Policy Area: Multilateral Talks

North Korea - New Lessons Learned
Philip Yun, former staff representative for former Secretary of Defense William Perry, December 12, 2003.

In early 1998, when I was asked to work on U.S. policy toward North Korea, I thought myself well-prepared; versed in the ways of government as a presidential appointee to the Department of State since early 1994, I was ready to address any challenges that I would face; and of course, I was convinced I knew all one needed to know about North Korea.

As a Korean-American, whose mother had been born in what is now North Korea and a father from South Korea, I had been taught early in life simple "truths" about the North and its government. Like many Cuban-Americans toward Castro's Cuba, I was a "superhawk" on North Korea - it was Communist, totalitarian, depraved and "not to be trusted;" the country was weak, the U.S. was strong; and with enough pressure, the U.S. would put this tiny country in its place.

However, with each round of negotiation and trip to North Korea, I picked up nuances not apparent before, and I quickly realized that things were not so black and white -- that I had been viewing North Korea and its people as crude caricatures.

As the Bush Administration contemplates its next steps toward North Korea, it would be well advised for them to bear in mind the following lessons I learned -- ones based not so much on long-standing, rigid notions or even well-conceived strategic frameworks, but derived from direct exposure to North Korean culture and its people's everyday existence:

1. The current North Korean leadership is here to stay -- for the foreseeable future.

The North Korean people are not like those in the old Soviet satellite states ready to throw off the yoke of tyranny, but are more like brainwashed followers of a cult -- Kim Jong Il's cult. North Korea is the most isolated country in the world, and its people, conditioned from birth, know no other way of life. So long as North Korea remains cut-off from the outside world, the cult will continue.

Traveling to North Korea's capital Pyongyang for the first time gave me a sense of how isolated the country truly was. I had read much about the North, but nothing prepared me for what I saw.

Pyongyang was a distant land frozen in time. The city was oddly quaint - like scenes from an old film. Residents wore styles from the 50s, 60s and 70s; cars - to the extent that there were any - were either extremely old or very new Mercedes. The architecture was mid-century with a concrete Communist sterility. There was no information from the outside world. In the hotel rooms I stayed, radios were tuned to one station; the TV had two. Program content was a barrage of revolutionary propaganda.

The atmosphere was both chilling and surreal. There was what has been observed by others a strange Orwellian quality to the place, a flatness that pervades.

Of course, the reverence with which Kim is held in his own country is breathtaking. I was present for an encore performance of a Communist Workers' Party 50th Anniversary celebration in 2000, about which much has been written. I saw 200,000 North Koreans, all in white shirt, black tie and suit, breaking out in adoring ovation for their "Dear Leader." That alone was a stunning enough experience, but what was equally eerie was the empty and enormous parking lot surrounding the stadium, no cars or other vehicles.

On the final evening of that trip, Kim Jong Il and Secretary Madeleine Albright dined for a second time; on this occasion with the entire U.S. delegation and our counterparts. Fifteen minutes after we arrived, Kim Jong Il entered the room, with a gaggle of television and film cameras documenting his every move. Kim was short in stature, well fed, and dressed in a gray jumpsuit with pointy black shoes. He was comfortable and confident and very much used to being in public, at center stage. During the meal and conversation, I noticed that our North Korean hosts always had one eye on the head table, watching the "Dear Leader's" every move. Some commented what an honor it was to be in his presence. When Kim Jong Il downed one glass of wine "shot style," the North Korean guests, probably 100 strong, all broke out in another standing ovation. To this day, I can't be sure if it was from awe or fear; but probably both.

It had been a memorable 48 hours, with Kim Jong Il and his cast of thousands. It became clearly evident to me that Kim saw himself the equal of any world leader. There was also no doubt that the millions of Communist Party faithful - like those in the May Day Stadium and the dinner - would sacrifice themselves for him provided North Korea remained isolated from the outside world. I came away convinced that as repugnant as it was, we had little choice but to deal with North Korea as it was, not as we wished it to be. To think otherwise would be foolhardy.

2. The alternative to Kim Jong Il could be worse.

Few tears would be shed if Kim Jong Il just disappeared. In fact, the "facilitation" of regime change in North Korea has been a policy alternative floated by pundits and policymakers alike. If the Bush administration is serious about this approach, it should be careful what it wishes for.

The leadership in North Korea is not monolithic; there are differing views among vested interests, like the military and the Communist Party, and therefore Kim - who does not have the "revolutionary" credentials of his father or those in his father's generation -- has had to methodically consolidate power.

Youth usually means an openness to change. But the North's leaders in waiting - now in their late 40s, and 50s - are more isolated than their elders ever were, and there is a distinct possibility that this cadre promises to be all the more hostile to the West.

