Is Pyongyang Acting Logically?
Paul French (Founder, Asia Access, and author of North Korea: The paranoid peninsula - A modern history) and J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM and Asia Times)
Sean Curtin: You have described the North Korean economy as being a "two-tracked" one, saying it can be roughly divided into two basic components. One half consists of bankrupt, or near-bankrupt, state enterprises and entities, while the other part is made up of humanitarian aid, which has become absolutely vital to Pyongyang in recent years. You also observe, "The North Korean economy has collapsed and it has no food security." Given these circumstances, you would think that North Korea would do its utmost to maximize the amount of aid it receives, yet this does not appear to be the case in its dealing with Japan. In fact, Pyongyang has made it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for Tokyo to assist the ailing Stalinist state.
The administration of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has signalled that if possible it would like to establish some form of bilateral ties. However, North Korea's actions in dealing with the past abduction of Japanese citizens by North Korean agents has made this objective almost impossible, recently forcing Tokyo to delay sending a shipment of 250,00 tonnes of humanitarian food aid.
Tokyo has demanded Pyongyang sincerely investigation the abduction issue, yet Pyongyang's latest "investigation" into the matter has produced nothing but a pile of poorly fabricated evidence ranging from the bogus remains of so called "deceased abductees" to a composite photo of an abductee, Megumi Yokota, Pyongyang claims is "dead." These revelations have seriously inflamed Japanese public opinion, increasing demands that Tokyo impose economic sanctions on Pyongyang.
You have said that one of the problems North Korea has is that it cannot admit past mistakes because of its "Juche" political philosophy and the mythology surrounding Kim Il Song. Do you think this is what has led to the current situation?
After all, on the surface resolving the issue of what happened to the unaccounted for Japanese abductees is in reality a relatively simple matter. Solving this dispute would provide Pyongyang with much needed foreign aid. Do you have any insights into this issue?
Paul French: The news of the abductee issue has obviously had a profound effect on Japan. This was especially so when the five surviving Japanese abductees were repatriated to Japan. Japanese TV covered their homecoming live and it was an incredibly emotional moment for the nation. If you track the opinion polls in Japan, clearly they indicate that Koizumi, as an elected politician, has to respond to public anger over the issue.
Another important factor in the equation is that whilst Japan might like to involve itself more in North Korea, there is very little it can do, and it is very hard for Japan to really do anything but give aid. Of course, there is some limited Japanese investment in North Korea by ethnic Koreans living in Japan.
Another problem complicating the matter is the issue of war reparations and the terminology that is used to describe it. This is all tied up with the other issues. At the moment, the situation remains unclear. I personally thought that something could be worked out between Japan and North Korea and that aid would flow again.
Sean Curtin: I think that this is probably what the Koizumi administration initially thought when it started its overtures to Pyongyang.
Paul French: As for the issue of the remains that North Korea claimed were those of deceased abductees, but Japanese DNA testing proved were not. I do not really have any explanation for it. All that can be said is that North Korea does things like this from time to time. It is just one of the strange kinds of things it does every now and then. Obviously, this has really aggravated [Japanese] public opinion.
Sean Curtin: The problem with the latest incident involving the fake bones is that it is pushing the Japanese government towards sanctions, even though this is not what they probably want to do. As you say, public opinion and pressure has become so angry, the government has to respond, perhaps with economic sanctions. This is obviously to the disadvantage of North Korea and it is difficult to understand their actions in this regard. Do you have any insights into this?
Paul French: Unfortunately, other than what I have already said, I do not. I do not honestly understand their actions either.
North Korea: The paranoid peninsula - A modern history
By Paul French (Zed Books, 2004)
This timely book is an accessible, up-to-date and very comprehensive introduction to North Korea, providing an overview of the politics, economics and history of North Korea (DPRK) with particular emphasis on the present economic situation since the collapse of the former Soviet Union and Pyongyang's strained relationship with Washington leading up to the current nuclear crisis.
This book seeks to explain how North Korea's economy has moved from one that maintained parity with, and even surpassed, South Korea until the mid-1970s since which time it has spiralled down into steep industrial decline and severe famine. French convincingly argues that the country's collapse has been due to its rigid adherence to central planning, international isolation, Military-First line and an inflexible political philosophy - Juche.
The book also deals with the long troubled relationship between Pyongyang and Washington as well as the continued division of the Korean peninsula. The author considers the likely scenarios for the future of the DPRK and the history and possible ramifications of a reunited Korea. He also examines the guiding personalities of the country and the recent diplomatic initiatives, economic reforms and nuclear crisis.
Profile: Paul French
Paul French was a founder of the Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and UK based research and analysis publisher Access Asia. Access Asia specializes in providing clients with market research and economic analysis on the Greater China region, Mongolia and North Korea. Paul was the co-author of the book One Billion Shoppers: Accessing Asia’s Consuming Passions (Nicholas Brealey, 1998) and is the author of North Korea Paranoid Peninsula - A Modern History. He is based in Shanghai