Northern Exposure

What is North Korea’s game? Months of belligerent moves, then a series of conciliatory gestures over the summer, were capped off with the September announcement that Pyongyang was back to enriching plutonium. To find out what it all means, and what the U.S. should do, Columbia’s Michael B. Shavelson spoke to Charles K. Armstrong, the Korea Foundation Associate Professor of Korean Studies in the Social Sciences and author of the forthcoming Tyranny of the Weak: North Korea and the World, 1950–1990.

Interview by Michael B. Shavelson Published Fall 2009
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Columbia: What about human rights?

Armstrong: The human-rights situation is one of the worst in the world. People do not have the freedom to say anything critical of the government. For example, if you deface the image of Kim Il-sung or Kim Jong Il in a newspaper by cutting it up or wrapping your garbage in it, you can go to jail. It’s reminiscent of the Japanese emperor worship of the 1930s.

Columbia: Including the spiritual dimension of that?

Armstrong: It’s all couched in quasi-Marxist language. But there’s a strong emphasis on Korean nationalism and the perfection and glory of the great leaders, Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong Il, his son. It is a strange sort of political religion.

Columbia: We do not know much about the heir apparent, Kim Jong Un. What little we know does not suggest that he will be a serious leader. What are the possibilities of a collapse after the death of Kim Jong Il, of a coup, or even of an overthrow?

Armstrong: Anything is possible, but I think that the window of opportunity for that would have been in the early 1990s. The country was starting to fall apart, there was a ripple effect from the collapse of communist regimes in Eastern Europe, the first great leader, Kim Il-Sung, died, and there was a famine.

Today the situation is more stable and it seems unlikely to me that you would have a revolution, or even a coup. On the other hand, the North Korean people do have more access to outside information now than they did a decade ago. Despite strong government controls, there are broadcasts from the South and China on radio and television that North Koreans are getting access to, a lot of movement back and forth across the border with China, so North Koreans aren’t as isolated as they once were.

The military and the Kim Jong Il family have come to be codependent. The family has been ruling for 60 years, and anyone who wants to achieve power in North Korea has to work through the Kim family. I would guess that if Kim Jong Il were to die some time soon, then Kim Jong Un, if he is indeed not ready to be a hands-on ruler, would probably be a figurehead, through whom people within the party and military leadership would work.

Columbia: Are we likely to see unification in our lifetime?

Armstrong: Korea was a unified state for over 1000 years before it was divided in 1945, so there is a strong historical basis for unity. But the question is what will happen to North Korea. The North and South have talked for decades about some sort of cooperation, even a confederation of the two systems. But they’re so different that it’s hard to imagine how that could happen. After Germany was unified in 1990, a lot of people speculated that a similar thing would happen in Korea, that North Korea would collapse and be absorbed. That could still happen, but the South Koreans don’t want it. Younger South Koreans don’t feel that strong an emotional attachment to the idea of a unified Korea, especially if it’s going to come at a great economic cost. It would be enormously expensive to absorb the North into the South.

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