Sunday, February 24, 2013

My Interview with North Korean Expert & Author Bradley K. Martin

Mr. Bradley K. Martin 

    For decades,  The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK--aka North Korea)  excelled at keeping its secretive society locked far away from the eyes and ears of the outside world. While North Korea's former benefactors The Soviet Union and China moved away from their respective interpretations of Marxism and integrated into the global economy to varying degrees, The DPRK has continued to not only remain isolated  from the global economic system; it has successfully controlled the vast majority of its citizenry from obtaining information from outside its borders.  Yet times are changing in the hermit kingdom.  While its nuclear ambitions are well-documented, perhaps an even more important story is currently developing in North Korea: The increasingly important black market in North Korea is not only creating a new economic class within the country, it is allowing for information to flow both inside and out of the country that is growing beyond the government's control to contain.

     In order to place the myriad events currently taking place in the DPRK, and their potential ramifications, I spoke with one of the world's most respected experts on North Korea, Mr. Bradley K. Martin.  He is the author of "Under The Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader", a brilliant work that covers the complex history of the reclusive state, as well as analysis of modern North Korea, including several interviews with North Korean defectors from a wide range of social classes: from farmers to military officers.  Mr. Martin has also covered East Asian news for over 30 years for Newsweek, Bloomberg News, The Asian Wall Street Journal, Asia Times, and the Baltimore Sun.  

If the primary reason that the DPRK is conducting nuclear testing is to force the United States into bilateral talks over its nuclear program, what is it trying to gain from such talks if it would not agree to cease its nuclear program?

BM: "The North Korean goal is not mere regime survival but victory. They want a peace treaty and removal of the U.S. troops so they can then attend to the next step: conquest of South Korea."

Do you see any likely change in China's policy towards dealing with North Korea's nuclear program in the near term future? 

BM:"Still watching that one but I was impressed by an analysis I just saw that suggested the Chinese are not on board for rescuing the North Korean regime from coup or popular uprising. As long as the regime isn't attacked from abroad, it's on its own, according to that view. If it's correct, the North Koreans may have gotten themselves into a deep hole indeed."

How secure do you think (current DPRK leader) Kim Jong-un's power base is at the moment? How much influence does his Uncle Jang-Song taek have over Jong-un in terms of influencing his decision making?

BM: "I'm still watching that and don't have an answer yet."

DPRK leader Kim Jong-un

Nearly all trips to North Korea are carbon copies, in which North Korean guides and "minders" show the group the standard monuments, museums, and sights around Pyongyang, with little interaction granted to citizens of the country.  What can you learn about the country from such visits? 

BM: "The trips are indeed limited but I've never failed to learn from even the shortest and most restricted visit. See one of my shorter trips as reflected in an Australian TV documentary at then watch parts 2 and 3, also on YouTube."

 It seems that the black market economy has exploded in recent years in the DPRK, and some reports even state that many Korean families see those who work within the black market as highly desirable in terms of potential marriage matches for their children, in some cases even more so than members of the military.  Can the DPRK government reign in this aspect of its society? Or is it here to stay.  Also, should this "new economy" be seen as a threat by the government, or perhaps a stabilizing force, as many people will find some level of financial  stability within the system, as well as providing additional hard currency circulation within the DPRK?

BM: "The regime from time to time attempts to slow this trend but in the long run it will continue. The stability argument has some merit. After all, most Chinese, as they gain prosperity, are not agitating to change their government. But the regime no doubt fears development of a middle class that would be a competing force, as it has throughout modern history wherever it arose -- and we don't yet know the end of the China story. 

The Beijing regime often shows that it has similar worries, and we never know whether single-party control by the princelings ultimately will breed a scandal so massive and disgusting that it turns ordinary Chinese into anti-government activists. My experience watching the Kims suggests they will not put their faith in the free-enterprise equals prosperity equals stability argument. They are control freaks."

What type of economic  reforms do you think the government would consider implementing that would actually benefit the DPRK citizens? 

BM:  "Even the modest agricultural reforms that some reports said last year were on the horizon would help people live better. Those reports more or less dried up but maybe there's some experimentation going on somewhere and we'll hear more later." 

From your experience in speaking with numerous DPRK defectors, is there a common thread among their stories about life in the DPRK?  How much did most of them actually believe the state ran media, and did they really have the affection for Kim Il-Sung, and Jong-il that the DPRK claims, or was there a high level of  doubt within them? 

BM: "The defectors I talked with for my book typically didn't turn against the regime until they realized that the way it operated would ensure they could not realize their dreams -- usually rather modest dreams  -- if they stayed. Typically they continued to be in awe of Kim Il-sung, at least, although not a few of them noticed that life in North Korea had started down the tubes around the time Kim Jong-il took over as day to day boss." 

"That's unfair to Jong-il in a way, since those were his father's policies he continued to enforce -- but he could have done more to change the policies as his father aged and particularly after he died. The current Kim will not be cut much slack in popular opinion if, as he appears currently to be doing, he sticks with the very same policies overall."

What type of foreign policy do you foresee incoming  South Korean President Geun-hye taking towards North Korea? It seems that neither sticks or carrots have worked towards the DPRK in various South Korean Administrations recently. 

BM: "I won't predict but recommend: Don't go back to the Sunshine policy or any variation of the same. Stand up to the North's provocations, routinely, and without a lot of rhetoric and hysteria. Count on information leaking into the North to continue weakening the Kim regime's hold on the people."

If the North Korean state were to collapse in the near future, what would be your predictions regarding the geopolitical landscape of the Korean peninsula following such a major event?  How would China, Japan, and the United States react? 

BM: "They all need to be thinking about that, and talking with one another, much as such talk infuriates the North. If the big event were a coup or other internal upheaval I'd hope they would all watch and try to be helpful, starting with food aid to show neighborliness to the new regime. There would be little benefit for anyone in rushing troops in, in the most likely circumstances at least."

Feel free to add anything else that you would are the expert!

BM: "Watch for my novel Nuclear Blues, which takes my North Korea analysis into futurology to some extent. Prospective agents and publishers in New York are currently looking at the manuscript."

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