How the U.S. Government “Reads” North Korea

July 16th, 2012
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On July 12, The Korea Society hosted a breakfast discussion entitled “Reading North Korea”.  The speaker was Dr. Sue Mi Terry, former Director for Asia at the National Security Council under both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.  In her presentation, she explained her daily activities working at the NSC and the difficulties of obtaining information on the Hermit Kingdom.  Dr. Terry pointed out current events in North Korea and explained how some portions of life have changed, while others remained rigidly the same.  Finally, she speculated on what would be needed going forward to push towards a unified peninsula.

Unlike most countries where credible information on topics such as population, economic development, and technology can be easily obtained, analysts who cover North Korea do not have such ease.  Dr. Terry described sifting through hundreds of embassy reports, intelligence findings, and any type of communications that had been obtained, adding that it was “one of the most frustrating countries to cover.”  Even after pouring over this plethora of information, it was then necessary to determine the quality of the source and to determine if some of this information was purposely incorrect.  “When Kim Jong-Un came into the spotlight, we knew shockingly little about him,” Dr. Terry explained.

Although the process of gathering correct information is laborious, there are numerous facts that have emerged.  The succession process from the late Kim Jong-Il to the current leader has been moving along smoothly.  The overall situation is “becoming a little more normal”, although is far from what most nations would call normal.  North Korea is still, as Dr. Terry proclaimed, “a failing state”, due to its reliance on other nations, mainly China.  Kim Jong-Un has been more visible and vocal than his father, making frequent speeches in public.  He is attempting to grasp the hearts of the youth of the DPRK, knowing that they are the future of the nation.  Unfortunately, as Dr. Terry pointed out, “from what we do know, there is little prospect of change in the immediate future.”  North Korea is unlikely to dismantle its  nuclear program.  After seeing the recent events in Libya, the thought of removing nuclear arms seems even less likely.  “It is one of the few advantages that they have over the South”, explained Terry.

The “Leap Day Agreement” with the United States probably best displays the flip-flop nature of the current regime, mirroring practice of the former regime.  On February 29, North Korea agreed to suspend work at its uranium enrichment plant in Yongbyon, in exchange for 240,000 tons of food aid and to allow inspectors back into the country after a 3 year absence.  This appeared to be a positive achievement for both countries involved.  Two weeks later, Pyongyang announced that they were going ahead with a satellite launch in April to coincide with the anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-Sung.   The U.S. warned that a launch would disrupt the latest agreements, but the DPRK went ahead with the launch regardless.  This launch was planned before Kim Jong-Un came into power and was going to happen.  Dr. Terry was floored by the obscure timing of the agreement and stated that “North Korea should have waited until after the launch to discuss food aid”.

Terry pointed out that the U.S., along with the surrounding nations of South Korea, Japan, and China, need to now improve their dialog with North Korea.  She explained that China would have to take the biggest role and “shift their thinking” on what North Korea is and what it can provide.  This could be difficult, as a united peninsula may not be the best scenario for China because they see the DPRK as a buffer between themselves and South Korea.  A unified Korea would not rely as heavily on China as the North currently does.

Dr. Terry stated that North Koreans are becoming more aware of the world outside of their borders each year.  Cell phone usage, legal and illegal, has risen sharply.  DVD’s continue to be smuggled into the country, providing citizens with information on how the rest of the world lives.  South Korean soap operas are in great demand and Sue Terry described that many of the defectors knew the names of the characters on these shows.  She also explained that a “trigger” was necessary, such as Mohammad Bouazizi in Tunisia, to push the nation towards reunification.  When asked if the population may become uneasy at the end of 2012 for realizing that the regime was unable to provide a better country for its people as promised, Dr. Terry said that this was unlikely.  She revealed that a change would need to take place from, “the top down.” Essentially, there would need to be discord among the elite in order to promote a change.

In closing, North Korea continues to be difficult to obtain concrete information about.  Regardless of the increase in mobile phones, satellite imagery, and intelligence reports, gaining additional insight into the DPRK is still a challenge.  This challenge increases the difficulty in being able to communicate with them, which decreases the chances for substantial changes. There are possibilities of changes from within, but the likelihood of this happening is slim.

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Brian Martens



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