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Dispelling Myths and Misconceptions about North Korea

June 13, 202436:00

In this edition of Wilson Center NOW, we are joined by Sung-Yoon Lee, Fellow with the Wilson Center’s Indo-Pacific Program, Former Kim Koo-Korea Foundation Professor of Korean Studies and Assistant Professor, the Fletcher School, Tufts University. He discusses his project at the Wilson Center, “The Pyongyang Playbook:  North Korea’s Provocations, Peace Ploys, Propaganda, and Unification Policy.” Lee explains that while many in the West often mock North Korea and the Kim regime, we need to take the self-isolated, totalitarian state much more seriously. 



    Hello. I'm John Milewski and this is Wilson Center NOW, a production of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. My guest today is Sung-Yoon Lee. He is a fellow with the Wilson Center’s Indo-acific program. Previously, he taught Korean history at Tufts University, and his analysis of the Korean Peninsula has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Washington Post, among others.

    Sung is also the author of the book The Sister The Extraordinary Story of Kim Yo Jong, the Most Powerful Woman in North Korea. One reviewer said about the book, It's essential reading to understand the nature of the world's most tyrannical and reclusive regime. Yoon, welcome. Thank you for joining us. Thank you very much for having me, John.

    So you're working on a project at the center where you're going to dispel some myths and misconceptions about North Korea. And I thought we can dive into that. But before doing that, I wanted to ask you about the conventional wisdom, the way we always talk about North Korea as the least transparent country on the planet as that reviewer who I quoted said.

    That was Max Boot, by the way. He said the world's most reclusive regime doesn't live up to building. It does. North Korea is the most reclusive isolationist. Not literally, but figuratively speaking. It is the most closed, most isolated state in the world. And that's by design. Of course, the people of North Korea are also the most systematically information, basic information, facts, truths deprived people on earth.

    And that's very much by design of this state. The cult of personality of North Korea is extraordinary. You know, when we think of North Korea, the great leader, so called with his funny looking haircut, a very well nourished Supreme leader presiding over a nation of hungry, starving people. You know, the image is quite striking. It's weird. And North Korea is so different that one tends to patronize mocked North Korea.

    It's hard not to. If there were such a thing as an icon of international mobility index, North Korea would reign supreme forever. So this mix of medieval, cringe inducing image, all the leadership and also the frequent buffoonish sounding bellicosity will continue. Q So they say, renders North Korea somewhat risible and also smokable and misunderstood. We tend to patronize North Korea, but we shouldn't.

    We have to take them seriously. The whole idea of a tech based world where everyone is connected and there's access to all kinds of information, good and bad. How difficult has it been for North Korea to maintain this level of isolation in a world where technology seems to penetrate just about any barrier? Well, North Korea shares a very long border with China in the north, some 850 miles long.

    And historically, it's always been porous. So over the past 15, 20 years, more information has been seeping through information as in world news or in TV shows, drama, movies, pop songs, South Korean pop songs and so on. So in the border region, North Koreans have better access to information about the outside world. But in the rest of the nation, you know, it's still very much sort of the Middle Ages, dark ages.

    North Koreans have really no comparison. They don't know how deprived, how oppressed and how under privilege they are because they've not traveled abroad metaphorically or physically. So, yes, information is going in. But North Korea, the government, those are very good job, I suppose, of blocking out as much as possible. So not not enough information seeping in to move the needle.

    I wonder, you know, how broad based hierarchical does this extend? In other words, is there an elite class within North Korea that is more worldly? Yes, there is. North Korea. Every North Korean newborn is thrust into a political class. And this is hereditary. Not only power at the very top, you know, the original supreme leader, his son took over upon the death of the first either and now the third generational leader.

    Not only is power handed down to the next generation, but for the rest of the population. Also, misery, oppression, starvation and so on. So it's hereditary. And in Kang Young, in the capital city, one does not get to travel freely to North to North Korea's capital city. Most North Koreans have never had that privilege. But in the capital is the descendants of the first generation revolutionaries, the comrades of Kim Il-Sung, the founder of the state and their progeny.

    So, yes, they are elites, they are cosmopolitan. They know about the outside world. At the same time, they have an arresting, a compelling need to toe the party line and please the supreme leader, because they have an incentive, of course, to protect their own interests and privileges and perks. You know, you'll recall seven or eight years ago, North Korea dominated international headlines.