Most of the North's top leaders I met were older than North Korea itself. Virtually all had fought as soldiers in the Korean War and WWII. Many had long standing relationships with counterparts in China and former Soviet bloc countries. They subscribe to an independent, self-reliant North Korea for now. But through a sense of history, they can also be pragmatic. By contrast, the leadership in waiting has had relatively little international contact, coming of age late in the Cold War and in isolation.

North Korea's incessant propaganda machine has instilled in this generation's notions of a weak Western character and an outside world intent on destroying North Korea. This faction - unlike their Southern peers who were largely responsible for the South's transition to prosperity and democracy - has yet to make its mark. It is therefore understandable why these privileged few feel compelled to prove themselves.

While accompanying Dr. William Perry to North Korea in 1999, I had my first contact with this leadership cadre. It was in a bare, but cavernous building that was home to the People's Army, where we met a North Korean senior colonel (equivalent to a U.S. one-star general) who served as our host for a meeting with the military in Pyongyang. An intense man in his mid-fifties, the officer made it quite clear his presence was not of his choosing. There were the usual polemics - no outside interference, a single Korea and North Korean military might. This was to be expected, after all we were the enemy on his home turf. But what was unforgettable was the palpable disdain this senior Colonel had for our entire group, particularly for me and our Korean-American translator, going so far as to refer to his country's ability to attack our hometowns if provoked.

The senior Colonel's contemptuous manner substantiated stories I had heard of North Korean military officers and party officials -- just below the top tier -- being much more aggressive than their superiors. For this group, fifty years of Communist ranting arguably have evolved into a form of fundamentalism, North Korean style -- the idea of a unified Korea turned to sacred aspiration and armed conflict.

This commitment to "one Korea" reminded me of an uncle who was once a high-ranking officer in the South Korean military. On occasion, he would declare unabashedly that another war between North and South Korea to the finish was unavoidable and that if the price for unification was hundreds of thousands of deaths, then so be it. To be sure, my uncle's beliefs are far right, even by South Korean standards, but the sentiment exists in both countries.

Of course, one should be careful about sweeping statements. I suspect that within this faction ready to assume power, some are apathetic and live day-to day, some are secretly and open-minded. But there is a significant percentage who are the fanatics, and it is safe to say many are in the military. Therefore, if the U.S. pushes too hard for a coup, the group coming in may not care one bit about the West, but could be even more hostile.

3. North Korea's current military orientation is primarily defensive, not preemptive.

Traditional deterrence is in our favor on the Peninsula for now. North Korea certainly has the ability to inflict massive damage in any military conflict, but it knows it would be destroyed if it attacked. Therefore, while North Korea's military goal at one time was offensive, for the time being, it is defensive. North Korea has prepared itself as best it can for war, relying on a "porcupine" strategy. In a conflict, the certain U.S. victory would be at the highest bloody cost possible.

Evidence of this defense orientation is everywhere as I saw on my final trip to Pyongyang in 2000. When traveling to Pyongyang from the DMZ, I saw the landscape change from barren, almost moon-like to lush and green. There were also camouflaged artillery pieces, though of World War II and Korean War issue, massive bunkers, fortifications and tanks. I chuckled to myself -- in humor and discomfort -- when I looked back from where we were going and saw a North Korean highway sign written in Korean that said something like "Seoul, 75 kilometers."

I also saw indications of this military preparedness while on a Pyongyang subway. Taking the only escalator down to the platform some 200 hundred meters below the surface, I experienced vertigo. Experts often refer to North Korea as country of "tunnelers," citing large passages built under the DMZ, for an invasion, wide enough for troops to pass through at a rate of 70,000 men per hour. North Korea had been completely leveled during the Korean War; so to protect itself from future bombings, North Korea has a system of underground structures, presumably to support a large population below the surface. My glimpse of the subway attested to this, and I thought about other subterranean sites and their content. I was incredulous over the sheer force of will it would take to live in this kind of environment.

So why the antagonizing bluster? North Korea has one huge inferiority complex - justified by what it sees as a hostile outside world, exacerbated by the collapse of Communism elsewhere.

North Korea's history can be summed up as a never-ending search for security. For hundreds of years, China, Japan or Russia battled each for control of this strategic location. During the first half of 1900's, Japan colonized the Peninsula and tried to assimilate Koreans. Korean culture was outlawed - including customs, given names and language; my mother and father, for example, still can speak Japanese and still remember their Japanese moniker.

