In the West, the dominant image of North Korea normally rests on three main stereotypes: absurdity, poverty, and danger to itself as well as the world at large. An example of the first is the North Koreans’ fervent devotion to the ruling Kim dynasty; of the second, malnutrition and stunting; of the third, home-made nukes. These stereotypes are at the core of North Korean reality, and the new book by Andray Abrahamian does not seek to subvert them. However, as the author of a doctorate on North Korea, a sometime co-runner of a small, privately funded, North Korea-focused NGO called Choson Exchange, and a fluent speaker of Korean who has been to North Korea over 30 times since 2010, he does not stick to stereotypes alone.
Gaining special insight into North Korea is far from easy. Abrahamian clearly does not belong among those foreign visitors to the country who, as he himself puts it, often “place undue analytical value on the little they get to see, forming broad conclusions on limited experience.” Yet not for nothing has North Korea been called the “Hermit Kingdom.” This is a notoriously closed society, where “a way of dealing with foreigners in which hiding as much information as possible — even the fact that you are hiding information — is the modus operandi.”
Such a strategy can partly be explained by the fact that North Koreans are strongly affected by siege mentality, believing — rightly or wrongly — that the world is out to get them. This sentiment, in place since the Korean War of 1950-53 (which ended in an armistice, not a peace treaty, so the North and South are, technically speaking, still at war), has probably intensified in the past thirty years since “North Korea’s most important ally, the Soviet Union, literally stopped existing.” North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons (having become a nuclear power in the 2000s) should first and foremost be attributed to its wish to defend itself against perceived external threat.
For North Koreans this threat is chiefly epitomized by South Korea’s principal backer, the United States, a country blamed for many of the atrocities that took place on the Korean soil during the Korean war, as well as (rather conveniently for the Kims) various subsequent privations such as limited access to food, travel and the internet. Abrahamian, himself an American citizen, describes the status quo in the following imaginary dialogue between an ordinary North Korean and a representative of the North Korean powers that be:
“Why do I need a travel permit to go to the neighboring province?”
“Because if we didn’t have this system the Americans would infiltrate our country and destroy us.”
“Why can’t I have internet access?”
“Because if we were online the Americans would get in our systems and destroy us.”
“Why isn’t there enough to eat?”
“The Americans have us under an embargo.”
At the same time, North Korea welcomes Americans and other foreigners as guests — in limited quantities and as long as they don’t try to do as they please, even leave their hotel for an unsupervised walk without express permission. Foreign groups and individuals, especially those on shorter stays, are usually accompanied by North Korean minders to ensure compliance. Generally speaking, “foreigners are sort of treated like a bacterial vaccine: a bit of bacteria is necessary for all sorts of bodily functions and can make the body stronger, but too much can risk disease.”
The useful know-how emerging from more open societies is therefore admissible in North Korea, but it has to pass through a filter that may (and frequently does) limit the spread of information within the country. Moreover, the information flow moving in the opposite direction, i.e. from North Korea abroad, is even more restricted: “By controlling information, the country creates an asymmetry: it can find out more about its enemies’ societies, economics, and politics than they can find out about its own.”
Still, owing to his status as an NGO worker teaching entrepreneurial skills, and to Choson Exchange’s uncommon collaborative scope, Abrahamian was afforded a view into North Korea that other strangers can scarcely dream of. “Overall, the workshop or small-conference format allowed much greater interaction with a wider range of North Koreans than most foreigners get to experience. Diplomats are largely confined to their foreign ministry interlocutors. Aid workers and tourism agents are generally stuck with working with a single partner organization. We, by contrast, got to interact with officials from various ministries, people from companies small and large, and academics from a range of institutions.”
Moreover, even Abrahamian’s North Korean minders had no choice but to bend rules and regulations to assist him from time to time: “If you have a good relationship with your partners, you find yourselves working to find solutions to problems that the system throws at you. Fundamentally you’re cooperating to accomplish tasks that aren’t against rules, but constrained by them. Your minders, while part of the system of constraints, are also gently pushing against those constraints; they are often working with you to accomplish shared goals despite being in a system stacked with barriers to success.”
An anecdote, one of the many that function in Being in North Korea as parables do in the Bible, illustrates this point. Even though foreigners have been allowed to buy North Korean SIM cards since 2013, “they can only call other foreigners in-country or abroad. It is impossible to call a Korean mobile phone or landline.
One time I had to contact [one of their minders] Mr. Kim, who’d left us in the hotel while he went to run an errand. Our schedule had to change and I needed to communicate that to him. So I asked our other minder, Bae Ho Nam, to call Mr. Kim, since I was not allowed to. I proceeded to yell at Mr. Bae as he held the phone up:
“Mr. Bae!” I bellowed. “Please tell Mr. Kim we need to be back at the classroom by 1:30, not 2 p.m. One of the workshop leaders needs to set something up!”
Mr. Bae was smiling as he quickly confirmed that Mr. Kim had understood.
“What a great solution!” he exclaimed.
