Q&A: Is No. Korea, the master of survival, again friends with China?

Frosty relations between North Korea and China may be warming despite a ramping up of nuclear and missile testing, according to Pyongyang watcher Andrei Lankov. 

Lee Jin-man/AP
A man watches a news program reporting about North Korea's recent rocket launch at the Seoul Train Station in Seoul, South Korea, on Thursday.

Andrei Lankov is a Russian-born specialist and writer on North Korea who lives and teaches in Seoul. He was at Harvard University this week where The Monitor caught up with him. 

QUESTION: Unlike Iran, North Korea actually has nuclear devices. Pyongyang has broken every imaginable "red line." Yet is there a deal to be done?         

ANSWER: North Korea is a nuclear state and I don’t think this will change. They will keep their nuclear weapons for the foreseeable future. The best hope is to negotiate a freeze of their nuclear potential, even if this may not happen. The North Koreans won’t be blackmailed into de-nuclearization. There is no stand down they will accept. If sanctions are actually agreed, you can expect them to be sabotaged by China. Negotiations and promises of cooperation are even more useless in the NK mind. A hope that [Amb.] Chris Hill can go work an Iran-type deal that trades economic benefits for a pause on nuke development is hard to imagine. North Korea won’t stop development. It isn’t them.

North Koreans are masters of survival. They saw the Soviet bloc collapse. But Kim today is in control of his country, and they have successfully tested a weapon. Why would they give this up? North Koreans believe that Saddam Hussein would still be in his palace if he had developed.

Q: The stereotype of the North is of a starving, poor nation. 

A: North Korea is not starving today. It is very poor, but no longer starving. Trade and markets are deepening. There is some growth. People are better dressed; malnourishment is stubborn but not at the old level. The gulag is half the size it used to be.

So far, nearly every missile launch seems more successful and they want full-scale nuclear capability. They are working on a re-entry vehicle. They want a delivery system capable of hitting targets in the US. This is their holy grail. Kim Jong-un was bluffing in 2013 about hitting California. But their goal is efficient deterrence. They believe if they have a nuclear system no one will attack them.

Q: We hear that Kim Jong-un is consolidating power after taking over from his father. 

A: Kim’s consolidation of power is done. The military is somewhat pushed aside and the party structure is on the rise. Generally, North Korean society is quite united. Elites are definitely afraid of Kim, who has shown himself to be more brutal then either his father or even grandfather when it comes to top officials. But in general there is an acknowledgement among elites that if they don’t hang together they are going to hang separately. They know this well.

Q: In 2013, Kim executed his powerful uncle. This month he executed the Army chief of staff. There have been many in between. 

A: Kim is demonstrating to his generals, most of whom are a lot older than he, and who would probably not take him seriously, that he is a serious guy to be dealt with.

Q: Kim's uncle controlled North Korea's affairs with China. Experts in Beijing speak of bad relations. 

A: It was a problem but China has finally forgiven them. China was upset about the death of the uncle, and for a while this caused a freeze between Beijing and Pyongyang. But now the crisis in relations between China and North Korea is over. For the last few months, China has executed a remarkable U-turn when it comes to dealing with the North, starting with the visit to Pyongyang of a top Chinese envoy for a parade last fall.

China has decided that at the end of the day they need a stable and divided Korean peninsula more than anything else. They can’t afford a unified Korea that is an ally of the United States. They will support the North, which is logical from their viewpoint.

Q: Is China continuing to aid the North? 

A: In 2013, there was a reduction in aid from China – a significant amount but not devastating. Now they are converging again. China is again subsidizing North Korea on a large scale because they want to maintain a buffer zone on their border and to prevent any unification of the Koreas.

Q: US political leaders believe China will help reign in a nuclear North. 

A: I was surprised for many years about Washington’s expectations that China will solve the problem. Chinese see this as an American problem, and why would they solve it? China doesn’t like North Korean nukes, but China doesn’t believe it will be attacked. The nukes are for the United States and Japan and clearly not against China. Chinese aren’t happy about it, but it isn’t really their problem.

Add to this, there are many voices in China that say things like, if we push the North and it collapses we will get millions of refugees, and then Americans will criticize us for not treating the refugees well enough.

Q: Didn't Kim in December send his favorite all-girl pop band to Beijing? Only to find that China sent them home after he publicly mentioned an H-bomb? 

