Interview (Part 2): Kim Jong Un Needs 'Summit Training' Before Big Events


2015-07-13
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korea-lankov-07012015.jpg RFA’s Executive Editor Dan Southerland interviews Russian historian and North Korea expert Andrei Lankov, July 1, 2015.
RFA

In the second part of an interview with Dan Southerland, Russian historian and North Korea expert Andrei Lankov, an RFA commentator, discusses Russia’s ties with North Korea and the drought and food situations in North Korea.

RFA: In recent years we’ve seen a number of statements coming from Russia and North Korea about possible new Russian investments and a railway connection to Russia. Is Russia stepping up its involvement in North Korea?

Lankov: I expect that trade between Russia and North Korea will gradually increase. But the economies of the two countries are not that compatible. And I don’t think that Russia is willing to subsidize North Korea.  The volume of trade between China and North Korea is now about 75 times greater than Russia’s trade with North Korea. There’s a lot of talk out there but not much walk.

RFA: What about the agreements to get Russia’s help in building a railroad linking both North and South Korea with Russia’s trans-Siberian railway?

Lankov: Talks on such a railroad connection began in 1998—17 years ago—with virtually nothing at all accomplished so far. I can’t imagine that Russia will invest large amounts of money in an unstable environment that could in the end make the project unviable.

RFA: Might Russia decide to give North Korea more support simply to cause trouble for the United States?

Lankov: It’s possible that they would use strengthened ties with North Korea to distract the Americans and create a bargaining chip. That might depend how things go in Ukraine and elsewhere. But I don’t think it’s very likely to happen.

RFA: Kim Jong Un was invited to the World War II victory celebration in Moscow in May, but he sent another official, a powerless one, to represent North Korea. Why didn’t Kim Jong Un take advantage of this opportunity?

Lankov: Kim Jong Un is summit shy. In Moscow he wouldn’t have been in the spotlight but on the margins. A number of East European leaders wouldn’t have shown any deference to him. At the same time, journalists and other observers would have noticed any mistakes made or clumsiness on his part. So before taking on a multinational summit like this one he’ll need some summit training. He should start by meeting foreign dignitaries on a one-on-one basis back in Pyongyang.

RFA: How big a blow is it for North Korea to have its application to join China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank rejected?  We’ve seen a news report saying that they were turned down.

Lankov: That shouldn’t have come as a surprise to North Korea.  Their economic system is not transparent and they don’t have reliable statistics. So they definitely don’t qualify for membership in an international bank. But they are experimenting with some agricultural and industrial reforms.

RFA: You’re talking about experimental moves toward allowing more of a private economy?

Lankov: In some areas they’re allowing farmers to keep 30 percent of the crop for their own use before turning the rest over to the state. In a few other areas it’s 70 percent.

RFA: But RFA has obtained video from inside North Korea showing that some farmers are still far from enthusiastic about their work and evidently have to do it without the aid of the most basic farm equipment.

Lankov: Standards do vary from one area to another, but according to U.N. statistics, food production has gradually increased….The biggest change in recent years has been toward private markets. Officially, there is no private economy. But the government policy toward these markets seems to be one of benign neglect.

RFA: But we also have reports from inside North Korea showing that the police and the military frequently harass people working in the markets and demand fees and bribes from them.

Lankov: Of course, those selling in these markets do have to pay fees and bribes to the police and military, particularly at checkpoints.

RFA: For weeks now, we’ve seen reports of a widespread drought in North Korea and how it might affect the North Korean food supply. Please comment on how serious the drought is and what impact it might have.

Lankov: The reports about the drought are true. We’ve seen a lot about this from foreigners visiting the countryside.

RFA: What impact is this likely to have on the food supply?

Lankov: Famine is unlikely. The harvest will be less impressive than last year. But it’s not likely to be a disaster.

RFA: But won’t the most vulnerable members of the population, including elderly people in some parts of the countryside as well as the youngest children there, be affected?

Lankov: Yes, and let’s hope that any foreign food aid will reach those most in need and not just the better-off people in the major cities.

RFA: The North Korean media at one point claimed that this is “the worst drought in a hundred years.” That’s obviously an exaggeration, but why did North Korea itself play this up?

Lankov: The North Korean authorities understand that if they need foreign aid, they better prepare the outside world to provide it. In the 1990s when North Korea experienced a real famine, they saw it as shameful to admit to food shortages. Now they’ve learned how to manipulate the donors in China, South Korea, and elsewhere.

(For more detailed comments on the drought from Andrei Lankov, see his recent RFA commentary published on July 8 and titled "North Korea Drought Serious but Not Necessarily a Catastrophe.')

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