Solving the DPRK Conundrum

Charles Burton

(Keynote address to the Canadian Foodgrains Bank Conference on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea “DPRK: Axis of Evil or Nexus of Need”)

October 20, 2003




Well this has been a wonderful meeting so far.  But of course one looks forward to the happy day when conditions in the DPRK have improved to the extent that the Canadian Foodgrains Bank can wind down its program in North Korea and focus attention elsewhere and this series of yearly get togethers will come to an end.


What I would like to talk about this evening are the conditions under which that happy result can come to pass and the role Canada can play in helping the DPRK to break out of its cycle of bad government and poverty. 


I am cautiously optimistic that there is the prospect for North Korea to get back on its feet and develop again and this evening I would like to explain to you why I feel that way.


A couple of weeks ago I read an article in the Globe and Mail by their Beijing correspondent, Geoff York, entitled “China sees itself on holidays in Pyongyang”.  According to the article 30 to 40,000 Chinese tourists travel to North Korea every year now.  When a young Chinese woman was asked why she planned to visit Pyongyang she told the Globe and Mail that it was “because I want to see what China was like in the 1970s.”  Geoff York also interviewed another Chinese man who has visited North Korea twice this year and is already planning a third trip.  He said that being in the DPRK evokes in him nostalgia for the old days of Maoism in China.  He says that being in North Korea is “like seeing a newsreel of our childhood.  The scenes are so similar to China in the 1970s.”


Now perhaps much of that Chinese tourism into the DPRK is related to the casinos that have sprung up in North Korea in recent years.  There are no casinos in Mainland China yet so Chinese gamblers have to go abroad for the casino experience, but I think that the other thing also applies.  I myself lived in the 1970s.  I was an early participant in the Canada-China Government-sponsored student exchange.   So having experienced China in the 1970s, I can understand the appeal of this sort of nostalgia that would motivate Chinese to travel to the DPRK for a what one might characterize as “a trip down memory lane”.  Like North Korea today, Chinese people’s lives were simple because the nation was poor.  Rationing of commodities like grain, oil, sugar and most consumer goods was in effect then.  There were chronic shortages of electricity.  There was no consumer culture because advertising of any kind was banned and consumer good were in short supply anyway.  It was a highly de-sexualized society.  Women dressed modestly in their Mao suits with their legs covered, no skirts allowed, nor was makeup or permed hair permitted.  There were no bars, nightclubs, drug users, and prostitutes.  Crime rates were very low.  The pace of life was very slow.  People had their work and housing assignments from the state. They didn’t have to worry about looking for a job or deciding where to live.  That was handled by people above them in the social hierarchy.  Similarly, housing, medical care, education and pensions were not the concern of the individual and it was all in the work package and there were no options aside from what one was given.  The state’s function was to look after the people in a paternalistic way. It was relatively stress free way of life then as individuals did not have the pressure of making decisions in their own lives but simply followed the arrangements for well nigh all aspects of their lives made by the state.  There was a sense of security in that.  People would speak of enjoying “the warmth of the collective” and aspire to the revolutionary style of “simple living and hard struggle.” Life was uncomplicated and one took pleasure in the simple things: family, conversation, the stroll in the park in the cool of the evening.  These are all the things of a gentler past.  One tends to forget how spiritually stifling, physically uncomfortable and grey it all was.


While the China in the ’70s-DPRK today comparison is not perfect; there are many features that parallel.  First of all, China’s political system at that time was based on the cult of personality for Chairman Mao.  His portrait was everywhere; his works were studied at compulsory study sessions at least one afternoon a week; everything good that happened in China whether a win at an international sporting event or an increase in pork production was reported as due to his wise leadership.  Like Kim Jong Il today, Chairman Mao was deemed to have penetrating insight into everything.  As in the DPRK now, the prevailing ideology was highly xenophobic.  Chinese could not leave the country for study or other purposes, listening to foreign broadcasts was illegal, any communication with people abroad was highly suspect and politically risky.  The Church buildings all over China were no longer used as houses of worship. The Christian church had been forced underground.


China had nuclear weapons then and its official foreign policy statements had something of the flavour of the DPRK’s today: they tended to be lurid, threatening and with blustering anger particularly directed against the USA and Japan. 


There was a rival non-Communist regime that claimed to be the sole legitimate government of all China that was doing much better economically.  So Mainland China, the People’s Republic of China, the PRC, had the ROC (Republic of China on Taiwan) as the DPRK has the ROK.  The ROC then like the ROK today was supported by a heavy military presence of permanently based US troops. Like the DPRK today, in China in the 1970s, there was strong repression of political dissent and large numbers of people imprisoned for political offences. At the same time the economy was faltering.  A large proportion of the population were at risk due to low caloric intake and lack of fuel to keep their homes warm in winter. For much of China’s rural population keeping belly full and body warm was the main focus of their daily lives.  Even for myself, I remember craving fatty meat in those days and would prefer a piece of fat to a piece of lean meat because there was not enough oil in our diets.  The major topic of conversation among the boys in my university dorm was not so much girls and sports as one might expect, but about food.  I daresay it is like this in North Korean universities today.


