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Q&A: “The Sun Also Shines in North Korea”

Liza Jansen interviews ROBERT CARLIN, North Korea expert

UNITED NATIONS, Dec 21 2009 (IPS) - North Koreans are not as isolated from the world as the United States thinks, and in fact understand the U.S. better than the U.S. understands North Koreans, says regional expert Robert Carlin.

Robert Carlin Credit: Courtesy of Robert Carlin

Robert Carlin Credit: Courtesy of Robert Carlin

“I know how little we knew,” Carlin noted at a recent U.N. conference. “When I was dealing with North Koreans, it was plain how much they knew about us. Their depth of understanding exceeds ours.”

Carlin has been following North Korea since 1974 and has made nearly 30 visits there. Currently he is a visiting fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University.

He also served as senior policy advisor to the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organisation (KEDO) from 2002-2006, leading numerous delegations to the North for talks.

In an interview with IPS, Carlin said that the overwhelmingly negative western portrayal of North Korea was simplistic, and even overly moralistic. Excerpts follow.

Q: In a speech at the U.N., you said that the Republic is not a reclusive country, although a U.N. report released in October asserted the opposite. Why? A: When I said that the North was not “reclusive” – not in any real sense of the word, anyway – I wasn’t making a moral judgment. Nor was I expressing optimism or pessimism. I was simply describing what I have seen and learned from years of talking with and observing North Koreans. They know more about the outside than we frequently imagine, and there is a swath of the population that has more interaction with foreigners, foreign goods, or foreign ideas than is commonly understood.

For myself, I try to keep the focus on observations that are less fraught, something that irritates many observers who don’t want to hear that the sun actually shines in North Korea, trees grow, and that people there live with the normal range of human emotions and human problems.

My particular view is that every observation about life in North Korea should not have to be qualified with a dollop of moral outrage or reference to human rights considerations.

Q: In your speech, you also said that “the world has rarely rewarded North-Korea for good behaviour”. What did you mean? A: “Reward” is exactly the wrong word, and I shouldn’t have used it. The North Koreans aren’t laboratory animals that we are trying to train to do new tricks. These concepts of reward and punishment, carrots and sticks have, I sometimes worry, overtaken our ability to figure out exactly what we are trying to accomplish and how we should act in regard to the North.

The point I was trying to make was that we have probably helped encourage certain policy choices by the North Koreans, choices that, in our eyes, aren’t the ones we want them to be making.

Q: When you went to North Korea, what did you experience of the country’s “abysmal” human rights situation? A: A foreign visitor would hardly expect to see or experience anything of the workings of the police, the courts, the prisons, or other internal security mechanisms.

Q: If North and South Korea ever reunited, they would form a vast, great power, combining the North’s wealth in natural resources with the technologically advanced knowledge of the South. How would you rate the chances of this happening? A: I started studying North Korea in 1974 – 35 years ago. The two sides have considerably more interchange now than they did then, and there is a potential for much more.

They were on a path to increased contacts a few years ago, but unfortunately the situation has fallen backwards. It is not unusual for this sort of process to move by fits and starts, however, and there is no reason to think things won’t get somewhat better again. The main thing is that when the process restarts, it almost always begins from a new plateau rather than having to go all the way back to the zero point.

Most people tend to think in terms of “reunification”, that is, the political unification of the country under one system. There are other ways in which the two sides could benefit from each other’s economic strengths for the benefit of both.

Whether and to what extent that would form a “vast, great power” is of course quite another question. It is worth bearing in mind that there are neighbours around the edge of the Korean Peninsula who might not be too happy to see such a powerhouse emerge.

Q: According to Vivit Muntarbhorn, the U.N. special rapporteur for human rights in North Korea, the Republic has to alter its “military first policy” into a “people first policy” if the regime wants to survive. How do you see this? A: One thing I have learned not to do over the years is to tell people in other countries what is best for them. This is not to contradict the performance of the U.N. special rapporteur, whose job it is to make such recommendations.

If you look at the documents from the former USSR and Eastern European embassies in Pyongyang, you’ll see that the North Koreans were subject to a never-ending barrage of “advice” from their allies, most of whom were quite convinced that the North Korean leadership didn’t understand economic matters, had a poor grasp of communist principles, and basically needed the benefit of outside wisdom.

Both the USSR and the Eastern bloc have disappeared while the DPRK is still here.

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