Last week, NK News dispatched Nicolle Loughlin to the Netherlands for a soon to be published special feature. While she was there, Nicolle took the opportunity to speak to three prominent figures from the Netherlands’ North Korea community, including individuals in the fields of academia, business, and tourism. Our mini series of Netherlands-based content kicks off today with an extended interview with Dr. Remco Breuker of Leiden University.
Leiden University has a long history related to the fields of Korean Studies. The university was the first in Europe to offer this type of course and remains the only one in the Netherlands offering a Korean language program. Dr. Remco Breuker is a well-known Korean specialist in Europe; his main fields of interest are the history of the Koryo period, central Asian history and history of modern Korea. He has authored numerous publications in the field, and is also a keen Twitter user (follow him here).
Dr. Breuker discussed the forthcoming project on Northern Korea created by Leiden University, shared his views of current affairs in North Korea, and explained just what it means to be a scholar specializing in Korean Studies.
Interview with Dr. Remco Brueker, Leiden University
NK News: Could you start by telling us more details about the Leiden Initiative on North Korea, such as the participant profiles, why you decided to set it up and what you plan to achieve?
R. Breuker: Sure: we haven’t officially launched it yet and it’s going to be launched in September, with a small round table. The main thing we would like to do is to broaden the study of North Korea historically and linguistically so (that) in the future, we will be looking at the North of the Korean peninsula, and, in a way, also to the South of Manchuria; we will not just be looking at “North Korea”, which is why we called it the Leiden initiative on Northern Korea. We will be focusing on the history, although we usually focus on current affairs, which makes sense, as we want to show that there is a history to this state as well.
NK News: What is the current importance of North Korea in your Korean studies program?
R. Breuker: It has always been important, to a certain extent, but not as important as South Korea: all of us here received a large part of our education in South Korea, so we have strong ties with it. Nonetheless, there is no way to look at South Korea without looking at North Korea, so (I would say) it has always been present but not in a structural way. We would like to give it a more structured presence through the initiative so, for example, we will be teaching a course on the Leiden initiative on Northern Korea where 30-odd students (relatively advanced level BA) get a say in what they would like to do in terms of relating to North Korea. It may be in terms of NGOs, or in international affairs. There are some other courses which deal with North Korea, but this is the most prominent course, I think.
NK News: Can you describe for us the current relationship between the Netherlands and North Korea?
R. Breuker: Well, there are two relationships: the first is the official one: North Korea is a friendly state, which always or usually surprises most people. I think we have had diplomatic relations for ten years or so now, however, it is a problematic relationship because of the human rights situation. Not much is done from the Dutch Government to improve that part of the relationship; I’m not sure that is a wise choice. I do see the problems related to the human rights issues but the present situation isn’t making anything better. One of the reasons we are launching the initiative is to explore the possibility of further engagement; there might not be a better way to bring about change in North Korea, after all our contributions are very small, but still, it is worth trying. The other part of the relationship (or the second relationship) is merely economic and I don’t have any exact figures about this: I doubt anyone has those. There is a fairly (lets put it this way), economic relationship between the Netherlands and North Korea, and it goes further than you may expect at first sight. So, lots of things are going on now; how much and for how long they will grow, I don’t know. That’s anyone’s guess.
NK News: What’s your current opinion of the food shortages, the social issues and the leadership?
R. Breuker: Oh that’s a big question. I don’t know how to begin answering it, to be honest!
NK News: Do you see things getting better?
R. Breuker: No, I don’t, but I don’t see them worsening either. When Kim Jong Un became the new ruler, I was cautiously optimistic (and I’m not pessimistic yet); I’m not pessimistic about the future at the moment, but things are not going in the right direction, that much is clear. For a large part, this leadership seems willing to do basically anything to hold on to power and life, I guess, because if they were to lose power I doubt they would make it out of North Korea alive, to be honest.