    There was the entire schizophrenic relationship between Kim and Trump at the time, back and forth between love letters and summits and threats of shock and awe. And now, all these years later, the world has turned its attention, understandably, toward Ukraine and to Gaza. Has this benefited the regime in North Korea? Has this allowed them to fly under the radar, so to speak?

    You know, historically, Americans have regarded North Korea to merely react to what the mighty United States says or does. We remember President George W Bush referring to North Korea as one of the axis of evil, along with Iraq and Iran. In his State of the Union address in 2002. Well, North Korea does not just react to what big powers say or do They have agency, they have a strategy and they go through cycles of graduated escalation, acting crazy and sounding crazy, too.

    But then they all of a sudden dramatically resort after a period to a post provocation peace ploy. And it's quite dramatic because the formerly crazy sounding North Korean leader comes out, smiles, beaming, shaking hands with world leaders and effects a dramatic image makeover. So when we saw this in 2018, Kim Jong un sending his sister to South Korea for the Winter Olympic Games and then proposing a summit meeting with President Trump and meeting with President Xi of China in March and then President Moon of South Korea in April.

    And so once to me, it was like Rambo four. And by the time you've seen Rambo three or four, you have a pretty good idea how this movie ends. But much of the world at the time wanted to believe that this time it's real. They're serious about denuclearization and rapprochement and reconciliation and all those sweet sounding things. But I don't think that's been the case about that crazy thing and how much of it sounds as if and I don't want to put words in your mouth that what you describe me is almost performative politics, crazy like a fox for effect, playing potentially to an internal audience as much as they are playing to an external

    audience. How do you view that? What's your analysis of the so-called crazy quotient? Well, I've been claiming I've been arguing that North Korea intentionally weaponizes its own weirdness, its own weird image, so that when they sound normal and quite cosmopolitan, the outsider is dazzled and wants to believe that perhaps to an extent, the North Korean leader is now acting, behaving normal and saying all the right things because of my own intelligence and charisma and, you know, I can mold this leader.

    Well, what we've heard over the years, going back to Kim Il sung, who came out in 1972, meeting with two New York Times reporters in his office for 3 hours on May 26, 1972, Harrison Salisbury and John Lee. They came away. The reporters came away, dazzled that this guy's not only not crazy, but very knowledgeable, clever, reasonable, self-effacing, has a sense of humor.

    And then the next month, a reporter for The Washington Post had the same experience. And then in July the next month, Harvard law professor and so on. So we've seen this before. We've seen this ad before. And, you know, when they cultivate their image as a crazy man and then they come out and sound entirely charming, even the outside world wants to believe what the North Korean dictator is saying.

    But, of course, they have their own agenda. We'll dig into some of the particulars. I know you're looking at things like military capacity and the economy and all of the things where we might have misconceptions. But in the biggest picture, the biggest broad brush stroke, what do we mostly get wrong about North Korea consistently? That they listen only to China or Russia or the Soviet Union?

    Of course, historically they didn't quite dependent economically on both their patron communist patron states, but they have defied the North Korean leaders, have defied Chairman Mao, Deng Xiaoping, President Xi, President Putin, Stalin repeatedly. They really have been more the driver in their relationship with the big powers, including the U.S., China and Russia. And that's an extraordinary achievement of sort, I suppose.

    So they have agency. They don't just like react to what the Americans say. You know, in the wake of the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950, President Truman and his men and women wanted to believe they believe that Kim Il sung was acting upon the orders of Stalin to test the United States by launching this invasion of South Korea.

    In fact, a high ranking official coming out of a National Security Council meeting told reporters in late June 1958, quote, The relationship between Stalin and Kim Il sung is the same as that between Walt Disney and Donald Duck, meaning Kim Il Sung is not his own man. He's a puppet. But in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the partial opening of the Soviet archives, we've come to know that to learn that it was entirely Kim Il sung, cajoling, lying to Stalin and Mao to give him the go ahead the green light to invade South Korea.

