Engagement isn’t working in Pyongyang

I have just come across this great piece by B.R. Myers which echoes what I’ve been saying and thinking about the argument that visiting and engaging with North Korea will make a positive difference in the country.  Here is the link.  http://www.nknews.org/2014/01/subverted-engagement/

This is something that I’ve discovered that many people who want to visit North Korea actually believe.  I don’t totally disagree with the concept, I think that engagement with the outside world would help, but I don’t think that engagement that is strictly managed by the state is the kind that will be making a big difference.  I have known people who have gone on the trip, and while they have found it worthwhile, it is stage managed to a huge degree.

Seeing foreigners paraded around Pyongyang, seeing them bow to a giant statue of Kim Il Sung, all of this just reinforces what people in North Korea have already been told to believe.  Even foreigners are in awe of the god king.  Even aid workers have this issue, where even though the state carefully manages the aid so that it goes to politically sound people instead of people in need, and even though aid workers are not allowed to work freely and track the aid, they continue to insist that their engagement is working and helping the people, as opposed to the regime.

The engagement that works isn’t the engagement that is carefully managed by the regime, but it is the unregulated stuff, the sneak listening to South Korean or Chinese radio, or watching foreign dramas that North Korean defectors speak of, not seeing an American or European in a tour group.


About Leon Whyte

I'm a recent graduate of the Fletcher school of Law and Diplomacy. My interests include Pacific Asia and Security. I am looking for related opportunities.
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6 Responses to Engagement isn’t working in Pyongyang

  1. annaamaliacharissaki says:

    I read the article from nknews also a couple of days ago, and I totally agree – Eventhough it seems so fascinating to be able to experience the world last stalinist state from the inside – westerners are only used by state propaganda to the exact point you also mention: To show the public that all the world comes here out of respect and honour of the great Kim’s.

    Furthermore I think it is a scandal to see some of the amateur documentaries that are being uploaded to youtube – Some of them are blatant ignorants and seems like they dont even know that the guides are paid to be with them AT all times. And half of the movies display people who travel to the DPRK and then refuse to bow down, keeps trying to shoot secretly (not doing a great job) and asks (what is in the DPRK) considered VERY rude questions – This half does not seem to be aware of the consequences the guides and all other north koreans risks if they cannot control a tourist group.

    “The engagement that works isn’t the engagement that is carefully managed by the regime, but it is the unregulated stuff, the sneak listening to South Korean or Chinese radio, or watching foreign dramas that North Korean defectors speak of, not seeing an American or European in a tour group.” – I could not have said it better – Thank you for your post.

  2. Leon Whyte says:

    Thanks for your comment. I’m glad you liked it.

  3. 許美連 says:

    So, you are definitely not a neoliberalist, I guess? 🙂 Yes, North Korea is a Stalinist country, but I trust the regime also yearns to be a ‘normal’ state as every state does – even Japan, for God’s sake! Why can’t we give them a chance to get out of their ‘red box’ as we did for China?

  4. Leon Whyte says:

    I don’t really think of them as a Stalinist Country, nor do I think they want to be a normal one. North and South Korea don’t recognize the others existence because having two Koreas is a redundancy. A normal North Korea with normal trade relations and a normal society has nothing to offer that South Korea already doesn’t have a much better and advanced form of. For North Korea to have a logic of existence it needs to offer something South Korea does not, they have chosen to be uniquely “Korean” and in opposition to the outside world. If the regime actually longed to be normal than it would need to stop threatening its neighbors and attacking them. If they were a normal country, than they would actually suffer repercussions for killing innocent South Koreans or kidnapping people, or counterfeiting money and selling drugs.

    It is interesting that you mention China though, it seems that China does truly want North Korea to become more normal and has a history of engaging Pyongyang trying to push them in that direction only to be consistently rebuffed and embarrassed by the Kim family.

    • 許美連 says:

      I trust that is why many scholars are keen on ‘identity’ issues, Leon. There is something beyond ‘give-and-take calculation’ between two Koreas.
      And I believe nothing is really ‘intrinsic’ when it comes to state’s characteristics. Have you ever thought North Korea has also learned how to behave through its interactions with other states which have been mostly hostile toward the regime?
      It was only 30 years ago when hundreds of South Koreans were killed by their own military dictators.

      Reading your brilliant articles, I have no doubt you are and will be such an important person who can broaden and sharpen people’s perceptions on Asia-pacific and beyond. What I personally hope is scholars like you help cultivate peace-oriented approaches to resolve conflicts on the Korean peninsula, acknowledging ‘importing or imposing democracy’ to other countries would be hardly successful.

      • Leon Whyte says:

        Thank you for your kind words. Here is something to consider- if the North Korean system was to be changed or reformed from within, as it has been structured since the beginning, the reform would have to come from the leader, who has always been a member of the Kim family. Kim Jong Un has thus far shown no inclination towards reform, and is in fact from all visible indicators doubling down on the policies of his father and grandfather. Kim Jong Un is still a young man with potentially 40-50 years of life. He can possibly have a change of heart, but that seems to be betting a lot on a man who has proven himself to be petty, cruel, and impulsive.

        Very few countries could be as hostile as North Korea and suffer no consequences. I was in Korea when they shelled Yeonpyeong island, and when they sank the Cheonan. I was there when they threatened to turn the city I was living to a sea of fire. North Korea has killed many South Koreans and some Americans since the Korean War, not to mention many many kidnappings of Koreans and Japanese, or state sponsored criminal activities that hurt its neighbors. I think the financial actions are actually kind of mild compared to the various acts of War committed by North Korea. I resolutely believe that the U.S. trying to impose its system on others by force is very rarely successful, however in the case of Japan and Germany it was wildly successful- but that is a unique circumstance. I look at what is happening in Iraq with horror and am very concerned about Afghanistan.

        If/when reunification comes, Koreans should work together and do as much rebuilding and talking and coming together independently as possible, but unfortunately at the moment they simply are capable enough for that massive task and would need help from others, certainly the U.S., but if China was willing to offer help in good faith, and if they would be willing to accept help from Japan, then those are possibilities as well. I think that if the Korean people work this out mostly among themselves it would hardly be imposing an alien culture or system on the North Koreans, but bring a lost brother back into the family. It will be a very difficult and costly thing to do. I think very few people actually want war or violence in Korea, and I most certainly do not want that. If I thought North Korea would negotiate in good faith, then I would welcome engagement, but they don’t even deal in good faith with China, and every negotiation we’ve done with them, they come out far ahead of us at the end. There will come a point when the North Korean people become more aware of the outside world and the lies of their own regime. This is starting to happen now. At some point a decision will be made and I do believe that this decision will probably be made by the North Korean people.

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