The droughts and the flooding don’t help of course, so the situation, as far as I’ve been able to see, is bad at the moment, not exceptionally, but still bad. I’m not sure what could be done about it though, I think engagement is probably the only thing you can think of. I think the one thing you should avoid at all costs on the Korean peninsula is war; that would break the back of the South Korean economy, and it would mean the death of hundreds of thousands, millions of people, even. South Korea is (its citizens, not its army), very vulnerable. Seoul is only 50km away from the DMZ, and you don’t need any nuclear weapon to level it to the ground. I mean, those very old rockets and those very old tanks (that North Korea has in use) will do the job just fine. This (stated above) however, is only a thought from the South Korean point of view. In the North, people are suffering, they’re just trying to make it through everyday: there are people detained in prison camps, whether political prisoners or not. The only long term solution I see is engagement, and basically trying to create conditions in which North Koreans themselves (and not the regime) can influence their own future, which is not the case at the moment.
R. Breuker: I’m not sure whether they always do, to be honest. American strategic concerns have a tendency to affect things here as well. This is not always true, however: for instance, in Eastern Europe, from behind the iron curtain, they had a look at North Korea from a completely different point of view. They’ve often been there when it was still a friendly state, they’ve often conducted studies there or been there as diplomats for example, so that’s really quite different, they tend to see through rhetoric more easily than American scholars or even European scholars, who (I don’t want to generalize too much but…) tend to take a slightly American point of view.
South Korean scholars are again entirely different, they do tend to look at the state of affairs taking into account the American point of view as it is a daily reality, there’s no way around it. At the same time, they are the ones faced with North Korea just 50km away from the border, so they perhaps have family there, or they at least know family members who have family there or have come from there, so that is an entirely different dimension, that is absent in both Europe and in the States.
NK News: Do you have any recommendations for any students or scholars who want to specialize in Korean studies?
R. Breuker: Well, just do it! One of the best decisions I have ever made in my life deciding to leave Japanese studies behind. Korea has a fascinating society and a fascinating history. Given the fact that East Asia is now the motor of the world economy, North Korea and South Korea in very different ways are essential in understanding that, and in maintaining East Asia as one of the most important parts of the world at the moment, especially economically, but also culturally. If you look at how much innovation is coming from South Korea, it’s mind blowing. I’m sure you’ll have the same experience, you’re often confronted with people who don’t really know Korea, or Asia, and they’ll tell you: “well they’re very good at imitating us, but we are the ones who made all those inventions and they’re very good at turning out cheap plastic radios and cheap computers and everything”, but the fact is that South Korea has been the most innovative country for 5 years in a row I think. The Netherlands used to be very high up in the ranking, now they’re number 15 or 16. It’s all happening in South Korea and it has been for a while now.
It’s not happening in North Korea for different reasons, and I hope it will stay quiet there otherwise the consequences will be enormous (if things don’t stay quiet); at the same time, it’s very important to do something about North Korea and to do so in a balanced way. To look past the rhetoric, it’s very easy to get angry and upset at North Korea and rightly so, I should add. I have very little sympathy for the regime, but at the same time there are 22 million people there who are not very different from you and me, which is something hard to get across, as they behave so differently on the TV, and they say such different things in those statements which we do get from the North. But North Korea, due to its position, is also very important (also for our way of life, how we view the world), so we need to engage more with North Korea, and the only way to do it is by specializing in the region. If you want to, at least, go to South or North Korea to learn the language, it’s one of the most important regions in the world at this moment.
NK News: Did you notice any changes in opinion towards North Korea from the South Koreans during your trip (which you got back from yesterday)?
R. Breuker: No, not really, I go fairly frequently, so I guess the biggest change was a few years back, not now. People are quite weary, my generation and people younger than me (people born 1970’s and later), they tend to be very skeptical about reunification. In principle, most of them would agree it’s a good thing, but in practice, they don’t see how it can happen with South Korea footing an enormous bill, so people, quite rightly, are not sure whether they want to foot that bill or not. That change has been in the making for at least 10-15 years, I think. The first time I went to Korea in the early 1990s, people didn’t really talk about that; the students also wanted reunification, especially those who were more politically active. Now the same people will say: “reunification, well, great, but who’s going to pay for it?”. So I think in the end a scenario which I always foresaw as a kind of “nightmare scenario”, but I’m not quite sure whether that’s still true: it involves a big conglomerate, say Hyundai, taking the lead like the in Kaesong industrial complex, and turning North Korea into an economic colony of the South.
