by Cailen Rodriguez
This event was sponsored by the Institute of Arts and Humanities, Transnational Korean Studies and UCSD’s school of Global Policy and Strategy.
The small room buzzes with excitement as people of all ages file into the horizontal rows facing the front of the room. At the panel sit three distinguished speakers- Benoit Berthelier, Hyun Lee and Martin Hart-Landsberg. Also in attendance is Professor Stephan Haggard.
Martin Hart-Landsberg launches into his talk first by discussing that the recent interaction between South Korea and North Korea seems positive, but that the potential of these talks leading to peace and normalization depends on the actions of the United States government. While U.S. news firms and outlets demonize North Korea, he weaves the story of a reactive North Korea reaching out to an unrelenting, and even double-crossing, United States. To describe that, Hart-Landsberg makes one startling point. After the dissolve of the Soviet Union, North Korea lost all of its trading partners as Eastern European countries adopted capitalism. It found itself needing to normalize relations with the other countries, especially the United States. However, despite multiples attempts to achieve that goal, just as an agreement was about to be made, had been successfully achieved or was already underway, the United States would either close itself off to a dialogue or move the bar outside of the agreed upon bargaining range. After this, movement toward normalization would disintegrate again. At the same time, the U.S. would isolate North Korea in its relations with other countries. This was exemplified in North Korea’s trying (ultimately unsuccessfully) to join the IMF in order to establish trading points with other countries. Martin then makes the point that North Korea’s nuclear arsenal is defensive, rather than offensive. He illustrates this in a few ways, first by noting that South Korea has outspent North Korea militarily every year since 1976. In 2016, the figure was $40 billion per year and $4 billion per year, respectively.
Then, he describes the six times North Korea has exploded nuclear bombs. The common theme: “the U.S. shows willingness to negotiate, North Korea responds, the U.S. steps back in some way or another, and in order to get the U.S. to respond again, North Korea pursues nuclear capacity.” At the same time, he says, North Korean nuclear tests come at times to illustrate that “the U.S. has to be responsible with agreements we’ve signed” (as opposed to moving the bar in a set agreement or reneging on its part of the deal). As for current U.S.-North Korea relations, with the ICBM tests, North Korea threatens to attack U.S. regions or states. However, Martin argues that North Korea’s nuclear arsenal should still be regarded as defensive, especially considering that the U.S. has led and continues to lead multiple war games in which it acts out an attack on North Korea. Under the Trump administration, Martin predicts that even if war is averted, such escalation of tension has a very high cost. He points out that Trump, as Obama, has responded to every North Korea nuclear missile launch/test with deepening sanctions. This comes in the form of a 90% cut in refined oil products, gasoline, etc, in addition to other material bans. This not only “undermines democratic possibilities in North Korea,” he says, but “helps fuel greater military spending and militarization in Japan, China, and the U.S., therefore cutting funds to much-needed domestic programs.” Finally, Hart-Landsberg concludes with the fact that there needs to be a change in the dynamics that drive NK-U.S. relations. Of course, this will not be an easy feat considering that the media in this country rarely provides a true picture of things; it predominantly converges upon this idea that “we have to follow the present option with North Korea: condemn and sanction.” That’s not actually true according to Martin, who urges that the United States engage in direct negotiations with all options on the table, rather than simply dismissing North Korea as the hermit kingdom, ruled by crazy people, hell-bent on war, who can’t be trusted to follow through on promises.
The next speaker is Hyun Lee. She begins with an anecdote. She says she grew up in Seoul during a time when South Korea was ruled by a dictatorship. Every year, there was a contest to draw a North Korean, whose basic outline included devil horns and a pitchfork. One day, after completing her drawing, she asked her mother and grandmother, “Do they really look like this?” They responded, seriously, by saying, “don’t ever say that in school”, which really meant “don’t ever question the official narrative.” After this, she describes her visit to North Korea in 2011. “It was unlike anything-everything- I’ve ever been told about North Korea. Interactions with people broke stereotypes about the country. People are very funny- great sense of humor, very down-to-earth.” She remembers expressing surprise when the tour guide assigned to her group knew who Harvey Milk was and “admired him for his revolutionary courage.” Her trip made her question the distorted views about the country which we are told. She combats this “dominant narrative” throughout her talk. Describing the economic crisis in the late 1990s-early 2000s as leaving “the country on the verge of collapse,” North Korea saw significant signs of “almost implausible” economic recovery by 2011. She shows pictures of high school students frolicking on a beach at Wonsan, a lazy Sunday afternoon on row boats on the Daedong River, and a bartender at a restaurant tending to a fully-stocked bar. “How is this possible considering all of the U.S. sanctions? Even if China is not complying fully, is it rational to believe that it is carrying all the weight? Controlling all the strings of North Korea?” she asks. Then she poses this thought experiment to the crowd: imagine that your income is cut by 80%. How would that impact you and what would you do to restart your life? What if a cherished family member dies? What if there was also significant heavy rains on top of that? Well, that, she says, is what happened to North Korea. The USSR dissolved, a beloved leader passes away, and there were massive floods. For many years, extraction of coal and minerals halts as all mines are under water. In order to bounce back, North Korea needed to pump out water to normalize production, but they didn’t have fuel (because of sanctions). Without fuel, they couldn’t irrigate their rice fields. Without coal, they couldn’t produce fertilizer. Agriculture was at a standstill. It took 15 years to restore the coal mines and restore production. She says that while North Koreans express pride in actually surviving the period called “the Arduous March”, they are reluctant to discuss those hard and turbulent times.
