North Korea under Kim Jong-IL

By Shuja, Sharif | Contemporary Review, April 2003 | Go to article overview

North Korea under Kim Jong-IL


Shuja, Sharif, Contemporary Review


AFTER the collapse of the Soviet world and the death of Kim Il Sung in 1994, North Korea under his son Kim Jong-il has continued alone on the rigid communist road, in spite of its economic consequences that have led the state beyond ruin. In the last month, numerous reports have appeared about North Korea's resumption of its nuclear programme and the testing of missiles. What are the reasons behind this peculiar choice of direction? Why did the leaders in Pyongyang pursue a policy abandoned not only by Russia but also by China and Vietnam?

In the West, North Korea (DPRK) has acquired a certain notoriety but it remains a comparatively unknown country. One difficulty in judging North Korean conditions is that literature on the country is, in comparison with virtually all other countries, in very short supply. Reliable statistics are even more difficult to come by. Specialists on East Asia have published a number of basic and often detailed studies, but the very character of the state has meant that most authors have seldom had the opportunity to even visit the country, let alone live there. It has probably only ever been visited by a few thousand Westerners, mainly businessmen, technicians and debt negotiators.

North Korea's increasingly serious problem of feeding its population, as well as its nuclear and missile programme have all led to a renewed interest in the country and developments generally on the Korean peninsula.

Whether a totalitarian system such as that of the DPRK, however effective it might have been, can continue to operate with the same degree of effectiveness and without any major change in the twenty-first century, is the question facing not only students of politics but also the decision-makers involved in the Korean question, and above all, the DPRK leadership. Economic advisers, human rights groups, academics and visitors from the West are all awaiting the opportunity to travel throughout North Korea and they expect Kim Jong-il will open up the entire North Korean state. The DPRK, it would seem, is another world which we cannot understand and one with which there can be little communication. That is a challenge that should be faced; we need to know and understand things.

The big problem, for North Korea, is lack of transparency. This lack of transparency is in policy-making, in how influence flows, where decisions are really made, who is in and who is out. Lack of transparency means that foreign governments have less opportunity to influence the policy-making process in the way they do elsewhere. On many issues foreign governments do not even know the real decision-makers on the issue at hand. The North Korean leaders may feel comforted by this, but it actually feeds the perception that the DPRK stands apart and creates the suspicion that its goals may be concealed and therefore suspect. It also denies North Korea the important benefits of international interaction-the opportunity for the 'inside' policy-makers to understand what other countries think, to influence as well as to be influenced, to persuade, to build confidence, to prevent misunderstanding and miscalculation.

Lack of transparency also means that on many issues we do not know if the North Koreans are sincere or not. This gives rise to the more speculative interpretations of the DPRK's domestic, foreign and military policies. It may not be appreciated in Pyongyang, but it is a major problem for North Korea that when it does speak candidly it has to cross this wall of scepticism.

The conventional view outsiders have of North Korea is that of a 'rogue' regime, irrational, dangerous, provocative or even aggressive. Pyongyang's invasion of South Korea in 1950, its maintenance of strong military forces near the inter-Korean border since then, its bizarre political and diplomatic practices, its refusal to liberalise its economy like its more dynamic neighbours, its nuclear weapons programme and the so-called 'missile' test of 31 August 1998 are all seen to affirm this conventional view. …

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