While conditions in the DPRK were considered better than in Mainland China in the 1970s, today of course things are much, much  better in China while conditions in the DPRK have deteriorated over the same period.


So what is there for us to learn from China’s transformation that can be applied to the DPRK?  Well the Chinese revolution had promised the Chinese people that their lives would get better and better under Communist leadership.  But by the 70s housing was not keeping up with population growth so the average square metres of floor space per person were going down.  Also due to the slow growth in industrial production, urban youth were unable to be assigned jobs in the cities after leaving school and so the Government started to send them to border regions thousands of kilometres from their homes in many cases to open up new lands for farming.  This was a very unpopular policy needless to say and caused parents great worry, as the conditions for their teen-aged children in those border regions were very tough and dangerous, especially for young girls.


In January 1976, popular and respected Prime Minister, Premier Zhou En-lai died.  He was perceived as a pragmatic defender of ordinary people and less of an ideologue most of those holding public offices at the time.  The Chinese Qingming Festival of the Dead fell on April 6 of that year.  Starting that day under the pretext of mourning Premier Zhou’s death, thousands of Beijing workers and students converged on Tiananmen Square and set floral tributes to the late Premier at the Monument to the Martyrs there.  At the same time there was speechifying and allegorical poems that took on a political character.  For example one poem included the line “mouthing empty words about Communism will not satisfy the people’s desires.”  This April 6 Movement enjoyed enormous popular support.  There had been a cumulative process of unfulfilled expectations that led to massive popular discontent with the regime and it was starting to breakout into the popular consciousness.   One could not characterize the mood as “we are mad as hell and we re not going to take it anymore” but things could have rapidly developed in that direction.  This April 6 Movement enjoyed enormous popular support.  Elements with the Chinese Communist Party realized that if the Party did not change its policies, there could be a popular uprising against it. 


By October 1976, the first group of strongly ideological Party members characterized as “ultra leftists” were purged. Over a period of some ten years the definition of “ultra leftist” moved incrementally to the right and there was a continuous succession of purges until there were no Marxist ideologues opposing the abandonment of China’s moribund Stalinist system left.  It was a process akin to thinly slicing salami from the left.  Because of the staged nature of the reform of China’s economic and political systems, people were able to adjust their political values to come to terms with the new institutions.  This ensuring that people’s social values were in sync with the changes was critical to maintaining stability.  It was called in China “the process of coming to know.”  So China was able to make a transformation from decaying and increasingly ineffective economic and political institutions to the institutions in place today, which are highly effective and have led to astonishing economic progress and much greater individual freedom for people living in the People’s Republic of China.  There was no break-up of the country along regional lines and no power vacuum leading to a military coup.


What this suggests for the DPRK is that a successful and stable transition to new political and economic institutions has to be on the basis of strong continuity with the current institutions, because the North Korean people see their political institutions as legitimate.  What I mean by this is that for most North Koreans, even if they have doubt about Kim Jong Il’s rule and see him as a much weaker leader than his father, they do not believe that their Government is illegitimate.  They acknowledge that their Prime Minister is a legitimate Prime Minister and the various Government Ministers as legitimate holders of their various offices.  While we might be inclined to wonder about the rituals of the state and look askance at the Juche ideology, as outsiders we should not be dismissive of the official ideology.  It has its own logic and coherence and highly sophisticated and intelligent people in North Korea take it very seriously.  Positive change could well come in a North Korea that retains Juche and even retain Kim Jong Il in government, although one would expect to see Kim eased out slowly over time and rather drastic revisions made to Juche over a number of reinterpretations.  In China, Chairman Mao’s successor to the personality cult, Chairman Hua Guofeng, was gradually eclipsed in power and the personality cult wound down.  His omnipresent portraits were gradually removed and his number of official posts gradually reduced.  Hua Guofeng only lost his chairmanship of the Party five years later.  He even remained active in the Central Committee until his retirement some 20 years later.   Amazingly it has been recently revealed that Hua is actually Mao’s son.  For those of us in the China business this revelation took on an almost surreal character although it has great explicatory value for why this previously little known regional official was designated by Mao on his deathbed as his successor with the words “with you in charge, my heart is at rest.”