    It was his war and he was the driver. Likewise, today, you know, Kim Jong un has retreated into his his policy of provocations, firing off hundreds of missiles over the past five years, threatening war and so on. But there will come a time when the Kim regime goes back, reverts to a peace fait charm offensive. And I believe his sister will be the face of the next North Korean charm offensive.

    And watch out just because she's a young, pretty powerful princess, mysterious and all that. It doesn't mean that all the nice things she'll be saying are genuine. You know, she is the cold crime boss of one of the most despotic, cruel nations on earth. They have their own agenda. So you just made quite the case that North Korea is anything but Donald Duck to China's Walt Disney or whomever.

    So why do we keep getting that wrong? Have you given this any thought? And why do we continue to persist in viewing North Korea as a reactionary state or as a puppet of larger players? I think most military experts in the United States take North Korea's capability, military capability, very seriously. We know what they're capable of. And we also know that North Korea has, during the Cold War, launched literally thousands of small scale and often lethal attacks against South Korea and US troops in the region, in South Korea and in Japan, killing many Americans during the Cold War.

    So the military experts take North Korea's military capability very seriously. But again, you know, in democracies where leaders come and go via elections or likewise in the government, in the State Department, for example, you rotate every few years. So you have to learn quickly on the job. Whereas in North Korea, those people who've been watching the US, the US handlers or experts, so-called, they've been added for 30 years, in some cases 40 years.

    So that's an advantage for a hereditary dictatorship, a totalitarian state in terms of strategy, in terms of trying to ascertain what the other what the adversary is thinking or plotting. So there are many reasons why we often get North Korea wrong. But one of them, again, is our tendency to patronize North Korea because they're so laughable in many ways, but also that North Korea is surrounded by big powers.

    And in terms of economic power or soft power, you know, North Korea has really nothing to show the world. And that's a that's a factor as well, because they're so poor and backward and weird. It's hard not to patronize North Korea right now. Well, you talked about their military capacity just now, another power that comes into play. And geopolitics is soft power.

    What can you tell us about North Korea's culture and what we might understand or misunderstand about that? Well, you know, Korea was a united country under a single polity for over a thousand years, even during the Japanese colonial occupation and in the first half of the 20th century, and then was abruptly divided. It was it was to be a temporary division.

    And Korea was partitioned at the 38th parallel north by the principal victors over the biggest war in history, the United States and the Soviet Union, primarily to facilitate the surrender, giving up arms, weapons by Japanese troops dispersed throughout the peninsula. So in the meantime, over the past almost eight decades or division, North Korea has emerged as one of the strangest countries in the world.

    It's so unique and unconventional. I often say North Korea is uniquely unique, and every time I say that, I see my British primary Church of England primary school, grandma, teacher, wincing and I teach you a unique was an absolute odd adjective. There's no more unique lexicon anyway. North Korea is very different, and the culture of North Korea is so strange and so cold driven.

    You know, the supreme leader is almost infallible. Inviolable is almost like a god in north in the North Korean narrative. So some people say the entire population of North Korea is some 25, 26 million is a cult or is a religious group. And therefore, North Korea's state ideology is one of the biggest religions in the world. I don't take that view.

    But, you know, North Korea is truly very, very different from the rest of the world on multiple dimensions. The whole idea of a monolithic regime or of this command and control, total control of the entire country. Do those ideas stand up to scrutiny or do they fall into that category of possible myth? You know, in North Korea, you need a special travel permit.

    You need to apply for one at the local police station to go from your hometown to the next town over. And historically, there have been random nighttime inspections. People, you know, security guards show up in the middle of the night to see if there are any unauthorized guests sweeping over to see if anyone's been watching on DVDs or VHS tapes or remember to watch the foreign movies and so on.

    Shutting off the electricity so that the tape gets caught in the player and so on. So the level of the level of control over the population by North Korea over the past eight decades is unprecedented. It's much more extreme than the Soviet Union under Stalin or China, under Chairman Mao. It's really, you know, another the next level of control.

    Even during the Japanese colonial era, which was very brutal, a brutal occupation. There was some semblance of basic freedoms. You know, you could choose where to live, which school to send out, to send your kids to. You could travel abroad to travel to China, to Russia with proper documentation. You could listen to foreign radio broadcast, read foreign magazines, even though you have your own free sort of free press newspapers.

