North Korea will stay on its tracks

Whoever is named as Kim Jong-Il successor, he will follow the same policy lines, said Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences director Aleksandr Zhebin, who knows the North Korean leader in person.

In the 21st century everything has become globalized. There is practically nothing that a person cannot find on the Internet, on the phone, or from known sources. Yet North Korea remains one of the very few enigmas left in the 21st century.

RT: North Korea remains one of the few mysteries today. Everything is known today. Information about everything can be found easily, but North Korea maintains that shroud of secrecy. Why?

Aleksandr Zhebin: It happened so that for centuries Korea was detached from the rest of the outside world. This has to do with the fact that back in the Middle Ages it frequently suffered from invasions by the Mongols and Japanese. This convinced the ruling class that the country would live better if it reduced its contacts with the surrounding countries to a minimum.

As a result, Koreans were even banned from starting up settlements in certain locations, particularly on the seashore. The information inflow was controlled and restricted.

When Japan occupied Korea in the early 20th century, this policy was preserved by the occupants in order to retain this colony under its control. The first thing Japan did was to take all the foreign relations of Korea under its control and start the ‘Japanization’ of Korea. The Koreans were forced to adopt Japanese names, not to speak the Korean language, and the Japanese language was proclaimed official, and so forth. This dark legacy, both historical and cultural, has to a great extent affected the views of the Korean leaders.

RT: But not only is North Korea an informational mystery, it’s also one of the very few remaining islands of Socialism, Communism. How does it maintain to do that?

AZ: The fact of the matter is that the Koreans proved to be very consistent in their convictions. Korea, as with China, is a Confucian country where Confucianism dominates the thinking and the habits of the people.

To quote one example, when China had given up most of the Confucian traditions, Korea was rigorously following them all the same. So, when Chinese scientists wanted to find some information about Confucian rituals they had to go to Seoul for the relevant documents.

It so happened that when the northern part of Korea came to believe in Communism and Socialism, it became an even greater teacher of it than the Soviet Union itself and other socialist countries which have already given up this ideology and system, while in Korea, just like in China, they are still trying to build Socialism in the Korean fashion, their own model of Socialism.

RT: But today, in the 21st century, economic ties spin the world. Do you think that this policy of isolation will help North Korea progress economically?

AZ: There is no doubt that the country needs its foreign economic relations expanded, as according to estimates by foreign specialists and the understanding shared by North Korea itself, it would be impossible to modernize the economy without investment from outside.

I would like to draw your attention to something I find very interesting. There has been much talk in the West about “North Korea opening up” and its “integration” into the world community. However, real policy is very often at odds with such statements.

Some sort of hysteria broke out in the media recently around the fact that a Swedish department store began selling jeans manufactured in North Korea. If the West is really interested in North Korea developing some industries fit to enter foreign markets and thus having people interested in contacts with the outside world, working with it, what threat would the selling of a batch of jeans pose to the Western world’s safety and well-being? It would be absolutely insignificant in terms of economic competition.

The same applied to the joint North-and-South-Korean industrial complex in Kaesong. A free trade agreement was signed between the US and South Korea several years ago, which has not yet been ratified. The refusal of the US to include spoons and forks and other consumer goods manufactured in that area, into the agreement, was one of the stumbling blocks. The US did not agree for a few million dollars to enter the market. And yet, it’s hard to imagine how this could threaten the US and world economies.

RT: So, in your opinion, it is beneficial in some ways for certain countries like the United States, for example, to have North Korea isolated?

AZ: Unfortunately, we have to draw this conclusion. We cannot explain everything entirely by North Korea’s stance. Of course, much depends on the past and the traditions, on the fear of opening up, because that may lead to undesirable political consequences. On the other hand, when they say North Korea needs to become a civilized country and be integrated into the world community, they are never too keen to really do things to let it happen.

What’s more, the West and the United States in particular, need a “bad guy” in that region to justify their military presence in the southern part of the Korean Peninsula and Japan, and deploying their missile defence systems there – that is something that has been done there somewhat more actively than in Europe.

Indeed, until now, the US and allied military presence in the region was justified by the Soviet threat. It’s been 20 years now since the Soviet Union. However, the US is not going to give up their military alliances established during the “cold war”. Now it is very convenient to have a “bad guy” in Pyongyang that can be used as a scapegoat for everything.

Now it seems okay to have talks with Russia or China and smile and keep face, saying “Because of Kim Jong-Il, we have to keep our troops and send our aircraft carriers there.” When the North Korean threat disappears, this face will be hard to keep as it will be clear who the troops and the missile defence are actually aimed at.

