Interview with a North Korea Watcher

31 01 2012

ImageToday, I gave interview to the Australian ABC Classic FM Radio program “Midday” with Margaret Throsby. Our discussion was structured around the past, present and future of North Korea. Listen to the podcast of this program here…

Also, last week a freelance journalist, Tom Farrell, approached me with a set of questions on the similar topic. The following is the transcript of our e-mail correspondence:

T.F.: In recent interviews given by Kim Jong Nam and published by journalist Yoji Gomi, the late Dear Leader’s eldest son has dismissed Kim Jong Un as not a credible succesor to KIm Jong-Il. Do you think he is trying to set himself up as a future Opposition figure or perhaps, a ‘safe pair of hands’ that China might want in Pyongyang in the future, acting as a would-be North Korean Deng Xiaoping?

L.P.: I think that KJN is opposing the hereditary succession system of power in general, and in this context he does not see his younger half brother is a potent candidate for leadership in North Korea. Surely, KJN has had much more exposure to the realities of contemporary world and has more experience in international trade than KJU, but this is not enough to rule the country. I don’t think that KJN is the future Deng Xiaoping on North Korea. Even if China wants him to play this role he cannot lead a China-type of reform in North Korea because such reform is impossible (see below why).

T.F.: Does Kim Jong Nam have a powerbase of any kind and might China see him a bridge to his uncle, Jang Song-Taek, if he is now the real power in Pyongyang?

L.P.: KJN is a businessman who is well connected in North Korea, China, Japan and other countries of the region. His uncle Jang Song-Taek is a purely political figure, very conservative and ostensibly anti-market. In this, JST ensures KJU’s accession and stability in North Korea. Any reform in NK will destabilise the situation. I doubt that KJN and JST have anything in common except for family links.

T.F.: Do you think Kim Jong Nam’s critique is valid? Namely, that Kim Jong Un is too young to anything more than a figurehead? Would such actions as the Cheonan/island artillery attacks during 2010 have been enough for Kim Jong Un to have gained the respect and backing of the KPA leadership?

L.P: KJN and KJU are half-brothers in the ruling dynasty, thus the venomous rivalry between them is pretty natural. KJU won’t waste bullets to hunt KJN down but simply ban him from returning the country, which is perfectly OK for both of them. To gain respect and backing of the Korean Peoples’ Army (KPA), KJU needs to pay the elite and feed the 1.1 million of conscripts. Cheonan Corvet and Yeonpyongdo incidents are used in North Korean domestic policies as much as in South Korean and US regional policies. The war in Korea is continuing and KJU has been already elevated to the role of Supreme Leader, so there will be no discussion among the KPA about possible alternatives.

T.F.: Do you think there are any prospects for an organised and effective opposition from NK defectors and refugees now living in the ROK and the West?

L.P.: No, the ROK government claims the sole legitimacy for power in Korea and will not permit any effective political opposition, which might proclaim an alternative DPRK government in exile. Neither will US government support such movement.

T.F.: Given that 2012 marks both the 100th anniversary of Kim il-Sung’s birth and an election year in the United States, would you predict more offensive military actions e.g. another underground nuclear test or attacks along the DMZ and maritime border?

L.P.: For North Korea the beginning of 2012 has been overshadowed by the mourning over late KJI and consolidation of power by KJU. I don’t think that North Korean elites are willing to risk provoking a full-fledged war or a forced invasion and a regime change in the midst of 100th anniversary celebrations. Also, a provocation from the North Korean side will only help the outgoing conservative forces in South Korea to win presidential elections. In other words, I think that North Korea will stay calm, sombre, and cautious.

T.F.: Ten years after the ‘Ardous March’ (famine) there have been tens of thousands of North Koreans who crossed back and forth across the Yalu and Tumen rivers. Presumably the level of information control is not what it once was. Coupled with the won devaluation fiasco, do you think there is potential for an uprising of some kind?

L.P.: It has been 13 years since the Arduous March (1995-1998) ended. Common people in North Korea live a much better life, while the elites have many more freedoms and opportunities. Currently, no popular uprising is possible as long as the people’s level of life continues to rise and the elites feel safe and economically confident. KJU is the best person to give them that sense of safety and open the new opportunities.

T.F.: If the DPRK implodes or faces a serious breakdown of government control, this will mean massive refugee infux into China. Do you think the PLA would not stop at sealing the boder but might actually intervene with the DPRK and would they risk confronting the ROK and West?

L.P: If the DPRK implodes the ROK army will enter northern Korea to stabilise the situation and prevent the uncontrolled border crossings. China will not get involved in Korea’s domestic crisis as long as other foreign troops stay away from this crisis.

T.F.: According to Kim Jong Nam, economic liberalisation will translate into a breakdown of the political order. Do you think the DPRK might opt to butress its position by setting up more exclusive economic zones e.g. Raijin-Songbong, Kumgangsan or Kaesong that bring in revenue but keep out the general population?

L.P.: I agree with KJN. More SEZ (with or without South Korean participation) will work best for NK, generating income for the regime without compromising its political system. Reforms in economy will inevitably affect politics. The DPRK leadership want to modernise the country’s economy without much change in social and political areas. Thus, the DPRK is not attempting to fix its outdated and dysfunctional economic system. Economic changes in North Korea usually come from below, and only later (post-factum) are accepted by the top of the pyramid. The current leadership does not have a visionary master plan for development. They only react to the slow motions timidly initiated from below and, therefore, nothing is really changing in North Korea. People eat better and use mobile phones but continue fearing the same things they learned during the Cold War. Radical change in the DPRK is substituted for a slow-motion make-up measures.

Listen to another interview by Leonid Petrov given to the Australian ABC Classic FM Radio program “Midday” with Margaret Throsby on 31 January 2012 here…

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4 02 2012
Think-Tank Watch « SINO-NK

[…] Leonid Petrov also conducted an interview with Australian ABC Classic FM Radio program “Midday” with Margaret Throsby.  The discussion […]




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