    You could certainly barter for food. You could make money through public, you know, private property and wealth. Well, under North Korea's leaders, none of that has been allowed over the past 75 years or more. So the level of control and oppression on the part of the vast majority of the North Korean population has been extreme and unparalleled in terms of its place in the world.

    Diplomatic isolation versus engagement, or whether or not it has clear foreign policy objectives or objectives beyond regime survival. What can you tell us about that? Well, in terms of the conventional indices of measuring state power, for example, the size of your territory or population or your economic power, military power, soft power and so on. Well, North Korea faces great odds in competing with the other Korean state, namely South Korea, in all these areas, except for one, which is military power.

    You know, North Korea, again, is a small population, maybe 25, 26 million, but maintains a 1.2 million man standing army, which is one of the biggest in absolute terms in the world, next to China, Russia, the United States, maybe India. So that is a hyper inflated army for a small nation of 25 million people. And they do that because that's all they have military power, the ability to shake things up in the neighborhood, export insecurity, issue threats and harbor the wild ambition of one day, incorporate dating South Korean territory and its people, effecting unification on its own terms.

    The Vietnam model is what North Korea has in mind that it's become through graduated, escalation, provocation and threats against the United States and diplomacy become an unbearable political burden for the U.S. administration and then sue for a peace treaty and compel the United States to withdraw all U.S. troops from South Korea, which would render South Korea more vulnerable.

    Although South Korea has a world class military. South Korea has, of course, immeasurably more to lose in a war against North Korea. North Korea has a record very low regard for human lives, even the lives of their own people. So that's an advantage for North Korea. So but North Korea is has not given up on the campaign started by Kim Il Sung in 1958, invading South Korea to biding their time.

    And of course, the ability to marry a nuclear warhead on an ICBM that could hit any part of the United States comes into the picture in this game, even as we've seen in Ukraine, a numbers advantage is not always translating into success on the battlefield. What do we know about the readiness and the training level of North Korean forces?

    It's true North Korea's not seen war since Vietnam, since the Vietnam War, when North Korean pilots and others participated. Yes. In terms of training, in terms of military equipment. The other team, the US and South Korea, enjoy a great advantage. But again, as we see in Russia, for a despot, 10,000 people dead, 100,000 combatants die on the battleground.

    No big deal. You can go on, whereas in a democracy, 100,000 casualties or conduct that would be a major big deal, of course, for any leader. So, you know, that kind of pain threshold. North Korea enjoys an advantage in that regard. So we don't want to go there. You know, we play sports to find out who wins because even an underdog has a fighting chance in many cases.

    And it's exciting. But in international politics, the whole point is not to go there and not to play that game. How do we achieve that with overwhelming deterrence? And that has deterrence has prevented another open war in the Korean Peninsula since the armistice agreement of 1953, whereas in the six year period leading up to the outbreak of the war in June 1950, I count four major wars in and around the Korean Peninsula.

    So the US commitment to defend South Korea is a major factor in the de facto actual peace, shaky and very much imperfect, but actual peace that has been in place in the Korean Peninsula since 1953, during which time South Korea has emerged as a major economic power, a democracy, a modern nation admired around the world. North Korea, of course, has gone in the opposite direction.

    The casual disregard for human life that you describe in a potential war scenarios, does that extend one for one to human rights within the country, you know, in peacetime? And is it as bad economically for the average North Korean as we often think it is from the outside looking in? Absolutely, John. North Korea is, again, so different, so unique, but this is the most unique aspect to me.

    North Korea escaped only the first and only nation that was industrialized, urbanized, had a literate population. There is no adult illiteracy in North Korea in peacetime that was not embroiled in the war, was not emerging from a war, yet suffered a famine. Let me try to be more PC. North Korea is history's only industrialized, urbanized, literate, peacetime society to undergo the devastating nationwide famine which North Korea underwent in the mid-to-late 1990s.

    It may have killed off some 10% of the population. This is an aberration. It's unique. No, no. Where on earth at any time have we seen an industrialized, urbanized, literate society undergo a famine like that? And North Korea forever will remain unique in that aspect, I believe. And 13 years later today, North Korea is among the world's top three, top four, always top five.