On another occasion, a minder demanded a week-long postponement of a workshop just one day before its opening, without much explanation. The workshop was scheduled to take place in the Rason Special Economic Zone (or SEZ) on the border with China. The postponement may have had something to do with the sudden fall from grace and prompt execution of General Jang Song Thaek in December 2013. Believed to be second in command after North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Il, the general was also a key advisor to Kim Jong Il’s son and heir Kim Jong Un and “closely associated with the Rason SEZ specifically and China trade relations generally.” Abrahamian explained to the minder that the workshop leaders had taken time off work and booked their flights already. The next day, “he seemed to understand that it was too late to cancel. We agreed to shift the program by a day. The workshop leaders adjusted.”
This episode is indicative of the tensions permeating North Korea’s relationship with China. Despite North Korea’s insistence on adhering to Juche, or its policy of self-reliance in the economic sphere (among others), “by 2017 over 90 percent of its trade was with a single partner, China.” Moreover, “China, if it wished, has the leverage to squeeze North Korea so hard it could induce regime collapse. But regime collapse — and Pyongyang is fully aware of this — could create so much chaos that it might threaten the stability and economic prosperity of East Asia. This represents a major threat in the eyes of the Chinese Communist Party, for which economic growth is the font of legitimacy.”
Modernizing the North Korean economy has become the primary goal of Abrahamian and his NGO partners, however limited their influence, precisely because they believe that “peace, stability, unification… all these things are only possible after economic development.” By Abrahamian’s own admission, “with Choson Exchange, we were going [to North Korea] to discuss policies and practices that would improve the economy and the skills that people would need in order to achieve economic success in the 21st century. This was tricky because sometimes implicit criticisms of the North Korean way of doing things could be embedded in these discussions. We had to keep them from becoming explicit. Our volunteers had to tread extremely carefully.”
Perhaps owing to this thoughtful circumspection, some of these workshops, the best-attended of which numbered over a hundred participants, were apparently an instant success. Describing his personal experience of a group discussion about a hypothetical economic crisis in North Korea (referred to as Small Island to counter the participants’ possible self-censorial inhibitions), a workshop leader wrote in The Economist in 2013 that the attendees’ responses “would have made the IMF proud.”
The first spokeswoman suggested privatization of the state-owned companies, to raise hard currency, and to foster competition to improve efficiency. Her group proposed raising interest rates to attract inward investment. It argued for time, to mitigate the consequences of austerity on the work force. Another group suggested adding value to the raw materials, by turning them into desirable finished products. A third suggested bringing in multilateral institutions to help tide people through the austerity drive. I could hardly believe what I was hearing. Not least, I was shocked at how freely and easily they were speaking out. One young man approached me afterwards, and joked: “I never realized how much I would enjoy running my own country.” Such interactions serve as a stunning reminder of how valuable, and under-exploited, people-to-people exchanges with pariah states like North Korea can be.
There are two schools of thought regarding what is to be done with North Korea: the hardliners and the engagers. Hardliners insist on sanctions and substantial denuclearization as a precondition for removing the rogue-state stigma. Engagers like Abrahamian, while not necessarily being pro-nukes, do not believe in sanctions (whose efficacy against totalitarian states, according to some studies, does not exceed nine percent of cases if major policy changes are at stake). “The more North Korean people we expose to the outside world,” they believe, “the more they will be advocates for better policy, greater justice, and a better quality of life in their society.” This is why Choson Exchange not only runs workshops in North Korea but also, whenever practicable, takes North Koreans to countries like China and Singapore as well.
One long-term consequence of North Korea’s famine of the 1990s, which reportedly caused hundreds of thousands of deaths, was that the North Korean state could no longer claim to provide everything its citizens needed in return for loyalty. Many population categories were either allowed or forced to fend for themselves, which effectively meant running private businesses in the midst of a state-owned economy. As a result, by Abrahamian’s account, North Koreans
kept learning how to run companies, small and large, better and better. People at all social strata were learning first how to survive, but in many cases how to thrive as well. We wanted to support these people who were helping rewrite North Korea’s social contract. That didn’t mean, however, that we’d shy away from breaking their hearts sometimes. I often told workshop leaders the balance of content should be 80 percent applicable, 20 percent bad news: that some things would not be possible without the internet, without abandoning the minder system and other rules that separate North Koreans from the outside world.
Will any of these obstacles ever be removed? The problem is that no matter how hard Abrahamian and his colleagues try to implement their cautious and relatively small-scale engagement plans, there is little they can do if shifts in the general political context, over which aid workers have no control, scuppers their efforts. The tragic death of Otto Warmbier in 2017 and the unexpected failure of the 2019 North Korea-US Hanoi summit have put many additional hurdles in the way of engagers. In particular, the US now forbids travel to North Korea for American citizens, unless their passports are specially authorized by the State Department. Will the outcome of the forthcoming American presidential election alter anything in US-North Korean relations as they currently stand? If there any American aid workers around who haven’t lately given up on Pyongyang, they should certainly hope so.
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A Russia-born Slavist, Andrei Rogatchevski has studied and/or taught in Great Britain, Finland, the Czech Republic, and Israel, and is currently professor of Russian literature and Culture at UiT, the Arctic University of Norway.