It will be obvious that it is not against North Korea weakened and worn out by long economic turmoil, but against a rising China and Russia as well.

RT: So, recent statements from people like former president Jimmy Carter who went to Korea and said that he “saw signs of North Korea willing to work with the Six Party Talks and take steps towards denuclearizing itself. Do you think it’s just good PR?

AZ: I think that Carter sensed the mood in North Korea. He is an experienced politician who has been there more than once. The thing is that North Korea realizes that, without an agreement with the United States, it won’t be able to solve its main problem – the removal of the military threat.

North Korea was really frightened by the events in Iraq and Yugoslavia when the US unilaterally changed the regimes in both those countries, even without the consent by the UN. North Korea is really afraid of that.

Secondly, it is aware that due to the US sanctions it will have difficulties to get money from international financial institutions and other countries to modernise its economy. This explains the fact that North Korea is quite consistently pursuing the policy of signing bilateral agreements, first and foremost with the US, and then multilateral agreements such as those produced by the Six Party talks. North Korea demands that they should have talks with the US and then proceed further.

North Korea views the US as posing the biggest threat and believes that the main obstacle for their economic development comes from the US standing in the way of international aid.

RT: Let’s move from the economic and political a little more towards the personal. You have spent so much time in North Korea. I believe you have met Kim Jong-Il personally. What kind of a man is he?

AZ: I met Kim Jong-Il both as a journalist and a diplomat – in particular during then-president Putin’s visit to North Korea in 2000. I carefully read what a number of state leaders who met him as a president wrote about him.

One had to say that Kim Jong-Il appears an energetic and informed person who knows what he does and knows what to strive for.

I think that the stereotypes appearing regularly in Western and, frankly, also in Russian publications about some “unpredictable” politician and regime are absolutely ungrounded, because an irrational and unpredictable politician would hardly be able to hold power in his hands for the past two decades when many revolutions broke out and many countries actually disappeared – many expected the North Korean regime to fall. However, for a number of reasons, including purely pragmatic and realistic policy and the ability to outplay the enemy even though in some small things, the North Korean regime managed to survive.

RT: You mentioned that the North Korean leader knows what he wants for his country and from his country. He is calling a party meeting that has not been held for 30 years. And many in the West specifically are very excited trying to guess why exactly or what he is trying to tell the world by doing that. What do you think is the purpose of the conference and its meaning?

AZ: If we talk about detail, the only thing known to be on the agenda of the forthcoming conference is the elections for the governing bodies of the ruling party. And it really makes sense, for it has been 44 years since the previous conference and 30 years since the previous party congress.

Many leaders who used to be members of the governing Politburo and Secretariat have died. The Central Committee must by now have less than half the men from the original list. So, it appears to be high time for elections.

The second thing on the agenda, which is perhaps the key thing, is about a successor to the incumbent leader. It is no secret there have been many reports about his weakened health. At the same time though, many people who met him, including people from Russia, and in particular cultural figures that often go there, believe those rumours are exaggerated.

I can’t rule out though the possibility that Kim Jong-Il has begun to ponder about his possible successor who would have to lead the country after he himself leaves the political arena. I don’t think the conference is due to pronounce anyone a successor. Most likely, such a person will simply be elected into the government, which will allow him to prove his eligibility by his achievements in areas he will be in charge of.

RT: Now, if Kim Jong-Il decides to follow in his father's footsteps and name his son as his successor, there is very little known about the man. What do we know? Who is he? What does he have, what would he bring to North Korea?

AZ: First of all, I think we shouldn't expect any dramatic changes right away, because power in North Korea is built on succession and continuity principles. Kim Jong-Il became a leader first and foremost thanks to his image of a true follower of his father's legacy and ideas – not as some destroyer of the foundations or the person to lead the country's policy into a sharp turn. So obviously the same is going to apply to Kim Jong-Il’s successor. If it should be one of his sons, for example – I shall not make any predictions as to which of them it could be, although there is much talk about the third son. Anyway, this will be a young person with hasn't yet earned much authority in the party or the country, and who is not very widely known.

And I don't think that Kim Jong-Il is going to quit entirely now, he will continue ruling the country as long as his health and the circumstances allow.

That is why the decisions to be made by the conference will in their essence be shaping the environment and the circles loyal to the new successor, some advisors who will guide him through the challenging situation North Korea is in these days, at the beginning of the 21st century.