper-Stalinism.”
A: Yes, but the characteristics are the same. Second, there is a lot of Confucian heritage going back to the distant Korean past. And then you have great, and usually unnoticed, influence from Japanese-style nationalism … Most of the people who established the Korean state were graduates of Japanese schools that they attended at the time of the cult of the emperor and the crazy Fascist-type nationalism of the 1930s. This influence is also very powerful. So how can we describe it? National Stalinism, Confucian Stalinism, Stalinist Confucianism, hyper-Stalinist Nationalist Confucianism, Confucian Nationalist hyper-Stalinism … All three components are present and are very powerful.Q: Does this mean that this dynasty will continue, that somehow they will be able to put one of the sons of Kim Jong Il into a position to take over, together with a collective military committee or something like this?
A: What I would expect after Kim Jong Il’s death, for a while at least, is a collective leadership group, maybe some kind of national protection or national defense committee consisting of all the powerful generals and a figurehead, probably a member of the family, sitting on top of that. Of course, this is highly speculative. I don’t know how long it could continue. A major problem is that it would be both unsustainable in the long run and unreformable, because it would not generate enough income to stay alive. It would not even be able to produce enough food to feed its own population. It would be completely dependent on foreign aid, and this aid would not be given because of humanitarian considerations, but because of highly complicated diplomatic maneuvers ….Q: How much is North Korea’s economy dependent on foreign aid? I’ve heard huge estimates, like two-thirds of the economy. It’s hard to believe that.
A: We don’t have reliable economic statistics, because they haven’t published anything since the early 60s. This is the greatest blackout of statistical material in the modern world. They don’t publish anything; everything is either secret or top-secret, even the basic stuff. We don’t know how many costs are in the country. We don’t know the size of the population. We don’t know anything. All the estimates are necessarily just guesses. But it’s clear that maybe half, maybe two-thirds, of the economy depends on foreign aid. They have a level of dependency that is definitely exceptional. Q: If you listen to North Korea’s rhetoric, you would think they really do believe they’re in danger of an American invasion or attack. Do they really believe that?
A: I believe they do.
Q: Because it would be a disastrous war.
A: I don’t believe the Americans are going to do that, but I also believe that the North Koreans feel they cannot rule that out, especially after what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan. After all, Iraq was one of the three countries [together with North Korea and Iran] mentioned in the famous, or infamous, Axis of Evil speech. And Iran was on the list, and it is quite clear that had Iraq affairs not become so disastrous, Iran would have been a likely target … Right now it’s not going to happen, and they probably understand that. But they are trying to play it safe. At the same time, I would not say that they’re inherently hostile to the United States, because in their attitude to the outside world they are very pragmatic. All outside powers are to be used. So if they decide that it’s expedient to try to make an alliance with the United States against, say, China or Indonesia, or whoever—it doesn’t matter—they will easily do it.
Q: So you would favor exchanges of students, that kind of thing, between the United States and North Korea?
A: Yes. I think we have to admit that North Korea exists. It’s a very unpleasant country, for its own population above all. They are bound to create trouble They are bound to remain a parasite in the international economic system for a while. But the only hope for change is talking to them—talking maybe not so much to the government, but to the society in general, helping them sometimes, and giving them opportunities to see a different lifestyle. And when I say “them,” I don’t mean the government largely. I mean the common people, the common people who are the major victims of the system. After all, for us, the North Korean regime is a kind of curiosity or minor irritant. For the vast majority of North Koreans, the North Korean regime is a daily disaster.