Moreover, its economy is in shambles; there is little food. North Korea touts its million-man army, yet its military might is slowly deteriorating (I was stunned to see how small the North's soldiers were - many under 5 feet 5 inches and waif thin compared to South Korean soldiers who in some case by rule are at least 5 feet 10 inches and 175 pounds). Some may argue that the North's forward deployments are offensive in nature, but a equally plausible alternative is that to deter an attack, North Korean psychology would dictate a need to appear to enemies as more threatening.

The North's leadership is motivated by regime survival and independence, not by conquest. However, to maintain these objectives, North Korea is willing to go to extremes, and nuclear weapons are but a very dangerous means to an end. Any effort to persuade the North that it is more secure without these weapons than with them - an even harder task in light of Iraq -- will require carrots, not only sticks.

4. North Korea's leadership will not succumb to Chinese or other outside pressure.

China's full engagement with North Korea has been most welcome, and is certainly a good sign. However, China's influence over North Korea is greatly overstated. While China can influence what North Korea does on the margins, China will likely have little to no effect on North Korean behavior on central security issues -- short of a Chinese willingness to use force and risk armed conflict. And it is not at all clear that China has made the hard decision to place greater priority on a nuke-free North over its collapse or a war.

Some point to the economic leverage China holds over North Korea, citing China's exports and imports, including significant amounts of oil. But, this dependence does not necessarily translate into an ability to control behavior since these economic arguments overlook critical political and cultural factors -- North Korea's underlying contempt for the China along with its willingness to sacrifice and endure great hardship.

Relations between China and North Korea have always been problematic, but from the end of the Cold War, North Korean antipathy has only increased. North Koreans are deeply distrustful of China because it looms so large over North Korea, and I heard many a North Korean tirade never to be in a position to have to kow-tow to China again.

This intense dedication to identity and autonomy is embodied and cultivated in the North Korean ideology of self-reliance, known as "juch'e." Given Korea's history, Juch'e espouses there is no higher calling for North Koreans than the preservation of the state (which also includes the "liberation" of South Korea) free from outside intervention.

Against this backdrop of intense isolation and obsessive security, North's operating philosophy -- the "ends justify the means" - and its ability to use extreme methods to extract great sacrifice from a tolerant public, is easier to fathom. One million people or more died during the early to mid-1990s from famine, yet the regime continues; its citizens accept these casualties, like triage, as a reality of war.

There is also another cultural aspect -- North Korea's leadership comes mostly from Hamgyong, the farthest north of the country's provinces. For hundreds of years, Korean kings sent its "troublemakers" there. Just as the U.S. has its stereotypes of Texans, so too does Korea. When asked about the people from Hamgyong, South Koreans overwhelmingly reply their Northern neighbors are abrasive and emotional, all underscored by a "never give up" and an "if I am to die, I will take you with me" creed.

To the people of the North and its leadership, weakness of any kind invites repeated intimidation -- so a "push" inevitably leads to a harder "push-back" with bluster. My father's best friend was from Hamgyong, and my father described him as "typically North Korean." I have childhood memories of intense arguments between them about seemingly insignificant things, going on endlessly. My father would eventually let Dr. Lee have the last word, always; otherwise they would be up the entire night.

Ironically, the lessons my father gained from his friend tracked my own experiences with North Korea, when dealing with North Korea, keep your eye on the ball - in the end substance is what matters, not how you got there - and forget trying to teach North Korea a lesson; it simply will not work.

Seeing what's really there

Unexpectedly, I came away from my time in government less encumbered from long-carried baggage accumulated during my previous lives about North Korea. I eventually came to see North Koreans not as the demons of boyhood, but as a destitute and hugely proud people fighting for their lives against what they see as an increasingly hostile world. Unfortunately, these paranoid North Korean views make the country's brutal and corrupt leadership armed with nuclear weapons an imminent danger to the U.S. and our friends.

Nonetheless, elements for a solution seem to exist - security and economic benefits for nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. However, I am afraid the leadership in the U.S. and North Korea now see the other as the devil personified; instead of focusing on interests, hardliners on both sides are determined to teach each other a lesson, unaware of the stereotypes that affect their outlook, unable to see opportunities to resolve this stand-off, if presented. September 11th is seared into our consciousness. South Korea elected a President with a populist anti-American message; Japan has slipped further into gridlock, unable to make hard decisions. Moreover, the North -- stung by these unexpected changes, "Axis of Evil" and the Bush Preemption doctrine -- is more convinced of America's intent to destroy it. The world has shifted; and with it, the prospects for settlement dwindle each day.

Our long-term task is to convince North Korea that its ideas of the outside world are outdated. Our short-term task is to stop them from reprocessing spent fuel into nuclear bombs. The optimist in me says that this can be done; and in recent months, I see evidence that George Bush is starting to recalibrate his thinking about North Korea. Hopefully, this is the start of looking beyond the stereotypes, and seeing things as they really are.

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