A leading expert on North Korea said here Thursday that sanctions against that outcast nation are “not working,” and that the United States’ approach to dealing with the North needs to be “fundamentally rethought.”
Dr. John S. Park, who specializes on the North Korean military as a senior program official of the U.S. Institute of Peace and as a research fellow at Harvard, said North Korea has operated as a “failed state” since the late 1990s. Kim Jong-il, who recently died after ruling North Korea for 17 years, ran the country essentially as an organized crime outfit, which Park referred to as “North Korea, Inc.”
Kim Jong-il set up state enterprises to make money to keep the whole thing afloat. Those enterprises are involved in industries like coal-mining and logistics — the latter, for instance, involves the Army basically acting like FedEx for delivering anything around the country. Although the country was largely viewed internationally as a pariah and a disaster, it all continued to work — at least from the point of view of Kim Jong-il and the elites running the enterprises.
“He was amazingly able to generate profits,” Park said. “If you’re running North Korea, Inc., as a failed state for 17 years, you’re doing something right — well, something that generates some results.”
North Korea under Kim has also been able to bluff its way through international conflicts, understanding that it could use “every country’s own worst nightmare” as a threat to get what it wants.
“Countries have taken turns being very worried about the after-effects of collapse” of North Korea, and so have helped keep it together. Most recently, China decided in 2009 to help keep the North from collapsing, he said.
Sanctions imposed by the international community have been intended to get North Korea to stop its development of nuclear weapons, and to get the country to return to peaceful diplomatic discussions. But Park said the unintended consequence of sanctions has been to drive the state money-generating enterprises into the arms of Chinese partners.
“The Chinese know how to weave in and out of sanctions,” Park said.
So sanctions may have strengthened ties between North Korea and China, and may have actually enhanced the money-marking capacities of North Korean state enterprises. Although infrastructure is a disaster, and life for 99 percent of the population is far worse off, elites have prospered in this system. He noted there are 1 million 3G cellphone subscribers in Pyongyang, as well as Ipads.
Park did not offer a suggestion of what to do in place of sanctions, and was leery of direct military intervention. He was also not optimistic about the notion of an “Arab spring” in North Korea, noting the high degree of spying, propaganda, surveillance and suppression of communication with the outside world.
The death of Kim Jong-il in December has pushed the whole system into a fragile spot, wherein Kim’s third son, Kim Jong-un, is the apparent successor. The question is whether he can continue to run the conglomerate and generate profits — and if he can, more people will follow him, Park said.
Park was in Manhattan to speak as part of the Political, Diplomatic and Military Lecture Series at Kansas State University. That series is coordinated by Political Science Prof. Dale Herspring. Park also spoke to a class at K-State that included a video link for military officials at Fort Leavenworth.