Inside North Korea: a view from the experts

Charles Scanlon, right, discusses North Korea with John Everard and Paul French

Charles Scanlon, right, discussed North Korea with John Everard and Paul French at the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival

Inside North Korea: a view from the experts

22 May 2014

By Chitra Mogul

A discussion held at Asia House offered fascinating insights into North Korea, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

It featured John Everard, the former British Ambassador to North Korea and author of Only Beautiful, Please:  A British Diplomat in North Korea; Paul French, East Asia expert and author of North Korea: State of Paranoia; and BBC East Asia Editor Charles Scanlon.

Everard drew on his experience of living in Pyongyang between 2006 and 2008.

Speaking about the prospect of reunification, Everard said that in the event of a North Korean collapse, South Korea would step in to secure it. The South Koreans had studied German reunification exhaustively, he said. It would be a slow process that might take decades rather than years while South Korea built up North Korea. There would be caution about letting North Koreans into the South as they have a different mindset which could be destabilising for the South, he explained. There would probably be a barrier between the two countries for a long time, he added.

French agreed saying that South Korean President Park Geun-hye had been referring to a collapse of North Korea when she spoke about reunification. “Everyone is talking about it, so everyone thinks it’s not a secure government. We could end up with a sudden implosion,” he added.

He said no one had a vested interest in reunification or reform in North Korea. “South is worried about how much it will cost, as their own economy is fragile. Japan is mired in recession. China has to lift its own people out of poverty. America and Europe have no money,” he added.

French said that the reverence for the leader meant that Kim Jong-un might never be overthrown. China, he said, had been able to reform in pragmatic fashion but in North Korea, when reform failed under Kim Jong-il, no one talked about it. Both the major economic policies on agriculture had failed, he added.

Instead the leadership had started a ‘quality of life’ campaign which basically meant more consumer goods for everyone. However they had not been able to ensure a wide distribution of these goods and hence it could prove counterproductive, he said.

Scanlon said that there were inherent perils in people living the high life in what is essentially a socialist state.

French agreed saying that people had the gadgets but couldn’t use them as the electricity failed so often. This might lead to some questioning of the status quo, he said, adding that in North Korea it often felt as if “the war finished yesterday.”

North Koreans lived as if they were in the middle of a war and there was a truce going on. “30,000-odd GIs over the border. We can’t trust the Chinese; the Japs would like to come back and take everything again,” he said, explaining the mindset that had been fostered by the regime. “This is a very deep current that runs through everybody,” he added.

He said that the entire country was kept on a war footing as if there might be a spy lurking somewhere or an attack could be imminent.

People’s geographic knowledge of their own country was much worse than it had been before.

“People spend days waiting for trains,” French said. “To travel around the country is extremely difficult.” Port cities which should have been booming were not as there was no onward travel from these places to potential markets. They were isolated and not connected, he said.

It is difficult for foreigners to visit North Korea; they have to get authorisation, not only from Pyongyang, but also from the military and civilian authorities. “There is a fear of outsiders,” he added.

French said North Korea’s nuclear policy had evolved on the back of the perceived nuclear threat from the US and other countries.  North Koreans felt they were under attack as they are surrounded by countries that have nuclear weapons or know of countries that have nuclear weapons. He said what was tragic was that they were obsessed by this. Using their nuclear capabilities for civilian use would have been a far better idea but they hadn’t hooked up their nuclear capacity to the civilian grid, he pointed out.

Both he and Everard felt that if the aim of the leadership was survival, the regime had played its hand well as far as foreign policy and diplomacy went. Regarding the regime’s nuclear brinkmanship they were in agreement that it was a risky path to tread.

“If they do go ahead with a fourth nuclear test, that will be a significant miscalculation and the one that brings the roof down,” Everard said.

To see a video clip of the event click below:-

To listen to the audio click below:-

Chitra Mogul recently completed an internship at Asia House.