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Week 2 Report: Kang Chol Hwan on the Politics of North Korea

May 7, 2012

NKnet volunteer Matt McGrath contributed the following article on week two of our speakers series, which runs through May 16. Watch the video of Mr. Kang’s talk.

On April 18, NKnet invited former gulag prisoner Mr. Kang Chol Hwan to speak about recent political and social developments in North Korea. Kang is known well for his book, “The Aquariums of Pyongyang,” in which he described his experiences growing up in a North Korean political prison camp. Rather than talking about his internment at the Yoduk political prison camp, Kang provided the audience with an insightful narrative on North Korea’s development over the past 20 years.

Early on in his remarks, Kang reminded the audience of Hwang Jang Yop’s story – a high-ranking cadre who defected to South Korea in 1997. Since Hwang had been a high-ranking government official at the time of his defection he had been well aware of the dire economic climate in North Korea, fearing that the country would be pushed to the brink of collapse in only two or three years. Through his defection, Kang explained that Hwang hoped to prepare the South Korean government for the collapse of North Korea and to facilitate a peaceful reunification of the two Koreas. However, these fears never materialized and North Korea managed to endure despite all odds.

Moving on, Kang went on to describe the time of South Korean president Kim Dae Jung’s summit with Kim Jong Il in 2000. Kang said the North was desperate to bring an end to the South’s pervasive psychological warfare tactics along the Demilitarized Zone. South Korean messages about food and supplies were eroding the Northern soldiers’ morale. Therefore, Kim Jong Il set specific preconditions before he agreed to the summit. The number one priority was to end the South’s psychological warfare campaign, including the transmission of radio and balloon messages into the North. Kang explained how North Korean soldiers were eating ramen noodles sent from the south until North Korean officials told them they were poisoned. To circumvent the possible life-threatening hazard, Kang explained that North Korean soldiers would test the noodles on their dogs before trying them for themselves.

In response to suspicions that Kim Dae Jung’s Sunshine policy was a ploy to get the North to democratize, Kang detailed how Kim Jong Il crafted the “Mosquito Net” Strategy to accept aid from the South while simultaneously keeping out the “capitalist” mosquitos. The successful implementation of this policy, in conjunction with substantial aid from the newly elected liberal South Korean government, allowed the North Korean government to temporarily avoid capitulation. Kang mentioned that some South Koreans believe President Kim should have received a “prize for the destruction of peace” rather than the Nobel Peace Prize because the liberal policies towards North Korea enacted under his Presidency gave way to the perception that South Korea was actively supporting the regime in the North.

Two successive liberal presidencies in South Korea ensured aid continued to be sent northward for a decade and a second summit meeting was held shortly before the end of Roh Moo Hyun’s presidency, Kang explained. In this meeting, Kim Jong Il was assured that if the liberals won the presidency again, North Korea would receive even more aid. However, when Kim Jong Il learned that a conservative government was voted into the Blue House, Kang reminded the audience how Kim Jong Il then put the breaks on all inter-Korean dialogue. Kang spoke about his experience working with South Korean policy makers in Lee Myung Bak’s administration who were unable to understand why the North refused to negotiate. His explanation was that Kim Jong Il was something akin to a psychopath because once he made up his mind, there was no changing it.

In speaking on Kim Jong Il’s recent passing, Kang asked the audience to remember that in his last year Kim Jong Il had visited China three times and Russia once. The frequency of these visits was unprecedented, so Kang rhetorically asked the audience why Kim Jong Il would do this. In answering his own question, he doubted that these visits were to request aid from North Korea’s allies because that would be “out of character” for someone of Kim Jong Il’s personality. Rather, Kang suggested these trips were attempts to procure military aircraft. He identified the allied response to the Cheonan sinking and NATO’s intervention in Libya against Muammar Gaddafi as the impetus behind the late Kim’s desire to obtain military aircraft. Kang said that Kim learned two things from these events. The first was the realization that North Korea’s airspace was extremely vulnerable to American and South Korea military aircraft. The second was the pivotal role NATO’s air force played in turning the tide of the Libyan Revolution. This was particularly poignant for Kim Jong Il because Gaddafi’s security apparatus was modeled after his own. Although Gaddafi’s forces were initially successful in combating the rebels, once NATO intervened, his forces were powerless to prevent his downfall. Kang suggested that after being successively rejected by China and Russia, Kim Jong Il became so frustrated that he succumbed to heart disease and passed away.