The main outside forces attempting to impose change on the DPRK are the ROK and the USA.  The DPRK’s interpretation of the ROK’s Sunshine Policy that it is essentially intending subversion of the established authority in the DPRK with a sugared coating.  In the final analysis this is not far off the mark. The North perceives the South as a morally inferior quisling regime that has sold out Korean cultural independence to Japan and U.S.  From the DPRK’s perspective, while the South may have wealth, the North has retained Korean national dignity.  Within South Korea such sentiments are also an undercurrent of relations between the two,  particularly among the younger generation.  This aspect of national pride and a perception that the North Korean regime is truer to Korean cultural norms complicates the dynamic of relations between North and South.  I would judge that there is no prospect that the DPRK would consider moving toward unification with the ROK until the US removes its troops from Korean soil.  Until then, the ROK’s ability to impact on DPRK domestic affairs is severely constrained.  Actually even ostensibly well-intentioned political initiatives by the ROK may do more harm than good.  Sending in food aid is without question a positive gesture.  But aside from insisting that the food be distributed to those in greatest need, it would be best if the ROK not make any statements that could be construed as judgemental about the DPRK regime.  This is a lot to ask of South Korea though due to the natural concern South Koreans have for the conditions that North Koreans have to live under these days and their yearning for national reunification.


Recent US policy toward the DPRK has been an utter failure.  By threatening the DPRK with attack through its Axis of Evil formulation, the US has effectively strengthened the hand of the political hardliners inside the DPRK.  The upshot is that the DPRK remains on a permanent crisis footing that inhibits political moderates from working for political and economic reform.  Certainly there are people in the DPRK’s Worker’s Party who question the official explanation that bad economic situation that the people in North Korea now find themselves in is totally due to the machinations of hostile foreign forces and very bad luck with the weather.  But in the context of continuous preparations for war, questioning the fundamentals of the regime’s political and economic institutions is readily perceived as unpatriotic and even treasonous.  So I strongly feel that the best way to encourage systemic change from within North Korea is to cease threatening the DPRK with invasion if the DPRK does not comply with foreign demands.  This would lead to an easing of the crisis mentality that dominates North Korea politics today.  Similarly embargoing North Korean imports and exports by sea will likely similarly only serve to strengthen the position of hard liners inside the DPRK.  That is to say it will make things worse and not lead to the desired result of an end to the rule the Kim family over North Korea.


What if the US did engage in military action to remove Kim Jong Il from power?  Leaving aside the risk of horrendous loss of life, offensive U.S. military action in Korea implies, an American-installed Government would be unlikely to be able to help the DPRK make a smooth transition to the new institutions necessary to support a just and prosperous society with an effective government.  There seems to be an implicit assumption in American foreign policy doctrine that if North Korea could be liberated from a small group of bad people who are oppressing them politically then the broad mass of Koreans would welcome and be able to function in institutions based on US-style liberal-democratic norms.  So free elections could be held within months of a successful US-inspired military liberation of DPRK territory and the new democratically elected government of the DPRK would naturally chose to ally itself with the US in gratitude for what the US had done. The flaw in this logic is that the regime in North Korea is not simply the Kim family and a few people around them, but the regime comprises the entire population of the DPRK, even those who to a greater or lesser extent are not convinced by the regime’s official propaganda.   They identify with the current institutions.  If their Government collapses due to foreign military action, as in Iraq and as in Afghanistan, the people are unlikely to accept the legitimacy of political institutions imposed by outsiders.  Under such circumstances: civil war, the rise of warlords and domestic insurrection are all likely outcomes.   Under these conditions, maintaining food and physical security for the people of North Korea over the period of transition would be very challenging.  The situation for families living in the DPRK would be likely even worse than at present.  China’s recent stationing of a huge contingent of troops along Korea’s northern border is to prevent a massive outflow of desperate North Koreans fleeing north into China to seek refuge.  Fortunately the U.S. failure to bring about a just and stable society in Iraq makes it unlikely that the US will invade the DPRK within the foreseeable future all things being equal.


So what should be done?  First of all, I suggest that the only hope for a stable transition of the DPRK from a bad regime to a good regime lies in domestic forces within the DPRK.  The way for us to support these potential agents of change in the Worker’s Party is to try and convince the United States to take action to ease the impression of the DPRK that the US intends to invade North Korea to bring about regime change.  This would have the effect of easing the domestic political crisis allowing the regime to consider the possibility of meaningful domestic reform. For the North Koreans, an important initial gesture would be a legal termination of the Korean War and diplomatic recognition of the DPRK by the USA. This would imply no endorsement of the Kim Jong Il government but simply recognize the reality of its sovereignty over the northern part of the Korean peninsula.  


