North Korean Diplomacy: Mysterious and Unpredictable

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The FINANCIAL — In mid 1995, I was accorded the privilege of an invitation to travel to Pyongyang, North Korea to discuss, with key North Korean institutions, the feasibility of inviting foreign direct investments into what was then and now a nation that no one really knows or understands.


My mission at that time was orchestrated by the North Korean Trade Office in Singapore and the projected outcome was to entice one or more mining companies from Australia to commence exploration. The offers on the North Korean table were extremely appetising.


I flew to Beijing and boarded an old Antanov aircraft which was packed with Chinese and North Koreans and with a massive load of machines and other goods in the cargo carriage below. When the plane taxied on the runway for take-off, it took a lifetime to lift and did so at the very last metre of the tarmac. Next to me was a German diplomat travelling to meet his Swiss counterpart as the Swiss were taking care of German interests in North Korea. Somewhat worried about the state of the plane’s noisy and dilapidated condition, I asked him whether we will eventually land in Pyongyang’s Sunan airport. He was not very helpful. He said, with the typical German sense of dry humour: “let us wait and see”.


The plane did land, but I could not see any airport. It landed some miles away and groaned its way slowly, past numerous sentry points with bunkers and ready-to-fire soldiers, and reached the airport. My first feelings were that I had made a mistake in coming to Pyongyang and I had wilfully surrendered myself into the security apparatus of a country that the world feared. It was a country which had the biggest iron curtain around it and had developed the art and science of human control, unseen or unheard of anywhere in the world.


During the first days, from the first hour I was taken to lay a wreath of flowers at the foot of the giant statue of Kim-Il-Sung and bow my head in salute to the Great Leader, to being constantly accompanied by three heavy-smoking security men wherever I was, there was a sense of total trepidation as to what might happen if I were to accidentally step on the wrong side of the North Korean protocol and procedure. Each meeting – ranging from discussions with the Daesong Bank to discussions with the company cutting and polishing diamonds for Belgian businesses- was carefully planned, with all the fervour of North Korea’s patriotism, devotion to the Great Leader Kim-Il Sung and Beloved Leader Kim-Jong-Il.


As days went by, with more and more visits, meetings, hand-shakes, elaborate dinners of some of the finest North Korean cuisine,  and a more relaxed routine which took me through the well-laid out, but empty roads of Pyongyang and beyond, I developed a more sympathetic understanding of a country whose desire for unification with the South Korean brothers and sisters was more of re-admitting the Southern prodigal sons back into their fold rather than the proud North Korean defenders of freedom submit to the South and the “US imperialists”.


North Korea, since its cities were turned into ashes in the heaviest American bombardment during the Korean war, had developed a policy of standing firm against the rest of the world, being totally self-reliant, rebuilding the nation brick by brick, maintaining a human avalanche of an arm, navy and air force ready to strike and defend its borders. The rigid control and worship of the Kim dynasty and blind or coerced obedience to the state was and is very much the cornerstone of ensuring safety. North Korea, despite its belligerence and continuous outbursts against the “imperialist, renegade war mongers”, remained a nation in fear of being attacked, any time.


Through the window of my hotel room which was cleaned three times a day by a young maid with beaming smile, and perhaps working for the internal security, I watched school children, in uniforms, working on road side gardens after school as part of the duty to the nation. Pyongyang itself had nothing to distract anyone from the nationalistic fervour of building a great nation and praising their leaders constantly and at every opportunity, in a rhythmic and monotone worship. There were no cafes, no restaurants other than those built for the dining and wining of key officials, no advertising bill boards or signs, no television or radio which beamed anything foreign, no books or music other than those made for the specific, ideological consumption of the self reliant and proud North Koreans.


My first days of panic turned quietly into a feeling of empathy with a nation in struggle, with its own economic development, with its self-imposed isolation, with its total lack of freedom and its subservient and rigid way of life which had hardly any joy of life. Having isolated itself politically, ideologically and economically from the rest of the world, North Korea did manage to keep its leadership unquestioned and through the years of famine and starvation, has succeeded in fending off South Korean, US and other interventions in their country. It has also displayed an uncanny capacity to pull and to push in international negotiations on its nuclear ambitions, always leaving enough room for some level of negotiations with its “enemies”.


I have often asked whether winds of change will sweep through North Korea; whether its people, young and old, will someday be allowed to know and to understand where the world has gone in its achievements, modernity, science, the arts and indeed the totality of human evolution. I have also wondered how it would be possible, in an age of total communication and inter-dependence, of social media that constantly talks to each other, that a people can be kept continuously in total ignorance, believing in things which are unreal and highly utopian, just living in hope, with no real life to lead.


King Jong-Un, the young son of Kim-Jong-Il who has been crowned as Supreme Leader, may perhaps be the turning point in North Korea’s view of the world and its capacity to positively engage with other nations. North Korea has the fourth largest army in the world, possibly has already attained nuclear capability, possibly has more than one uranium enrichment underground station, has developed and launch-tested ballistic missiles and is not necessarily a nation to be pushed aside in a conflict, if ever, with South Korea.
The latest move from North Korea to stop its uranium enrichment and halt its development of missiles in return for 240,000 tons of food and perhaps some cash from the United States presents a mind-boggling concoction of North Korean diplomacy. It is mysterious. The six nations talking to the North Koreans during the last several years since Pyongyang walked out of the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty in 2003 have been frustrated. They have also been deceived. The latest overture from North Korea will obviously be treated with much caution in Washington and the capital of its allies.


It would however be a triumph of diplomacy for the US and its allies if they do manage not to let go of the clear opening which is now available for more direct and more dynamic negotiations with North Korea and begin to embed a well thought out strategy of dealing with North Korean leadership. The Korean peninsula has not had the comfort of safety for a long time. This has not had a positive impact on the people and the economies of neighbouring countries, mainly that of South Korea.


I would think the ultimate aim of North and South Korea should be a platform for not re-unification of the two nations as this may not be achieved as the first step, but the establishment of conditions which will allow demilitarisation of both countries, removal of any nuclear capability, increased trade and increased international engagement in North Korea’s development. North Korea has been a mysterious nation of people whose identities, desires, thoughts and behaviour have been moulded by a rigid and unforgiving state apparatus which interferes in every aspect of human life in the country. Helping North Korea to move away from the “state of war” to greater engagement with the international community is the first and the most significant step in bringing real hope to a people in total darkness.



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