The lesson to be drawn from North Korea’s foreign policy maneuverings is that they are largely reactive to outsiders’ initiative, a long-time Korea observer suggested to NK News.
Gordon Flake, Executive Director of the Mansfield Foundation, looks at both the failed overtures by the Japanese government and Dennis Rodman’s basketball diplomacy – two events that left outsiders scratching their heads – as examples.
The former case is particularly instructive, as North Korea’s decision to broadcast Abe government aide Isao Iijimia’s May arrival in Pyongyang left North Korea watchers baffled – for essentially exposing Japanese efforts to confidentially reach out to North Korea outside of normal coordination with South Korea and the U.S.
“It’s not helpful when Japan tries to go rogue, as it were, or be an independent actor without coordinating that first (with the U.S. or South Korea),” Flake told NK News. “But in that context, why North Korea would scuttle it before they got anything? It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.
“The vast majority of interaction with North Korea is initiated from the outside”
“The best I can do to interpret it is that so often we project upon North Korea intent when the reality is that what they’re doing is largely reactive. The vast majority of interaction with North Korea is initiated from the outside.”
The question of “why is North Korea doing this?” is very common in the community of North Korea analysts, Flake said.
“Somehow we always see this as a North Korean initiative,” he said. “When the reality is that this was probably something pushed by Japan, the North Koreans accepted it, but begrudgingly, and certainly weren’t keen to be giving Abe any great face so they were using it for their own internal purposes without any strategy.
“So, when in doubt the simplest answer, which is that they’re pretty screwed up and have the wrong information, is probably the best answer.”
MEETING RODMAN, IGNORING SCHMIDT AND ELBEGDORJ
This continues with Kim Jong Un choosing to meet Rodman, but not with Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt or Mongolian President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj during their recent visits. This selection of meeting seemingly denies rationale, and Flake believes there might not be one.
“I mean, how do you explain this? Because it doesn’t make any sense and, again, we tried to project upon them some strategy,” he said. “And I’m not so sure that one exists.
“The Eric Schmidt visit was obviously initiated by someone else, not by North Korea, the Dennis Rodman visit was initiated by someone else – not North Korea – but clearly it had a hook, that Kim Jong Un was personally interested in, and so he had bonding over tequila in the private boat, right?”
On several occasions in his interview with NK News Flake described North Korea’s approach to these issues as “screwed up,” particularly from the vantage point of effective statecraft.
“Why would you not try to engage someone as important as Eric Schmidt if you’re serious about moving into the 21st century?”
“I mean, why would you not try to engage someone as important as Eric Schmidt if you’re really serious about moving into the 21st century,” he said. “Why would you not want to engage a very sympathetic leader who’s important to you, if anything because there’s an avalanche of refugees going into Mongolia?
“I mean, these would seem to be no-brainers and their inability to see it that way implies either the lack of a strategy, or at a minimum a completely different strategy than we would conceptualize as being in North Korea’s national interest.”
Even though major players in the region, China and Russia in particular, are eager to see the resumption of the Six Party Talks on the North’s denuclearization continue, Pyongyang has been clear that it is not ready to return to that format, Flake said. This means observers can anticipate a period of “continued stalemate,” replete with continued heated rhetoric emerging from the North.
He connected this to the overall state of the North Korean political climate, which to him appears shaky.
“I’ve long believed that the North Korean regime requires three pillars to continue: the control of the flow of information, the control over the movement of people and the control of the means of production,” he said. “All enforced by the military and, by any measure, if you compare that to five years ago, 10 years ago, 20 years ago, those three pillars are demonstrably weaker than they used to be.
“The information flows are much greater with cellphones, people in the markets, people are able to move much more freely, although there has been a crackdown in term of refugees, market activities are much more free, money penetrates much more freely.”
While he insists he is not predicting imminent collapse, Flake does suggest that North Korea is heading for a “dangerous period,” as Kim Jong Un’s recent announcements of public works like water parks and ski resorts may raise hopes among the populace that are unwarranted.
“So the bread and circus show we’re seeing right now … is fascinating and interesting but in the context of a fundamental economy that hasn’t made any shifts or reforms, you gotta wonder are you not setting yourself up for the most dangerous period for the regime, which is when the gap being expectation and reality becomes so large you have some kind of domestic difficulties,” he said. “That’s the trend I find most interesting.”
Interview conducted November 2013 by Chad O’Carroll, in Washington, D.C.
Main picture: Eric Lafforgue, purchase prints here.
Join the influential community of members who rely on NK News original news and in-depth reporting.
Subscribe to read the remaining 959 words of this article.