But there are factors that suggest that a stable transformation of the DPRK to a regime that can effectively respond to the needs of the people in North Korea will be more challenging than was the case with China.  For one thing the DPRK recognizes the political implications of engaging in a Chinese-style reform program.  It means that technocrats gradually displace the ultra-leftist ideologues.  Hua Guofeng’s fate must surely serve as a warning to Kim Jong Il that his own family would likely lose power if the DPRK adopted Chinese-style opening and reform.  So there is bound to be more political factional and bureaucratic resistance to implementation of a reform program that officials perceive as threatening to their own careers.  Moreover, the Chinese revolution was in 1949 and the economic reform program was initiated less than 30 years later.  This meant that when China sought to establish the institutions to support a free market economy there were people still active who had had experience with these institutions 30 years earlier in their careers.  Only very old people in the DPRK remember Korea’s pre-Communist institutions and even for these people the institutions they knew were the institutions of the Japanese colonial regime.   This means that in the absence of people with an understanding of institutional norms, there is likely to be a lack of understanding of the limits of authority of the various institutions and how they function in a market-based society.  Years of socialism have meant that North Koreans are for the most part dispirited, lacking in initiative, and lacking a civic sense of public responsibility.  The phenomenon was a large factor in the troubled transition in the former Soviet Union.  The length of time from the 1917 Revolution to the collapse of the Leninist system in late early 1990s meant that there was no one in the country who had not been socialized in the pre-Communist system.  These factors can lead to institutional instability and serious problems of economic corruption in the course of political and economic systemic reform.  This could threaten the stability of North Korea’s transition to new institutions.  The Chinese example is not an easy one to follow.  The experience of other third world countries in Africa and Latin America suggest that things can go badly wrong in the course of political change and stay bad for a very long time.


Nevertheless, waiting for domestic political change in the DPRK to happen of its own accord is not a particularly appealing policy stance for us.  Particularly as the problems of malnourishment, disease and political repression persist in the DPRK in the interim.  But there are no more feasible and effective options available to my knowledge so far.  On the positive side it is unlikely that the DPRK will actually deploy offensive nuclear regardless of their blustering propaganda as this would only lead to disaster for their regime as the West would have to respond and the DPRK regime would almost certainly collapse in that case.  But of course we have to keep a very, very close watch on this through multilateral nuclear inspection institutions and through stepped up intelligence surveillance.  It is not reasonable to expect that the DPRK will give up its threat of nuclear offensive capability (although whether there is more than smoke and mirrors backing this threat is not known to us at this time).


But aside from praying that change when it comes in the DPRK will be positive change without bloodshed, there are other things that Canada can do to support the North Korean people in the interim. 


First of all certainly our food aid and other development programs in the DPRK should continue.  Aside from the moral imperative to do all that we can to ease famine and malnutrition, severe deprivation could lead to political unrest that could lead to further instability in the DPRK and prolong the process of North Korea’s transition to a regime with political institutions that can engender economic, political and social development.


Second, we should swallow our apprehensions about the tendency of North Korean diplomatic missions abroad to engage in smuggling of drugs and forged currency and let the DPRK set up an Embassy in Ottawa and we should have Canadian diplomats resident in Pyongyang.  It is a difficult diplomatic posting at the best of times and things are bound not to be easy for us there, but we should be there to respond to any possibilities to engender positive interaction between Canadians and North Koreans.  We cannot effectively engage the DPRK regime through demarches by to their diplomatic representatives in Beijing or New York City.  The DPRK is too important for Canada not to have at least one diplomat posted in Pyongyang who dedicated the promoting Canadian policy objectives toward the Pyongyang regime on a full time basis.  We should to the extent possible facilitate academic and cultural exchanges and business between Canada and the DPRK.  In the case of China many of the senior Chinese government officials responsible for Canada-China relations today studied in Canada on the sole student exchange program we had in place in the 1970s, which was also the one I went on.  It only amounted to 10 Canadians a year, but has paid off in spades.  We need one of these with the DPRK.  Under current conditions, the best thing we can do is open up awareness of political alternatives to younger people in the North Korean elite by letting them get to understand our Canadian, politics, society and economics.  An important factor inhibiting the DPRK’s opening to the outside world is deep-seated suspicion of the intentions of foreigners, but bonds of trust take time to build, so we should start now.  We need to work to make agents of change within the DPRK regime appreciate that Canada’s intentions toward the North Korean people are good ones and that we want to engage them on the basis of equality and mutual benefit.


Reading DPRK propaganda, one gets the impression that people in North Korea feel that things have gone terribly wrong every where in the world except for the DPRK.  It is a nation that is suffering from a psychology of severe paranoia.  Extreme patience and understanding on our part is the best response to the loaded and highly offensive rhetoric and duplicitous diplomacy that the DPRK is known for.


Change from within the DPRK in the absence of outside pressure is the best possible outcome.  In the interim we should actively stand by the people and families living in the DPRK under the current very difficult circumstances and urge that our allies to do the same.  But this waiting game is very uncomfortable for all us.  Let us hope that the people of the DPRK will see better days soon.