On April 25th, NK Net’s third lecture in their North Korea Human Rights speaker series featured the well-known North Korea watcher and commentator, Dr. Andrei Lankov. Begining his lecture, Lankov explained that if someone were to look up “North Korea” on the Internet, they would immediately learn that the country is an “irrational, unpredictable, idealistically driven Stalinist dictatorship.” He took issue with this description, pointing outthat the country’s leadership as being actually “highly rational, generally predictable, hardly Stalinist,” summizing that in general, “they basically know what they are doing.”
Lankov continued by talking about the North Korean leadership’s ultimate goal, which he summarized as “wanting to die in their beds at a very old age.” He said that the current leadership has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Interestingly, because Kim Jong-un is much younger than his colleagues at the upper echelons of North Korea’s government, Lankov pointed out that he might not prescribe to the same ideal. However, because Kim Jong-un lacks a personal support base in the government, Lankov reminded the audience that he would have to rely on the support of his father’s advisors. He suggested that the younger Kim would therefore continue his father’s policies for the first few years because they “worked perfectly well.” As evidence of this, Lankov pointed to the recent smooth transition of power in North Korea, noting that there was “no sign of challengers and no new faces, everything went as expected.”
Lankov then went on to explain what he called the “four secrets to Kim Jong-un’s survival,” the first being that there would be no economic reforms in North Korea. He specifically mentioned “Chinese style [economic] reforms; the introduction of a market economy or using capitalism for the sake of stability.” Lankov reminded the audience that for more than a decade North Korea had experimented with reforms in special economic zones but had not implemented a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s economy. He suggested that if North Korea were to reform its economy, the society would probably become “highly unstable” due to the “flood of information about the outside world.” Lankov noted that in order to have “efficient market reforms” it would be essential to allow people to communicate, travel freely and exchange ideas. All three of these practices would expedite the rate at which information could be shared within the country, which would ultimately catalyze the disintegration of government authority. Lankov closed this point by underscoring that “reform would mean suicide” for the North Korean elites because it would ultimately destroy the regime from underneath.
The second reason there could be no further reform was because North Korea’s nuclear weapons remain absolutely “necessary”. They bolster “deterrence and diplomacy, [because] without nukes [North Korea] will become defenseless In addition, Lankov pointed out that they provide North Korea with leverage to obtain food aid, reminding the audience how Kim Jong-il had slowed down the program in the past as a means of obtaining enough food to fill domestic production deficit levels.He added that North Korea has watched non-nuclear countries like Libya be invaded and dismantled by the U.S. and their allies. Therefore, it should not be surprising that North Korea places high value on the deterrence against invasion that nuclear weapons provide.
The third point, “kill dissenters, all of them” sparked a spontaneous burst of laughter from the audience. Lankov said that although it is in North Korea’s best interest to implement a zero-tolerance policy in regards to defectors, the government has actually become less repressive over the past 20 years. He reminded the audience that ten years ago if a North Korean were captured attempting to flee to China, their punishment would be five years in prison and lifelong discrimination. Lankov also noted that from approximately 1997-98, defector’s families would also be subject to discrimination and imprisonment. However, if a defector were to be captured in China today and repatriated, and was able to thwart suspicions of contacting South Koreans, foreigners or missionaries while in China, they might only suffer some broken teeth and a two month to one year prison term.However, Lankov suggested that if the North Korean government really wanted to reach their goal of dying in their beds at the old age of 85, they must “break horizontal connections.” This would makesure that people cannot organize, “even ostensibly.”
The fourth and final reason why Lankov deemed reform impossible for the regime centered around the point that Kim Jong-un must “keep spontaneous grassroots markets under control, but not excessively.” Citing his earlier remark that North Korea is no longer a Stalinist state, Lankov reminded the audience that the average North Korean family generates 75% of its income from black market activities. He said that markets are “hot beds for information about the outside world” and their growth perpetuates a lifestyle that enables young North Koreans to live in a society that is increasingly “outside of the state economy.” Allowing unrestricted markets throughout the country would only mean increasing the amount of information flowing in and out, which would in his opinion most likely expedite the regime’s demise. Lankov added that furthermore, the government cannot enforce laws due to low level police officer’s “vested interest in not supporting the market laws,” because of their own private benefit from markets.
Lankov concluded his remarks by reminding the audience that since we are all outsiders, the “only thing we can see…is that the system is broken but we don’t know how much.” He also noted that the government faces some “major problems” and that “in the long-run North Korea is not sustainable.”
After his remarks, Lankov took several questions from the audience. One participant asked about the international community’s struggle with the idea of nuclear North Korea and if he would agree that the only course of action is to inundate the North Korean people with information to encourage change. To this, Lankov immediately responded with an unequivocal “yes,” however, he quickly added that such methods would likely take 10 or so years to produce results. As a result, he said many people lose interest because the time frame does not match most election cycles
Lankov then suggested a “painkiller solution” to a nuclear North Korea. He used this name because such a policy would bring temporary relief to the nuclear issue rather than being a permanent solution. Lankov explained that such a policy would look something like the 1994 Agreed Framework agreement where North Korea would agree to put their nuclear program under international control to some extent and hold some enriched uranium in storage for the “dual purpose of blackmail and safety.” He also underscored how foreign governments need to understand that the North Korean government is “not interested in economic growth.” Lankov reminded the audience that the North Korean elite’s only goal was to avoid watching North Korean reform through thenarrow widow of their prison cell.
Dr. Lankov earned his undergraduate and graduate degrees at Leningrad University. While an undergraduate he studied at Kim Il-sung University in Pyongyang for one year. He has taught at his alma mater, Australia National University and currently teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. Dr. Lankov is also a columnist for the Korea times.
Photos by Luc Forsyth : www.lucforsyth.com
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