At first glance, last week’s wrestling exhibition in Pyongyang seems to have been a one-off event similar to others with which North Korea has used in the past to try to shift attention away from its nuclear program. As such, it could be dismissed as little more than a dose of regime propaganda. However, this interpretation seems inaccurate. Instead, Kim Jong Un appears intent on actually developing the tourism sector to attract much needed capital inflows. Seen in this light, a group of international wrestlers fighting inside a North Korean ring and holding arm-wrestling competitions with local children can be interpreted as in line with recent efforts to attract more visitors.
Last week, the North Korean regime resumed its policy of provocation and destabilization on the Korean Peninsula by firing two ballistic missiles into the eastern sea and over 100 rockets and artillery shells off its east coast; the missiles landed within a few hundred yards of the South Korean border.
I spoke about these developments and their implications for security on the Korean Peninsula with Sue Terry, currently a research scholar at Columbia University’s Weatherhead Institute and formerly a Central Intelligence Agency officer and director of Korea, Japan, and Oceanic Affairs at the National Security Council. In this interview, Ms. Terry discusses her recent article, where she argues that North and South Korea, as well as the regional powers, should focus on unifying the two countries.
What follows is an edited version of our conversation, which took place last week.
This article was originally published by E-IR.info on 1 April 2014.
Visual Politics and North Korea: Seeing is Believing
By: David Shim. London and New York: Routledge, 2014
More often than not, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, commonly known as North Korea, is featured in the media as a secretive, harsh, irrational, and dangerous country, whose leaders are incapable of interacting with the international community, and whose citizens are slowly dying at the ill will of those leaders. Such characterization has been bolstered – and to some extent popularized, especially in North America – by a number of representations of North Korea as the “other,” the “enemy,” and the embodiment of an “axis of evil,” as well as a country that is so alien and strange that its late leader, Kim Jong Il, was featured as a satirical character in the puppet movie Team America a decade ago.
SEOUL – North Korea’s system is failing. The country is facing severe energy constraints, and its economy has been stagnating since 1990, with annual per capita income, estimated at $1,800, amounting to slightly more than 5% of South Korea’s. Meanwhile, a food shortage has left 24 million North Koreans suffering from starvation, and more than 25 of every 1,000 infants die each year, compared to four in South Korea. In order to survive, the world’s most centralized and closed economy will have to open up.
A more dynamic and prosperous North Korea – together with peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula – would serve the interests not only of North Korea itself, but also of neighboring countries and the broader international community. After all, North Korea’s sudden collapse or a military conflict on the peninsula would undermine regional security, while burdening neighboring countries with millions of refugees and hundreds of billions of dollars in reconstruction costs.
Just when nobody thought it could get worse, it did. Diplomatic relations with North Korea reached a proverbial low point early this year when Pyongyang followed a long-range rocket test with an underground nuclear explosion. Despite a perceived decline since then in North Korea’s belligerent rhetoric, and despite the reopening of the Kaesong Industrial Complex, political tensions between the two Koreas, and between North Korea and the United States, still remain high. Pyongyang, for example, has recently cancelled scheduled North-South family reunions and there are troubling signs that it may be resuming its plutonium program.
While the prospects for political engagement with the Kim Jong-un regime may indeed remain bleak, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other opportunities for increased dialogue. One of these is science diplomacy, which enables states to use academic collaborations and scholarly exchanges in politically helpful ways. The virtue of this type of diplomacy, which can focus on solving common environmental, health, energy, and security problems, is the ‘neutral’ political space it provides friends and foes alike. Instead of continuing to trap themselves in mutual competition, they can indeed use science to create shared interests and a common destiny.