Bombs, birthdays and North Korea’s future

JE Hoare
9 March 2007

The signing of a new agreement on North Korean nuclear disarmament in exchange for $300 million in aid on 13 February 2007 did not excite a great deal of international euphoria. Denunciations began almost as soon as the agreement was announced in Beijing, with John Bolton, the former interim United States representative to the United Nations, accusing president George W Bush of abandoning the policy pursued since 2001 and sending all the wrong signals to the rest of the world.

Nor did Bolton spare his former state-department colleagues who were castigated for pursuing surrender policies. Even among those who welcomed the agreement, and among many who had argued that the Bush approach was a failure, it is hard to find a great deal of enthusiasm. Partly this was the opaqueness of what exactly had been agreed in Beijing, and partly it was a sense of the time wasted to get back to something that looked not unlike the framework deal negotiated in Geneva in1994, but with an additional six years of complicated history added on.


JE Hoare is a scholar of Korean affairs. As a diplomat, was responsible for setting up the first British embassy in Pyongyang during 2001-02, and represented the country there for almost two years. During this period he had unique access to many aspects of the North Korean administration, the functioning of business and industry, and the country as a whole. He is the co-author (with Susan Pares) of North Korea in the 21st Century: An interpretative guide GlobalOriental, 2005

Much remains to be resolved, both with regard to the nuclear issue and with other (theoretically separate) matters, such as alleged counterfeiting of US banknotes and the admitted kidnapping of Japanese citizens. These issues have led the US and Japan to impose sanctions in addition to those introduced by the UN Security Council following North Korea's 9 October 2006 nuclear test. As detailed negotiations begin, it is hard to be more than cautiously optimistic that all the conflicting expectations can be met.

The Beijing agreement came, perhaps coincidentally, just before the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il, celebrated his birthday on 16 February - "a holiday for all mankind", according to the North Korean press. It is a measure of the complications of dealing with North Korea that it is not really known if this was his 65th or 66th birthday. Officially it was the former, since according to various hagiographical accounts, Kim was born, not in the former Soviet Union as seems most likely, but in a "secret camp" on Mount Paektu, a mountain long associated with the spirit of Korea and where North Korea says his father, Kim Il Sung, organised resistance against Japanese forces. (East European diplomats who had served many times in North Korea would note that when they were taken to the sacred mountain in the 1960s and early 1970s, there appeared to be no "secret camp". Only as Kim moved further up the system as his father's successor was the "birthplace" revealed.)

Inside the state

This year, the birthday and the lunar new year were close enough together for a joint holiday, and the weather seems to have been sufficiently mild for outdoor events - not usual in February. As well as the annual "Kimjongilia" flower show, this year was special in that Kim was awarded the "International Kim Il Sung Prize" for outstanding service to the thoughts of his father and predecessor as president, who died in 1994.

So what assessment does one make of North Korea in the light of these two events? The first message is that, despite the odds, North Korea has survived the death of Kim Il Sung; the hard years of the 1990s, when economic decline and natural disasters caused widespread distress and loss of life; and the increasing international hostility that it has faced since 2002 over the nuclear question. Undoubtedly, the country has suffered a major economic collapse, and this has had some effect on the state and society. Short-term visitors may not realise it, but North Korea is a more relaxed place than it was under Kim Il Sung. In Pyongyang at least, dogs are being walked on an evening. Couples show some affection in public. And there are bicycles on the streets of Pyongyang, something unheard of in the older Kim's time.

Away from Pyongyang, the old adage that the mountains are high and the emperor far away applies, and many of the rules of behaviour noticeable in the capital are absent. People may still be wary of foreigners but they will smile and return greetings; even in Pyongyang, it is sometimes difficult to avoid being dragged into drunken dances, especially at weekends. More importantly, there is evidence that the state has not been able to claw back the relaxations on travel and trading that developed as a result of the severe food shortages of the 1990s. Some power has clearly slipped to local leaders, who have regularly been told that the state can no longer provide, so they must look after their own interests.

That said, the regime remains politically strong. The indoctrination programmes that begin soon after birth and continue through formal education and in the military remain in place. More information may slip in across the Chinese border and to some people in Pyongyang, but the majority of North Koreans have no access to outside sources of information; a reduction in international relief operations will have decreased the already very sparse contact with foreigners and foreign ideas.

Also in openDemocracy on North Korea:

Jasper Becker, “A gulag with nukes: inside North Korea” (19 July 2005)

Hwang Sok-yong, “The ghosts of North and South Korea” (16 December 2005)

David Wall, “North Korea and the ‘six-party talks’: a road to nowhere” (12 April 2006)

Jane Portal, “Art under control in North Korea” (28 June 2006)

Peter Hayes, “Nuclear little brother: North Korea's next test”
(21 July 2006)

David Wall, ”North Korea vs the United States: a bare table” (15 December 2006)

Peter Hayes, “North Korea and the United States: what deal?”
(15 February 2007)

Politics, money and power

Although refugees may have increased in recent years, the numbers are relatively small. This is not an exodus comparable to the East German mass movement in mid-1989 that led to the end of the German Democratic Republic. And despite some of the propaganda, most of those who leave do so for economic rather than political reasons. For those looking to eventual unification of the Korean peninsula, the problems faced by refugees who settle in South Korea show that this will be no easy process. Sixty years of division will not be overcome easily, and it is over a hundred years since Koreans worked together as one independent country.

There are other unknowns. When Kim Il Sung ruled, there were always possible successors, and from the early 1970s, when the elder Kim was about the same age as Kim Jong Il is now, it was clear that the latter was the one most likely to come out on top. There is no such certainty now. Kim has three known sons, and none seems to be groomed to take over. All have been educated overseas, and therefore they have not acquired their father's detailed knowledge of the system.

Indeed, the system has changed with the growth of military power, and none of the sons appears to have gone through military training. It seems unlikely that, as the most powerful organisation in North Korea, the military would accept a leader who lacked any military background. If they did, such a leader would only be a figurehead. There is no means of knowing whether such a role would be acceptable to any of the young Kims; but if it were, they would in a very different position from either their father or their grandfather.

So however it is looked at, North Korea's future appears uncertain. But this is a regime that has survived war, famine, international isolation and many other problems. It should not be written off yet, even though there are more imponderables now than ever. China and South Korea, and even Japan, do not wish to see a sudden political crisis in the peninsula, for fear of the consequences in terms of refugee outflows and overspill from any conflict. Those concerns might well make them take steps that will keep North Korea going well into the 21st century.


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