    Most food insecure nations, according to various reports by the United Nations. Ten years ago, in February 2014, the United Nations Commission of Inquiry, a monumental 400 page long report, was released and made various serious allegations, including the following that the North Korean regime at the highest level of state is guilty of a deliberate policy of mass starvation elsewhere, it says knowingly causing prolonged starvation.

    They intentionally kill off a portion of their people. That is the only conclusion, rational conclusion we can reach now, ten years later, because although the people are poor, the dynasty, the regime is filthy rich, they own an entire nation. They have ICBMs and nuclear weapons. But Kim Jong un refuses to spend even a tiny portion of his vast wealth with which to import food.

    If Kim Jong un bought food and distributed it equitably, no man, woman, child in North Korea would starve or go to bed hungry. But the regime chooses not to. Given what you just described, why haven't we seen anything resembling a revolution? Because of the terror izing the immensely successful, I suppose, totalitarian control over the population. To give you one example, there are frequent public executions conducted by the state, and these are gruesome, horrific spectacles to which the entire town is dragooned to watch, including children, including five year olds, and that that experience stays with you.

    You know, there are over 34,000 North Korean defectors who resettled in South Korea in various surveys. If you ask them what is the most shocking traumatic experience, they say seeing their family members, loved ones die, just drop dead during the famine of 1994 to 1998, and having watched the public execution, that traumatic experience stays with you. And of course, people just disappear.

    All of a sudden, entire families are thrown into political prisoner concentration camps. What is the crime? Well, complaining about life occasionally is like life is hard. Your neighbor rats on you and then you with family across three generations, including little children. You know, even one two year olds are thrown into a gulag for the rest of their lives.

    So it's an immensely inhumane, ruthless, cruel state that has been successful in this game because of the layers of inhumanity control over the population. What you describe sounds from a Western perspective more like a mob or a cartel than it does a government in the way we think about. Absolutely. It's a giant criminal syndicate. You know, in the mid seventies, North Korea had default on every single international loan it had taken out.

    So it became utterly credit unworthy. And then they turn to organized crime. It's the state doing it like producing and proliferating illicit drugs. They still do, you know, state sponsored meth labs are in place in North Korea. North Korea has counterfeited US $100 bills and other $50 $20 bills, too, but mostly Benjamins And the Treasury Department many years ago came up with the term supra notes to refer to North Korean counterfeit hundred dollar bills because they're simply the best in the world.

    And North Korean diplomats, dozens of them, have been expelled during the Cold War from Russia, too, for blatant criminal activities like buying bulk alcohol and then, you know, duty free and then reselling it on the market. Black markets are proliferating, you know, illicit substances, banned animal products like ivory and rhinoceros horns and so on. So yeah, it's like a giant multi also a mafia organization rather than a nation state.

    And that's also unique, a unique feature of modern day North Korea. When we talk about myths and misconceptions, geography looms large in the wiggle room we have or the margin for error we have in getting it wrong or getting it right. South Korea doesn't have the luxury the United States has in that regard. You describe to us the difference in how South Korea sees North Korea versus maybe the rest of the world.

    You know, South Koreans of, let's say my generation, I was born in the late 1960s when South Korea was literally one of the poorest countries in the world. And during the Cold War, during that time, South Korea was ruled by an authoritarian military man, current president, until the mid 1980s, when democracy finally took root in South Korea. During those years, the ideological conflict, the Cold War mentality was very much in place, and we were taught in school to to fear and to loathe North Korea, especially the supreme leader.

    But then, in more recent decades, South Korea has gone in the opposite direction. South Koreans tend to view North Korea as sort of pesky, unwelcome pool. Distant relatives give them some money in the eyes and they'll go away. And they certainly won't try to do us harm. yeah, they built nuclear weapons because they're afraid of the mighty United States that's just itching to invade North Korea.

    There's been no invasion by the US or retaliation even since 1953. So there is an element of unrealistic sort of a denialism in South Korea. They don't teach you anything about North Korea in South Korean schools. Can you believe in middle school? High school? So most South Koreans today, as highly as ultra educated and tech savvy as youngsters in South Korea today, they basically know nothing about North Korea.

