North Korea from another angle

from Press News, posted 04/05/2013 - 21:12

Reviewing the recent escalation of tension in the Korean peninsula and beyond, the latest Economist argues that ‘Kim Jong Un has raised the stakes; it is time to get tougher with the nastiest regime on the planet’.

At the same time that we hear of U.S. military preparedness being beefed up in the region, the internet is full of jokes and images that lampoon the DPRK’s young leader.

But there is another way, argue the authors of a new NIAS Press book just out this week in Europe and coming soon to other regions. Writing in Dialogue with North Korea? Preconditions for Talking Human Rights With a Hermit Kingdom, Geir Helgesen and Hatla Thelle dissect the dismal history of relations between North Korea and the outside world. From this examination, and adding to their analysis an account of the more positive international negotiations with China on the human rights issue, the authors urge a more ‘realistic’ approach.

To continue waiting for regime collapse in North Korea is not only unrealistic; from a humanistic point of view it is also irresponsible. This is what we have sought to convey with this book, which could be seen as ‘a user’s manual’ to North Korea. …

Why has the leadership in North Korea resisted change for so long? Isolation, self-made as well as imposed, is part of the answer. A long and very strong tradition with a patriarchal and hierarchical social fabric, which interacts with and guides the formation and realization of authority, is another. Then come the division of the country, an all-encompassing war and, in its aftermath, the establishment of two competing regimes, each of whom has used the other to preserve its own authority and power. …

North Korea’s dictatorship has benefited from isolation, making self-sufficiency their all-encompassing state ideology and keeping foes as well as friends at a distance. The recent UN-sanctioned tightening of the embargo against North Korea due to its nuclear and missile tests, no matter the intention of this punishment, basically only assists the forces within the regime that reject an opening to the world, thus preserving its isolated status and preventing change from affecting North Korean society and its political regime.

How, then, to start a process of change in an area suffering double isolation, self-imposed as well as externally supported? It goes without saying that a precondition is to end this isolation and promote the establishment of relations that make possible the positive impacts of external forces. …

A condition for anything positive to come out of a relationship initially characterized by mutual distrust is to accept that the given conditions are simply the only possible point of departure. In relation to North Korea, this means that the present authorities must be acknowledged as those with whom one has to negotiate. Between parties where trust is lacking, formal, mutual respect has to be the point of departure. There can be no exception for international affairs. Regardless of differences in basic values, norms, ideological outlooks and political opinions, the expressed concerns of both sides must be taken seriously.

The authors make an eloquent and convincing case. The problem is if the key players in the escalating crisis in East Asia care to listen.


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