At the end of his presentation, Kang briefly commented on Kim Jong Un’s prospects as the future leader of North Korea. He point to the youngest Kim’s recent speech during which he was “murmuring and shivering while reading from the script.” Kang posed the question, “How could you expect someone like that to be a successful leader when they are surrounded by their father’s generals who are in their 70s and 80s?” Also commenting, “How could a child with a funny hairstyle rule?” Not surprisingly Kang’s prognosis for Kim Jong Un was “very doubtful.”

Kang also suggested the recent failure of North Korea’s rocket launch had propelled the North Korean people into a state of “mental crisis,” having observed hundreds of millions of dollars that could have been used to feed hungry people literally go up in smoke. He also pointed to China’s growing displeasure with North Korea’s actions in the international arena and unsurprisingly suggested that if China were to withhold aid, it would only be a matter of time until the regime in the North collapses. Furthermore, Kang pointed out that if the conservatives win South Korean presidential elections later this year, it would spell doom for the North Korean regime because in the event that China decides to withhold aid and the president of South Korea is a conservative, North Korea would have nowhere to turn for assistance.

At the end of the lecture portion of the seminar, the audience was eager to probe Kang on a number of related issues. One participant asked if he thought China might want to turn North Korea into a de facto Chinese province. In his response to this question, Kang explained that China is currently undergoing a major power struggle, pointing to the political reforms proposed by Premier Wen Jiabao in the last year as proof of this. Kang also noted that there is a difference of opinion in China regarding North Korea. On the one hand, the older generation of Chinese leaders considers North Korea to be an essential part of their security apparatus, which contrasts with the younger generation who think that North Korea is less important to China’s national interests. Kang suggested that because China is experiencing major reforms, their government does not want to see North Korea liberalize rapidly because that would heavily impact China’s internal struggle for increased political freedom and democracy. In a second follow up question, Kang added that China is also focused on developing its interior. Between these two major initiatives, Kang made clear that China has its hands full, which makes the annexation of North Korea “not likely.”

Another participant noted Kang’s harsh critique of Kim Jong Un’s first public speech and asked about his views on the transition of power between Kim Jong Il and his son. Kang explained that Kim Jong Il confiscated power from his father and fought against his uncle and stepmother for control over the country. By doing so, Kim Jong Il had built his own political power base in the government, which is a stark contrast to Kim Jong Un who “passively inherited” power from his father. Kang pointed out that since Kim Jong Un ascended the North Korean political pyramid in this manner, he does not yet have a firm grip on the more experienced high-ranking officials he is supposed to be leading. Kang also suggested that the current power structure in North Korea is likely to be the same as it was under Kim Jong Il. This is because he handpicked officials who would ensure the continuation of his policies and strategically placed them in the highest offices before he passed away. Despite this, Kang noted that the North Korean political system is not devoid of reform-minded officials. He identified Jang Sung Taek as a potential leader capable of organizing this group of people in the event that North Korea would become open to reform. Kang shared his curiosity as to whether or not North Korea would revise its power structure in April, modeling it after Deng Xiaoping’s revision of China’s power structure from an individual-led system to a group-led system. This would have made reform in North Korea possible but unfortunately it did not happen, so systematic reform in North Korea remains highly unlikely.

In closing, one participant asked Kang what it was like coming to South Korea. He responded that overcoming the culture gap was the most challenging obstacle. In particular when he watched South Korean comedy programs he couldn’t laugh because he didn’t understand the cultural references. At the end of the event, everyone thanked Kang for a fascinating discussion and some participants lined up to have their copies of “The Aquariums of Pyongyang” autographed.

Watch video of this event

Video: Kang Chol Hwan on the Politics of North Korea

Additional photos from this event:

Facebook photo album: North Korean Human Rights Speaker Series

Media coverage of this event:

N. Koreans won’t buy hype over leader
Korea Times
April 19, 2012

Kwang Chol-hwan on Developments in North Korea
NK News
April 24, 2012

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