Hyun Lee argues that key policies provided salvation: first, North Korea adhered to a policy of self-reliance (to solve one’s problems with one’s own resources, skills, and not foreign powers), and second, there was a great emphasis placed upon science and technology. This emphasis is exemplified by the fact that North Korean scientists solved the water and fertilizer crises (in order to restart production) through “the construction of hundreds of miles of waterways through rugged mountainous terrain” primarily done through human labor. They also developed a new way to produce fertilizer by gassing anthracite- a plentiful mineral in North Korea. Third, North Korea implemented sustainable farming and local food self-sufficiency. A building block of, if not all, most of North Korean society, whether that be university or military unit or large construction site, each unit has their own small-scale livestock farms and greenhouses. This even extends to the Satellite Scientists Residential Complex in Pyongyang has multiple closed loop production systems embedded in their small scale farms. At the same time, North Korea is becoming increasingly powered by geothermal and solar energy, as exhibited in the Pyongyang Vegetable Science Institute, adding to its bounding leaps forward.
For Hyun Lee, while the economy has a long way to go, North Korea has shown significant resilience in a few ways. First is found in the resilience of the North Korean people, themselves, in the rebuilding their economy. Second, she shows the art etched into the Sepo Mound in the Gangwon Province, via flower growth, that reads “become youthful blessed Earth.” She tells the crowd that this area is becoming a “mega-ranch,” therefore creating grassland and raising grazing animals because while North Korea has met its grain production goals, it now seeks to diversify its people’s diets. Third, she points out that North Korea remains below the global infant mortality rate depicted by the World Bank- and even at the height of the Arduous March, North Korea never exceeded that global average. In fact, its numbers are closer to that of more developed countries. At the same time, life expectancy is almost on par with global standards. Finally, she describes that the biggest obstacles to further development in North Korea are “sanctions, constant threats of war by the United States, and the need for North Korea to spend so much on deterrence.” Her talk ends with a video- that shouldn’t be surprising, but is- of a woman and two very eccentric, young girls dancing in the park on a weekend.
In the last half-hour of the presentation, Benoit Berthelier and Stephan Haggard open the discussion up with their own questions, before the audience weighs in. The looming question the audience has is articulated by Haggard, who poses his question in the form of a rebuttal. “You paint this picture of American ineptitude and failure as one-sided. North Korea has had its own share [of failures], as well. The story can’t be told through the malfeasance of U.S. foreign policy.” Haggard has three points. First, per Tillerson, “robust sanctions on the North Korean regime, are not only for strategic purposes of coming back to talks, but limit their pursuit of nuclear tech.” Second, he asserts that, on the contrary, the U.S. is open to holding negotiations with North Korea. And third, “if the U.S. policy toward North Korea-South Korea relations is misdirected, then will they be brought into broader discussions? Yes, there’s the Olympics, but what happens after? Potential for nothing!” He then asks us to recall the “freeze for freeze”, in which U.S.-South Korean military exercises would be stopped in exchange for North Korea’s halting of their nuclear/missile testing. It wouldn’t have to give up its stockpile. “They [North Korea] aren’t interested.”
Martin responds with, “To say that is false. North Korea has always said ‘we’re willing to put that on the table as long as other things are on the table.’” Here, he says that a peace treaty, end to sanctions, and normalization are recurrent themes because they never got them. “They went through two negotiations, in which they were the only party that gave something up,” he summarizes. In reference to maximum pressure on North Korea by U.S. foreign policy, Martin says it is “not inept, but successful- the U.S. is doing what it wants.” He asserts that such a pressurized policy “serves a very narrow set of interests.” As for the embargo and war games, Martin notes that U.S. claims to just be “practicing”, but asks “what are we practicing, with such enormous military strength?” Ultimately, he reiterates, “North Korea has been willing to give up a lot without the U.S. giving up a lot, and without following through… North Korean nuclear tests have always come as a response to an unwillingness of the U.S. to meet them.” Similarly, Hyun Lee remarks that she is “not trying to romanticize North Korea (or South Korea or the United States), but that it’s true that the U.S. has been the most disruptive to negotiations. North Korea wants a change of policy, the United States doesn’t; North Korea may want to revisit Sunshine negotiations, and the U.S. disrupts. We have to look very carefully about what’s being asked.” In regards to events last year, she says, “North Korea doesn’t know if the war games are just an exercise or a prelude to the real thing- the whole country is militarized. This has been going on for decades. There needs to be a fundamental shift in U.S. foreign policy. We cannot ask North Korea to denuclearize- and does the U.S. have moral grounds to demand that, as the greatest nuclear power and the only one that has used them against another country?” Finally she adds, “You know, this is nothing new- war tensions and threat of war. Except this time, Americans are the one’s faced with it.”
Picture Reference: North Korea in the Age of Trump. UCSD, 2018.