You would then have a “1 state – 2 systems” situation there: the Northern regime would stay in power for a while, there would be limited economic prosperity in North Korea because there would be work and relatively well paid work (for their actual standards).
The South would benefit immensely from this perspective, because they’d have a Korean work force 50km from the HQ, and no unions, pretty much the same culture (it has differentiated a bit in the last 60 years but it is still very similar), and the workers at Kaesong are on $110 a month, I think, including social benefits and taxes and everything; I think in South Korea you pay 20-30 times as much for a skilled laborer, that’s any industrialist’s dream. I used to be very much against it, because it profits from and exploits North Koreans in a cynical manner: I still think it would be the case, but I’m not sure there is an alternative that wouldn’t lead to either a collapse of North Korea which would not be good, or an armed conflict which would also not be good.
NK News: From an academic point of view, how difficult is it to conduct research on such a secretive and closed country as north Korea?
R. Breuker: Difficult I guess, but then again there’s much more available than perhaps the media would lead you to believe. You have to know Korean of course, but even the North Korean sites on the Internet, like Rodong Sinmun, they tell you a lot. Also there are about 22,000 defectors in the South and there may be much more in china, although I don’t know the exact figures. And then, most of us can visit North Korea, and certainly the research in South Korea is entirely different, it’s much easier; in that way, North Korea is much more difficult, but still it’s not “too” difficult, there’s still information available.
NK News: What are the most common mistakes that people make analyzing North Korea?
R. Breuker: I think not knowing the language is a big problem: you cannot rely solely on translations. The translations, even if they are perfect, will only be related to certain statements. You need to be able to roam freely through everything available. I think that’s probably the most important thing and of course if you approach North Korea from a certain disciplinary background, that might make up for it, I fully realize that. But that’s probably what I would say: language acquisition is very important for North Korean studies. And Korean language isn’t as difficult as it’s sometimes portrayed to be. It’s manageable. It takes time, but then again, most things do. The other thing is not taking propaganda seriously. I mean, propaganda is full of lies and exaggerations, but there are reasons why certain things are picked out to be exaggerated or put in the spotlight, and it’s a good idea to pay attention to why those facts were chosen and others weren’t. And even if something is a blatant lie, which is often the case, it has been picked because it was felt that people will to a certain extent know what is meant with that, they may not fully believe it, even if they say in public that they do, but it will mean something. So: language is one thing, and propaganda; you have to read it, it’s not the nicest reading, but it is necessary to keep up with North Korea. You have to read things like the Rodong Sinmun, you have to read things like those editorial which threaten to change the DMZ into a sea of fire. Some of it is really silly but there are reasons behind the silliness and it’s not something that should be ignored, I think.
R. Breuker: if the peninsula should be unified in a more or less peaceful manner without a devastating war, well, how long would it take a unified Korea to get back to the level of consumption they are at now? 10-20 years probably. After that, you might see a state that could become more powerful than Japan was at its height (in the 80’s). It’s located in a very strategic part of north east Asia, and the skills are there, the capital is there, and with North Korea they’d have a land border with China and with Russia, and all those resources and minerals, gold, silver, coal, a much bigger land, much more people. It’s hard to imagine where it would end. If unification could be achieved peacefully, more or less peacefully, I think the future could be brilliant for a unified Korea. But there are a lot of “ifs”. So I really don’t know what will happen, whether the peninsula is going to be unified or not. There is a possibility that North and South Korea will remain 2 separate states. Friendly states, but separate nonetheless, and I would expect Japan, Russia and China to be in favor of such a solution: diffusion of tension, but no unification.
NK News: So, if North Korea’s government became more democratic and friendly towards the South, how do you think that would affect north east Asia?
R. Breuker: I think in a similar way to reunification, only on a smaller scale. A much less intense scale. I think with free commerce between the 2 states, the absence of a real military threat at the border also for South Korea would mean they will have much more money to spend on other things, and for North Koreans it would be a completely different world and they’d actually have money to spend to begin with. That would be a big difference I think.
Interview conducted by NK News’s Nicolle Loughlin, July 2012.