Acceptable In The 80s: North Korea’s ‘Almost’ Opening

With all the talk of "change" in North Korea, its easy to forget that many also thought "change" was well underway in the 1980s.
October 24th, 2012
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Where were you between 1983 and 1987? In these five years, a good number of North Korean officials, teachers and top students were already in Norway, Denmark and France, thanks to a UNESCO-coordinated project aimed at improving foreign languages and scientific learning in the DPRK. They were enjoying the privileges of studying abroad, and acquiring skills which they could then transfer back to North Korea. They were, in other words, undertaking programmes we might recognise as educational exchanges (even if there weren’t any western scholars doing the same in the DPRK at the time).

Let’s pause for a minute and consider this – these were the years of Kim Il-Sung’s absolute power, the years of the DPRK behaving badly on the international scene[1], earning its reputation as a “rogue regime” and “the most isolated country in the world”. Yet the opening pages of the UNESCO document relating to language studies in North Korea (a 5-year project which allowed, among other things, the aforementioned officials to travel abroad for study purposes), read: “The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is opening her doors to the world and must therefore equip herself with those tools that will enable her to promote international dialogue while ensuring the transfer of technology.[2]

This might come as a surprise to many people. If the DPRK was ‘opening her doors to the world’ as early as in the 1980s, we either missed this crucial event, or in reality North Korea was – year in year out – finding new ways to ‘squeeze’ resources from enemies, allies and neutral states alike. Where does the truth stand?

As for many other issues, the answer is probably in the middle. North Korea has changed, there is no doubt about it – one has only to look at pictures from 30 years ago and compare them with recent images to see a country that is rapidly evolving under our very eyes. The existence of travel agencies specialised in the North Korean market are a tangible sign that things are not as they used to be when Kim Il-Sung was in power.

Young women in downtown Pyongyang – Photo: Andreas Taubert/Der Spiegel

But, at the same time, we appear to have been deceived by surface changes – this is what North Korea’s sudden modernisation is hiding, cosmetic adjustments without any real socio-economic development or crucial reform. The North Korean leadership, according to this view, did a fantastic job in letting us foster the hope that things were, albeit slowly, going in a different direction.

The thing is, both versions of the story are at the same time true, but only partially accurate. They rely on a few incorrect assumptions.

First, the idea that “change” would necessarily mean a move towards values and models that are more or less shared by most of the world, rather than away from them. Thousands of images taken every week by foreign tourists and reporters in the formerly “hermit kingdom” clearly show that North Korea is going through a phase of “modernisation without development” – that is, it’s trying to catch up with the rest of the world on a few, very visible points (like IT, fashion, cars and so on), without addressing any serious issue within the socio-economic system or its ideology.

No changes made at this level can tackle the profound inadequacies that are in the system, like the Chulshin Songbun (출신성분, or ‘system of ascribed status’ – the caste system). This is why the word “change” should be used cautiously with North Korea. If the DPRK was a car, it’s like seeing someone change its colour, place new fabric on the seats, and put new tread on the tires – but the model of car, so to speak, stays the same.

This brings us to the second assumption – the idea that providing technical and financial assistance would be seen by the DPRK as a gesture of goodwill, and would help the country stand on its feet. This notion has been proven wrong on both accounts. The DPRK, in fact, has always been very keen in propagandising to its own people how each and every good gesture from other countries was either as a recognition of Kim Il-Sung’s greatness or a reparation for historical wrongdoings: the best example of this may be the way North Korean media have presented Kim Dae-Jung and South Koreans at the time of the Pyongyang summit.

Providing the North Koreans with new tractors and teaching them how to use them won’t do much good if they keep on practicing the same outdated, inefficient and environmentally-damaging form of agriculture ‘taught’ by Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il during their “on the spot” guidance sessions. North Korea needs a change in thought more than anything else.

It’s possible that North Korea could change, but still turn into something different from what we expected. For instance, DPRK official have attended courses on human rights at the University of Essex, even while the country maintains one of the worst records of human rights violations in modern history. Some North Korean officials even served internships at the Royal United Services Institute, without having to alter their patriotic convictions[3].

Photo: PSA/PUST – North Korean Students during a class break with their Korean American teacher

There are countless projects and initiatives aimed at improving North Korea’s social and economic conditions – I’m currently investigating at least seven of them for my academic research. Some of them are truly groundbreaking, bringing North Koreans abroad to study market economy, or introducing concepts of banking systems and fiscal policies that would have been taboo until a few years ago. A few specialised organisations work to bring foreign students and academics to North Korea, to promote its version of the Korean language, and to facilitate an exchange of ideas. It’s a necessary kind of “human rapprochement”.

However, we need to remind ourselves that if we expect any of these initiatives to deliver rapid westernisation to North Korea – rather than slower, more realistic changes (a Singaporean model perhaps?) – we will inevitably face disappointment. It is important to deal with North Korea in terms of “knowledge export” rather than cultural assimilation – the problem is not the general value of engagement, which is undoubted. The core issue relates to what kind of projects we want to promote with the DPRK and what we can honestly expect from them.

Mr. Spezza can be reached at: [email protected]


[1] And by ‘badly’, I mean quite bad, even when compared to episodes like the shelling of Yeongpyong Island. To mention a few examples: the Rangoon bombing, which failed to kill former president Chun Doo Hwan in 1983, and the bombing of the Korean Air flight 858, which took the lives of 115 passengers in 1987. Furthermore, during the 1980s the North organized the kidnapping of several South Korean and Japanese citizens along the costs of both countries; a problems that (at least for Japan) still hinders any attempt of reconciliation. During the same period, the DPRK also started to engage in a number of illicit activities, including the smuggling of counterfeit dollars and narcotics.

[2] VV.AA, Strengthening of Language Training at the Pyongyang University of Foreign Studies Project Findings and Recommendations, UNESCO, 1987, p. 2.

[3] For more details about this, see: Everard, John, ‘Educational Exchanges with the DPRK: the British (and other) Experiences’, in: Shin, Gi-Wook, and Lee, Karin J., US-DPRK Educational Exchanges, Assessment and Future Strategy, The Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, Stanford University Press, 2011, pp. 127-133. Everard reports numerous examples of fruitful educational exchanges between the UK and the DPRK, from programs dedicated to ELT training in Pyongyang and established in 1997, to important cases of North Korean officials studying in the UK: “two DPRK officials (one of whom now works in the European Department of the DPRK MFA) attended a human rights course at the University of Essex, and three people spent a month at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI): one wrote a paper that appeared in the RUSI Journal” These developments occurred within less than a year from the opening of diplomatic relationships between the UK and the DPRK and that the educational cooperation between the two countries has continued with positive results. For those interested in reading the article written by the DPRK official during his internship at RUSI, these are the publication details: Ri Tong-il, ‘Reunification of Korea and security in Northeast Asia’, Rusi Journal 147, Vol. 1, 2002.

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About the Author

Gianluca Spezza

Gianluca is the research director of NK News. He focuses his research on North Korean society, the role of education in the DPRK, gender issues in North Korea and North Korean ideology. He holds a Master in Humanities from the University of Torino (Italy) and a M.Soc.Sc. in Asian Studies from the University of Turku, Finland. He worked in East Asia (including South Korea) as an education consultant for five years. Mail: [email protected] Follow: @KazakhPilot

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