“Ask a North Korean” is an NK News column penned by North Korean defectors, most of whom left the DPRK within the last few years.
Readers may submit their questions to defectors by emailing [email protected] and including their first name and city of residence.
Today’s question is from Lindsay, who asks whether North Korean defectors are hopeful or pessimistic about Joe Biden’s chances on North Korea.
Earlier this month the U.S. president met his South Korean counterpart, Moon Jae-in, and vowed “a practical, gradual, step by step” approach to denuclearization while maintaining the international sanctions regime.
Will Kim Jong Un respond positively to the new U.S. president, or will it simply interpret Biden as more of the same? How can Washington reach a breakthrough in Pyongyang?
Hyun-Seung Lee — who lived in North Korea for decades before defecting in 2014 — has the answer.
Got a question for Hyun-Seung? Email it to [email protected] with your name and city. We’ll be publishing the best ones.
I would say that North Korean defectors are neither hopeful nor pessimistic about Joe Biden, at least in regards to his North Korea policy. We are encouraged that Biden has stated he will speak up about North Korean human rights and that he will treat North Korea as a core diplomatic issue. Even if that’s just political talk, it is a good sign. We will have to wait and see what can be achieved.
What can Biden do to improve human rights in North Korea? Should this come about through cooperation with the North Korean government, or should it come about as the result of pressure?
Well, I understand that President Moon’s policy towards North Korea is based on cooperation, and I understand his logic. That is, if we pressure them too much it will just antagonize North Korea and they will not come to the table. However, having grown up in North Korea and then China for years after that, I have come to understand that North Korea’s human rights abuses are enabled by the regime’s embargo on all outside information.
When I was in North Korea, I never heard anything about what was going on — not about the prison camps, the human trafficking, or the sex slavery. Ordinary North Korean people need more information about what is going on in their own country in order for positive change to take place. In particular, the North Korean elites — the people who have the potential to push North Korea towards positive change — need more information. It is important to remember that elites too in North Korea face information embargos. These people have an interest in improving their society, and how the outside world sees their country.
Another thing I want to emphasize is that cooperation with North Korea cannot be achieved. The two systems, whether this be North Korea and South Korea, or North Korea and the U.S., are not compatible politically, economically, or culturally. Even when it comes to economic cooperation with China, in my years working in China-North Korea trade I almost never saw Chinese companies able to turn a profit in North Korea. This really does not bode well for economic cooperation with South Korea or the U.S. That leaves pressure as the only option.
At the same time, given how oppressive North Korea is, change is unlikely to happen at the grassroots level, although I support efforts to provide information to all North Koreans so that they can improve their lives. The most effective way to make a change in North Korea will be through influencing the North Korean elite, and I think this is something that Biden should bear in mind.
Do you think that sanctions are bad for human rights? Some argue that it’s ordinary people who end up having to suffer the most.
I do not think this is true. Sanctions hurt everybody, including the elites that are losing money. A positive outcome is that the government has less control over the people because the people are less reliant on it to provide for them. Therefore sanctions give more freedom to people, even if it does reduce the overall amount of money and goods flowing into North Korea.
Do you think that Moon’s summit with Biden earlier this month was a success?
In North Korea, there’s a saying: a beast that has fallen into a trap once, will not fall for it again (짐승도 한번 빠진 함정에는 다시 빠지지 않는다).
I think Moon is foolish to keep suggesting that North Korea seriously intends to denuclearize. If it was true, some signs would emerge in Kim Jong Un’s statements or policies. But there’s nothing.
Biden needs to know that no matter what Kim Jong Un says, he will never denuclearize. It’s only when Kim Jong Un feels a threat to his own life that he would do such a thing. Therefore, the carrot will not work on him. America needs to know that the stick is more effective.
Interviews and translations provided by Alek Sigley. Edited by Arius Derr
Hyun-seung Lee is a former DPRK businessman and chair of the Kim Il Sung Socialist Youth League branch in Dalian, China. A series of purges by Kim Jong Un forced him and his entire family to defect in late 2014, making their way first to South Korea then to the United States. Lee now works as a director for One Korea Network and a fellow of North Korean studies at the Global Peace Foundation, and he has interned with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He also runs the Pyonghattan YouTube channel with his sister.