A: Kim’s band was sent to China to play for the party and military at the most prestigious theater in Beijing. And then China suddenly discovered that North Korea was planning to show footage of a nuclear explosion at the event. There was concern that top Chinese officials would be caught clapping on video or social media for a North Korean test. This comes from a number of sources. So China took action. The North wanted to send a message to China that nuclear question is non-negotiable.

I think China understands this. I visited the Sino-Korean border after the first nuclear test in 2009. There were many Chinese soldiers. I went again to the border this January after the recent test, traveled for a day to the North, and the difference was great – no Chinese troops on the border. Business as usual. Zero buildup. I saw not a single soldier.

Q: Has the old Chinese sympathy with the North – famously 'as close as lips and teeth – ended? 

A: The Chinese public strongly dislikes North Koreans. They think the North is crazy, stuck in the past, poor. But this is irrelevant since their emotional views have no place in decisions. They can’t afford a border crisis. Americans want the Chinese to be active participants of sanctions. But to have impact on a place like the North, sanctions have to be very tough. If the sanctions are only an irritant, North Korea won’t pay attention. To be efficient sanctions must be dramatic – people need to start starving in numbers large enough to provoke a deep impact or revolution. 

Does China want a revolution in North Korea? They do not.

Q:  You argue that markets and trade in the North are on the increase, not always a standard view. 

A: North Korea is not a Stalinist country, despite perceptions. The economy in the North is ever more influenced by market forces. People didn’t take this seriously 12 years ago when it was discussed by Marcus Noland, [an expert on North Korea at the Peterson Institute for International Economics]. But it started, and under Kim Jong-un it is speeding up. Estimates of markets vary from 25 to 50 percent of GDP.

It is a strange situation. The government doesn’t legalize markets but has decided not to ban them. The truth is, vast numbers of those in the North are in some way involved in market activity. Yes, that can be a security tool since technically almost anyone could be arrested for their activity. But they mostly aren’t. 

We tend to think that new markets will cause people to demand change. The fact is, people need protection in the North. If, say, a North Korean businessman who has 10 bus lines and a couple of restaurants and a coal mine – and there are such people – is asked if he wants South Koreans to come in, he will say no. He can’t compete.

The new affluent class in the North that formed in the past 20 years is doomed. They don’t want to rock the boat. They are a powerful group – a new nomenklatura, and a new set of market groups. They are all related, about 120 families with clout, families that mostly fought as guerillas with Kim Il-sung against the Japanese.

Q: You speak of evolution not revolution as an answer to moving forward with the North. 

A: A revolution will be a disaster. It will be so much better to have evolution. Can common people show the elites that the system isn’t working? An elite- led evolution, ideally through Chinese-style reforms.

It might not have to be collapse but gradual transformation. East Europe and the Soviet Union saw the spread of information leading to collapse. In China, in the late 70s, elites saw the Mao model wasn’t working and found a cat of a different color. A China model could show Kim that one can have change that doesn’t affect his authority.

Q: We've heard about gradualism in the North for years.  

A: The changes are already happening. People are less afraid of the government. The government doesn’t control as much. You can easily do things today that would get you killed 30 or even five years ago. Many controls only exist on paper. Technically you need a travel permit to leave your residence or district. In practice this demand isn’t much enforced.

Q: A relaxation? 

A: I would call it a disintegration. Relaxation sounds like the government has a hand in pulling back. No, rather it is something I see as happening almost spontaneously; the government may not have wanted it to happen but it happened anyway.

Q: In the Soviet bloc under Gorbachev, there were different voices, newspapers, NGO groups pushing agendas. You had glasnost! 

A: You have nothing like that in the North. But what about, for example, Romania under Ceaușescu?

What is important under Kim is that chances of common people being killed have not increased. Yes it is bad there, as bad as anywhere in the world. But not what it was 10 years ago. For the common person it has been a reign of terror for 60 to 70 years, but the new guy hasn’t made many changes. Those for whom it is a reign of terror are a few hundred families and some military leaders. 

Q: Any advice on the nuclear program?

A: The best policy is to try and freeze the weapons and this won’t happen soon. What I feel is necessary is to encourage gradual change. Gain gradual influence. I can see a revival of the 1994 Agreed Framework where Kim agrees to do no more launches or tests and puts the program under international observation. But they aren’t going to do this for free. They will demand heavy payment, and they will cheat.

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