Is the Hermit Kingdom Truly Malevolent-Or Simply Misunderstood?

By Kim, Suki; Richardson, Bill | Foreign Policy, March-April 2015 | Go to article overview

Is the Hermit Kingdom Truly Malevolent-Or Simply Misunderstood?


Kim, Suki, Richardson, Bill, Foreign Policy


In 2011, Korean-American journalist SUKI KIM spent six months undercover as a teacher at an elite, all-male Pyongyang school for science and technology--her fifth visit to North Korea--where she collected stories for her memoir, Without You, There Is No Us. Former New Mexico Gov. BILL RICHARDSON has visited the country eight times: first as a congressman in 1994, to discuss a nuclear arms deal, and most recently in 2013, as a private citizen with Google Chairman Eric Schmidt. Kim and Richardson recently connected to swap travel tales, debate North Korean diplomacy and language--and, of course, discuss The Interview.

BILL RICHARDSON: In my negotiating with the North Koreans, they always were sending the following messages: One, they're a very proud, strong country. Nobody controls them. They want to be considered on par as a major power with the United States. Number two, It was very clear that they had a total devotion to their leaders, the structure of the party, the military--they were paramount in any of their discussions. They never made a decision on the spot. In negotiating with them, their idea of a concession was not a quid pro quo, like in Western countries. Their idea of a concession was they're not going to budge, but what they will budge on is they will give you enough time to come to their conclusion, eventually. Time for them is not of the essence.

SUKI KIM: I was teaching the sons of the elite, who are 20-year-old young men, who are going to be the future leaders. And when you say the North Korean negotiators never, ever deter from their script, these boys didn't either. Yet, there was a disconnect. They always sing about killing Americans. I asked them, "When you sing those songs, where do I fit in? I'm South Korean and American." They were almost laughing. They can see the humor in it. I remember them awkwardly smiling and saying, "Oh, you're different from that, because you're our teacher." You were also talking about the absoluteness of power, which I totally relate to. Everything was number one: They are Number One Hospital, Number One District. Every student had a number. The hierarchy was so labeled with each existence; they're all soldiers. It is an incredibly vigilant way to live.

BR: For the North Koreans, I've found everything is very personal. I remember being there at a time when President [George W.] Bush called Kim Jong II a tyrant in one of his memoirs. The North Koreans were very insulted. They saw that as personal. [Recently] they felt that The Interview was an attack on the deity, on their heart and soul. The North Korean government is rallying the people and saying, "See how the Americans have depicted our leader, with a lot of disrespect. This is why you have to continue listening to us and why we should fear the outside world." But I recall vividly being in North Korea with Eric Schmidt of Google, and we went in, and it was very obvious that only a very small percentage of North Koreans, the elite, had access to the Internet. They weren't about to expand it, because they knew if they did that, it would possibly fuel an Arab Spring reaction. SK: Absolutely. My students didn't know the existence of the Internet. I taught at a school for science and technology computer majors. They had no idea what the Internet was. It's not possible to open that world up to the Internet, because then that would break the myth of the great leader.

BR: In the past, the North Koreans didn't care about any international organization or the criticism. …

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