    There's no money in North Korean studies. There are only a handful of colleges who offer a major in North Korean studies. So most of South Korea remains apathetic and ignorant of North Korea. And that's a shame because, you know, South Koreans as well as North Koreans have this sense of sort of a tribal ethnic identity. There is a high degree of ethnic homogeneity in the Korean people historically, and they feel that we are one people and so on, all those good things.

    But yet South Koreans really are indifferent to the terrible suffering of the people of North Korea. And that's a shame. UN Is it? Does it go beyond a shame? Is it is that complacency you described potentially dangerous? I think so, because, well, I mean, you know, to be fair, to try to be fair, one cannot live in constant fear, paranoia over North Korean attack.

    But then South Korea seems to have gone in the other extreme way of thinking when even when North Korea says we're going to nuke, we're going to turn Seoul into a sea of fire. And so on, and when they shoot missiles every few days, it's not even top news. You know, the South Koreans just go on with their busy lives.

    And maybe that is the more realistic response to North Korea's frequent spreads. But at the same time, again, there is sort of this unrealistic view that North Korea is just pool paranoid crowd. So they're just acting up when an American president calls them names or in the South Korean president takes a hardline stance against them, they merely just like, you know, rattling their sabers, but they don't mean to do us harm.

    Well, history shows again that North Korea has consistently harmed the people of South Korea and U.S. troops in South Korea over the past seven decades. And my final question involves how best to deal with North Korea. You know, you've just provided us a master class in understanding the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. But when it comes to diplomacy, diplomatic efforts, arms negotiation opens.

    What's possible is much possible. Well, for many years, I've been arguing that we need to enforce sanctions against North Korea. There's a lot of misunderstanding about sanctions in general. The notion that the US has always heavily sanctioned North Korea, that's simply not true. Until 2016, there was not even a single North Korea specific US sanctions bill sanctions legislation until President Obama finally signed one into law, made it into law.

    U.N. sanctions only began in 2006, in the wake of North Korea's first nuclear test in October 2006. So the notion that the North Korean people are hungry because of us or U.N. sanctions is simply not true. The famine took place more than ten years before the first ever U.N. sanction or even 20 years before the first ever U.S. sanctions.

    Sanctions enforcement like domestic law enforcement needs to be applied, needs to be implemented consistently. It's very labor intensive, hard, and in many ways thankless work. You know, even the toughest laws on the books don't mean much If the law enforcement authorities don't surveil, monitor, arrest, build up a case against criminal organizations. Unfortunately, sanctions enforcement has become quite hollow since 2018, when Kim Jong un came out and changed the moves, let's say.

    So I think it's very difficult to meaningfully force sanctions today, especially in this very different world that we're living in. In the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Now, Russia is brazen. China is not as brazen as Russia, But on the same side, North Korea is quite brazen in flaunting sanctions evasion. And Russia, of course, we know in March, vetoed the extension of the UN Panel of Experts, which is a group of multinational experts who monitor North Korea sanctions evasion on, the the mandate of the Security Council.

    So that group, that monitoring watchdog, is no longer in place. So we're living in a very different world and Vladimir Putin is reportedly soon visiting North Korea, visiting Kim Jong un. Putin remains to this day, the only top Russian or Soviet leader to ever have visited North Korea. And he did in July 2000. So it's been a few years, but I'm concerned that Putin and Kim, because they both need each other, will continue this secret military collusion.

    Where that ends, where it goes, we don't know. But we are concerned that Putin will provide high tech sensitive military technology to Kim Jong un like submarine submarine launched ballistic missiles, nuclear powered submarine technology, satellite technology and so on. In return for Kim providing ammunition, providing artillery shells and other conventional weapons to Russia for use in Ukraine. Well, it's an ominous place to end, but that's where we'll end our discussion today and unite continue to be impressed by the depth and breadth of your analysis and the clarity of your explanations.

    We're lucky to have you at the Wilson Center. Thank you for your confidence as a fellow and thank you for Thank you very much. Our guest has been Sung-Yoon Lee. If you would like to know more about him and the Indo-Pacific program at the Wilson Center, you can find that at Wilson Center dot org. Lots of good material.

    And Yoon's final analysis will be coming soon. We hope you enjoyed this edition of Wilson Center now and that you'll join us again soon. Until then, for all of us at the center, I'm John Milewski. Thanks for your time and interest.


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