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Secretive North Korea Unveiled

January 17, 2010

In a desperate shout for attention, North Korea, the world’s most elusive nation, continues to flaunt its nuclear abilities. Discussing this and other issues surrounding North Korea at Calvin College’s January Series was Tony Namkung, an expert on US-Asian relations who has visited North Korea over 30 times.

The lecture ranged from the policies that would have opened up North Korea under the reign of Kim Il-Sung, to the role of protestant Christians within North Korea’s history, to the current nuclear issues under Kim Jong-Il.

Around 1990 Kim Il-Sung began work on policies that would have turned around North Korea’s current trajectory. Namkung spoke of this as a “fundamental reversal of their long time policies. . .one was to normalize relations with long time foes the US and Japan, second was to seek peaceful coexistence, distinct from unification, which had been a long standing North Korea demand that the peninsula needed to be reunified immediately with South Korea, third was market reforms to a highly centralized market economy”. This was soon followed by the Agreement on Reconciliation between North and South Korea that would have seen a total reversal of policy including diplomatic recognition, arms reductions, and an end to nuclear testing and materials possession. As the current state of affairs between North and South Korea can tell us, these policies were never implemented. What happened? Namkung suggests a few reasons for the reversal, including the end of the Cold War, the democratic revival of South Korea, and the resurgence of China, all of which threatened the political stability of North Korea.

Speaking at a Christian Reformed college, Namkung discussed how protestant Christianity shaped the early life of Kim Il-Sung, as both his parents were active in the church. Many Christians in North Korea at this time were working against the Japanese occupation that finally ended in 1945. However, Christians continue to be persecuted in North Korea today, as any form of religion needs to be state approved and practiced.

The topic of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions wasn’t discussed as much as hoped, but Namkung did offer some insights into the veil of secrecy surrounding their motives. Namkung suggests, as do others in his field, that North Korea’s nuclear testing and missile launches are an elaborate chess game to them, used as a pawn in political negotiations. Diplomat Georgy Toloraya believes that ”North Korean behavior is the consequence of dissatisfaction with the policies and the actions (or lack of them) of its adversaries. It cannot be explained simply in terms of the ‘unpredictability’ of the Pyongyang regime or its attempts at ‘blackmail.’”

Namkung said North Korea has consistently tried to garner a relationship with the United States, mainly to seek the protection of the United States against North Korea’s traditional foes, China and Japan. Strange thing then for this country to be thwarting all the requirements the United States has placed upon it. But Namkung sees this as North Korea’s attempt to jump start talks and negotiations, since the majority of the acts of aggression occur during stalemates. With a closed off society and a failing economy, the nuclear issue is the only real bargaining device left to North Korea.

So what’s next then? How should the world and particularly the United States approach North Korea, especially since the Six Party talks have been disbanded? With an open mind, says Namkung. The United States should not focus solely on the nuclear issue, as it has done in the past, but pay attention rather to the issues underlying this threat display, such as economic decline, a failing infrastructure, and humanitarian crises. Namkung thinks our new policies should keep in mind that we need “to abandon the sticks and carrots methods. . .and to get away from the notion that the end is near for North Korea, that they are only starving and selling arms to prop up their regime or prop up a corrupt elite and Kim Jong-Il’s only purpose in life is sheer survival using the nuclear card.” The United States should also serve as a facilitator between North and South Korea, though this may be difficult due to South Korea’s conservative new leader. But Namkung believes it would be of strategic importance for the US to have friendly relations with North and South Korea if China or Japan start vying for power in the region.

Little is known about North Korea, but what is known is that the United States needs to change how it deals with this elusive country while tensions continue to thaw. Some good resources on US/North Korean relations are Foreign Policy in Focus and for a good historical introduction see John Feffer’s North Korea/South Korea: U.S. Policy & the Korean Peninsula.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Hyuk In Kown permalink
    July 19, 2012 5:14 am

    Hi. Im student in Korea. Im so sad that the map on the top shows wrong information. The sea between Korea and Japan is not sea of Japan. It is East sea. Could you please make it right? I’ll wait your respond. Thank you 🙂

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