Dead End for Nuclear Talks?

In an interview, Russian historian Andrei Lankov discusses the six-party talks and discontent in North Korea.
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Executive editor Dan Southerland interviews Andrei Lankov, Oct. 26, 2010.
Executive editor Dan Southerland interviews Andrei Lankov, Oct. 26, 2010.

In part two of an Oct. 26 interview with Dan Southerland, Russian historian and North Korea expert Andrei Lankov, an RFA contributor, discusses the six-party talks and domestic discontent inside North Korea.

Q:  China supports multilateral negotiations on North Korean nuclear issues and wants to reconvene the six-party talks. What do you think the prospects are?

A:  This is important for China, because the six-party talks are Beijing’s pet project. China has invested a lot in these talks, and they hope to succeed, but I think that in the long run success is highly unlikely. Of course, a lot depends on how you define success. If by success you mean denuclearization, I don’t think that this is possible under the current North Korean regime. But this does not mean that the six-party talks are a worthless exercise. The talks are a good venue to keep channels of communication open.

So personally, I am both optimistic and pessimistic. I am optimistic in the sense that within maybe a year or two, we will see a new round of the six-party talks. I am pessimistic because I believe that neither that round nor any of the next rounds are going to produce any remarkable results. It will just be talks for the sake of talking. But this is not necessarily bad, because it will marginally—marginally—help to drive tensions down.

Q:  It looks like there is now some activity at one of North Korea’s nuclear sites. Does this mean that North Korea might try to stage another nuclear test? Wouldn’t this make it impossible to have another round of talks?

A:  I don’t think this would make it impossible to have talks. If they have another nuclear test, there will be a bit of public outrage, tough talk in the U.N., and then—nothing else. Tough talk, but “no walk.” Honestly, I don’t see any means that the international community can use to influence the North Korean situation … because there is nothing to do short of a military invasion. And nobody is going to invade North Korea, of course.

It’s possible that they are going to test a uranium bomb—not a plutonium bomb, which was tested, but a uranium bomb. They probably also hope, which I believe to be a mistake, that by staging yet another nuclear test, they will increase pressure on the United States and will be able to squeeze concessions from the United States as they used to do in the 1990s, because the North Korean government feels very uneasy about excessive reliance on China.

Their favorite game is to play on the rivalries and the feuds and the contradictions of the great powers, milking every single one and giving nothing in return. And they play this game with great brilliance. They are very smart, very successful at it. But if you look at developments over the last few years, it looks like the North Koreans are sort of losing touch with reality. And this is why they will probably have their third nuclear test. They will not be punished, let’s be honest. But of course it will further damage their chances to get aid, and it will probably postpone negotiations for another year or two.

Q:  Is it possible that Kim Jong Il, following his stroke, is losing his own sense of judgment?

A:  Honestly, yes. Because over the last two years we can see that the North Korean elite has begun to make mistakes. They have begun to do things which go against their own long-term interests. It’s unusual, because these people never cared about the interests or even physical survival of their own population. But they were always very good about what serves their own interests best. And recently they have done things which were bad for them, which are destabilizing and useless, which damage their chances to squeeze aid from the outside world, and which damage their own domestic support.

First of all, in 2009, they mishandled the Americans. They had their second nuclear test and launched a tidal wave of bellicose rhetoric. Had they been a bit softer in their rhetoric, some people in the United States would probably still believe that North Korea is going to surrender their nuclear weapons and that the United States is to blame [for the standoff].

Then there was the great fiasco of the currency reform … For some unknown reason, they decided to insert a very unusual item into the reform plan. They decided to increase the salaries of government officials and others, including street cleaners, working for the government by 10,000 percent. I repeat, 10,000 percent. The result was a tidal wave of inflation which essentially undermined everything that they wanted to get through the currency reform, and which led to serious popular discontent.

Now they are back in control. But why did they do it? It was clearly a mistake. Somebody—I believe it was Kim Jong Il himself—insisted on inserting this strange decision into the reform plan. And this absolutely ignorant, remarkably ignorant, decision ruined everything. Kim Jong Il is a smart politician, but he doesn’t know much about economy and never cared about it. But it was still remarkable stupidity, frankly.

Then we had the Cheonan attack [the March 26, 2010, sinking of a South Korean warship]. It was the admirals who wanted it, who wanted to show that they can sink enemy ships. There had been a few naval confrontations in recent years, and they wanted to avenge them. It's natural that this should be the case, but the government should not have supported it ... And, well, it was another mistake, because now the chances to get aid from the outside world are more remote.

Q:  You mentioned popular discontent. Is this big enough that it could threaten the regime? We hear reports of riots, of people speaking out more. What is the situation in terms of opposition to the regime?

A:  There is no opposition. There is some discontent, but there is a great difference between organized opposition and discontent. The North Korean regime now is more liberal, more relaxed, than it used to be. But it is still extremely oppressive, and it’s not going to tolerate any kind of opposition domestically. So we have some popular discontent. And indeed, this discontent increased immediately after the currency reform. It was a time when people began to express their displeasure at the government by talking to foreigners—a thing that was usually unthinkable in North Korea. And even officials, even diplomats, were unhappy.

But by now it seems that the situation is back under control. So if you are asking me whether North Korea is going to experience a popular revolution, I would say very likely. But this revolution might happen tomorrow, it might happen in twenty years’ time. Nobody knows, and I’m afraid there is absolutely no way to know.

Q:  I always like to ask you about the situation of the media in North Korea. Is radio getting through to the North Koreans, both the average people and the elites?

A:  This is much more true in the case of the elites. Because in North Korea, listening to radio broadcasts is officially illegal, and very few common people would risk their life—maybe not life, it used to be life, but now maybe freedom—by listening to foreign broadcasts. They might be willing to take risks and watch, say, South Korean videos, but not listen to foreign broadcasts. But the elites, people with great interest in political issues—they are exactly the people who are listening. It’s maybe three, five, seven, 10 percent of the population. I don’t know how many, nobody really knows. But it’s the people who are interested in politics.

Q:  But it looks as if North Korean businesspeople, traders, or smugglers who go into China come back with information they get from radios in China. So it seems to me that word of mouth is a big factor, that people do talk. The average people may not listen directly, but they trust the people who have listened, who are perhaps more worldly and more traveled.

A:  I would say they trust people who have been far away, especially overseas. And there is a great deal of interest in people who have been in China. I think that the single most important factor of change in North Korea is the collapse of border control in the north. That happened in the 90s. Border control was partially restored recently, but on balance the border is still poorly controlled, so people can go to China and back, and they bring all this stuff—not only radios and not only stories from radio, but it’s also how DVDs and videotapes get into the country. And stories from people about their own experiences are also very important.

Until maybe ten years ago or a bit less, almost everybody could cross the border. Then they increased the number of border guards. But very soon border guards discovered that it’s a very profitable job, because especially when they deal with smugglers they can charge large fees for the right to pass to China, and especially back from China, with sacks full of merchandise.

So the guards are taking bribes, and I don’t think that the government is really trying hard to stop it, because officials up to very high levels are getting their cut. We are talking about a country which is very corrupt.





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