Why North Korea just wants to be left alone

North Korean soldiers staring across to the southern side at the truce village of Panmunjom on Nov 27, 2017. PHOTO: AFP
Italian-born writer Loretta Napoleoni turns her sights on explaining what drives the hermit kingdom's leaders in her new book, North Korea: The Country We Love to Hate. PHOTOS: COURTESY OF DR LORETTA NAPOLEONI

Dr Loretta Napoleoni, 62, has a new book out this month titled North Korea: The Country We Love to Hate.

The Italian-born writer, who has written extensively on the Middle East, terror financing and the war on ISIS, turns her sights on explaining what drives the hermit kingdom's leaders.

An economist by training, she got her big break in 1994 when she was offered a chance to interview jailed members of Italy's Red Brigades. A childhood friend was a leader of the terrorist group.

Dr Napoleoni grabbed the chance because she wanted to find out why her friend became a terrorist and why she was never recruited.

The reason? The militant group had deemed Dr Napoleoni too single-minded and opinionated to make a good terrorist whereas her friend was someone who was good at following orders.

Her work on terrorism was relatively unknown until the Sept 11, 2001 attacks sparked a sudden interest in her work and she became highly sought-after worldwide for her views. Below are edited excerpts of her e-mail interview with Assistant Foreign Editor Tay Hwee Peng.

Q: What do you make of the recent developments on the Korean peninsula (the resumption of inter-Korea talks during which North Korea agreed to send a team to the Winter Olympics and revive military talks, and the reopening of hotlines with the South) following a year of missile and nuclear tests?

A: I believe the Olympic Games are a tremendous opportunity for peace. North Korea has used 2017 to prove to the world that it is a nuclear power. This is unquestionable. So now as a nuclear power it is ready to resume an international relationship, especially with the South. It is also ready to enter the global nuclear club. It has achieved what it set out to reach in the 1950s - the security of nuclear power. North Korea does not want to bomb anybody, it wants to be left alone.

Q: If you were to advise the US, South Korea and Japan on how to defuse the North Korean crisis, what would you say to the leader of each country?

A: Accept that North Korea is a nuclear power and contain it through diplomacy. Force the country to open up through commerce and economic development. Abolish economic sanctions, they have never produced a regime change.

To Donald Trump: There is only one golf course in North Korea and the country is stunningly beautiful, go and invest in luxury golf courses and hotels for globalisation super-rich.

To Moon Jae In: Well done so far in opening a dialogue with Kim Jong Un, continue along this line.

To Shinzo Abe: Learn to live in the 21st century and accept that Japan is not the key player of the region any longer.

Q: What kind of role have China and Russia each played - and together - in the North Korean crisis? Beijing says it no longer has as much influence over its Cold War little brother. Moscow apparently has been throwing lifelines to the North amid tightening sanctions.

A: Actually North Korea founder Kim Il Sung took a distance from both its northern neighbours as early as 1953. North Korea was not Bulgaria or Vietnam, it always maintained independence and was "occupied" by the Soviets only for a very short time after World War II. China and Russia do play an important role as the main exporters to North Korea but they have never had the strong influence on domestic and foreign policies the media seems to project.

Q: In the book, you say that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is a millennial who understands the meaning of globalisation and the realities of geopolitics in a multi-polar world. What makes you say this?

A: He is very pragmatic and speaks directly to the people. This is a major change in style. He rules not as a single dictator but as the husband and brother of two women (wife Ri Sol Ju and sister Kim Yo Jong) - the family image of both sexes is very millennial. He has ignored China and the US, proving that world politics is multi-polar and no any longer bipolar. Hence, North Korea could pursue its own policy independently from the big superpowers. Naturally North Korea has succeeded because of the emphasis that the regime has put on self-reliance right from the beginning. But the simple fact that the country is still standing after years of sanctions and that he has achieved its nuclear dream is remarkable.

Q: Even with the lack of access to the outside world, does the "juche" ideology of self-reliance still hold water among ordinary North Koreans, especially those born after World War II and the Korean War?

A: I think juche is still very strong, it is what they know, the sole ideology/religion they know, so they cannot really compare or criticise it if they do not have an alternative. Juche was a brilliant idea, exactly what the country needed after World War II and the Korean War. Of course today, in a globalised world, it does not make sense, but the North Koreans are not as yet part of such a world.

Q: The book outlines ways whereby market reforms introduced by Kim Jong Un have allowed the informal economy to grow and wages to rise. Do you think there will come a day when North Korea becomes integrated into the global economy, like China?

A: I think it is inevitable that North Korea will integrate into the world economy and that it will follow in the footsteps of China, even if using different strategies to modernise. The idea that North Korea will remain a very poor and backward country does not make any sense. The leadership wants progress because it has promised progress to the masses. Even in North Korea there is a social contract, an agreement disguised as a religion.To achieve a regime change towards a system more similar to ours, the international community should encourage economic development instead of imposing sanctions.

Q: What is your take on this question you posed in the book? "History tells us that the Soviet system was too rigid to survive while the Chinese system was sufficiently flexible to reform... The key question is: will North Korea follow in the footsteps of Beijing and become something else or fail miserably as Moscow did?"

A: I am confident that, because North Korea has shown sufficient flexibility in the past, it will adapt to a fast-changing world as China did. Of course, the final outcome does not depend only on North Korea but also on the way the international community, and in particular the United States, behaves towards the Kim Jong Un regime.

Q: Are fears of North Korea's alleged export of weapons of mass destruction to other "rogue regimes" or militant networks justified or overblown? Does North Korea have links to terror groups in other parts of the world?

A: Exporting nuclear weapons is so difficult that the idea that this could take place is almost a fantasy. In fact it has never occurred. Nuclear weapons are extremely delicate and do not move around easily. To operate them, you need highly educated scientists, these people are very very rare. Pakistan has been a nuclear power for a long time and a hub of jihadists and yet no nuclear weapon has fallen into their hands.

Q: Nuclear weapons, as argued in your new book, are tied to regime survival. Some analysts say they will lead to a situation of mutual deterrence and greater strategic stability. But some warn that they also make it easier for North Korea to engage in limited military action on the expectation that there is no chance of it escalating into a major war. What are your views on this?

A: Actually I disagree. The US and South Korea have been conducting military exercises along the border with North Korea for a long time. Such a display of force is highly destabilising, especially if you think that the two countries are technically still at war. (The 1950-1953 Korean War ended without a peace treaty). Shinzo Abe's supporters are using North Korea to scrap Article 9 of the pacifist Constitution and remilitarise Japan. That would be a tremendous mistake for the peace and stability of the area. The US is using North Korea to maintain a strong foothold in the Pacific, which is also something that will need to be addressed in the near future. Especially as China becomes the strongest military power in the world.

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