Jieun Baek knows what’s at stake in the coming U.S. summit with North Korea better than most. The author of the book “North Korea’s Hidden Revolution”, Baek has interviewed numerous North Korean dissidents, and has seen the struggles of the information smugglers trying to get foreign media into this isolated and locked-down regime.
Jieun Baek, author of “North Korea’s Hidden Revolution”
Her book charts the creative, and extremely dangerous ways that activists sneak in media from the outside world. She runs the NGO “Lumen” which supports these information activists. She was previously a research fellow at the Belfer Center for International Affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and has participated in Track II dialogues on denuclearizing North Korea.
She is currently doing a PhD at the University of Oxford. She spoke to Al Bawaba's Eleanor Beevor about what to expect from the upcoming summit between America and North Korea in Singapore, how these events look in the eyes of the Korean people, and why even though we should be feeling hopeful, the path to peace is a long one.
Eleanor Beevor: Over the past few weeks, North Korea made a number of symbolic gestures that indicate a serious desire for peace with America and South Korea. They have released three American prisoners, and blown up the Punggye-ri nuclear test site. And despite a shaky moment earlier this month, it appears the June US-North Korea summit in Singapore is on track. Are we reading these signs correctly? How serious is North Korea about wanting to turn a page in its relations with South Korea, and with United States?
Jieun Baek: I hope they are serious in their intentions to achieve substantive and sustained peace on the Korean peninsula as well as with international partners such as the United States.
However, I share the skepticism of a lot of my colleagues who are also North Korea watchers, in that no one knows the genuine intentions of North Korea except for Kim Jong Un and his advisors. But if we were to turn to their historical behavior, and how they have made and reneged on agreements in the past, I think that the skepticism is reasonable. But I do hope they are sincere in their expressed aim of achieving peace.
You have done a lot of work on how public opinion is swayed in authoritarian regimes, and you’ve run an NGO trying to boost North Koreans’ access to outside information. Do you think that Kim Jong-Un is really prepared to come in from the cold if it means allowing the North Korean people access to information and ideas outside of his control, and so probably loosen his grip on power? Is he really ready to relinquish that?
North Korean people have had access to external sources of information for over 20 years, although this is through illicit means and information flows. But this means that people have had access to foreign information and media – and Kim Jong-Un knows that this is happening. We know that he knows this through some of the very strict deterrence policies against people’s consumption of outside information, as well as because of new technologies being rolled out by the North Korean government to really try and limit foreign information consumption.
This is a very sensitive subject, but it is certainly not a new phenomenon in North Korea. But to respond to whether Kim Jong-Un is really ready to relinquish power, I fully believe no, he isn’t. I think that he will do whatever it takes to continue to prop up the regime, and to concentrate its power into the hands of the Kim family.
Can you tell us about the public mood in South Korea? How do Koreans feel about the prospect of an end to the stalemate from the Korean war and about the possibility of reuniting Korea one day?
So of course there is a diversity of views in South Korea around these issues, as there would be in any population. But for the large part South Koreans, especially the younger generation between their 20s and their 40s, were really surprised at how human Kim Jong-Un seemed to be.
The North Koreans have a very skewed view of South Koreans and the rest of the world, while South Koreans have a very stereotypical view of what North Koreans are like. And even more so, they had very monstrous ideas of what Kim Jong-Un was like. And while there’s truth in some of these views, the views created such caricatures of Kim Jong-Un that he didn’t seem human to them.
And then during the first summit, and then again during the second surprise visit, I think Kim Jong-Un presented himself to the South Korean public as someone who was very humanised, who was accessible, and who can listen to people. So putting rationale aside, I think people had a very positive emotional, and very visceral reaction to the summit. The idea of reunification suddenly became tangible.
Someone told me that until recently, reunification was seen as very much of a burden for South Korea. For people who have a very pleasant life in Seoul, the idea of reunification meant paying a ton of tax, and working through a very unwanted refugee flow. But after the first summit, she told me that the idea of unification began to change for her – it could mean something as practical as going to Seoul train station, asking for a ticket to Pyongyang, and going up to what would be just a normal part of Korea. So I think the idea of reunification and what it means is starting to change, and it’s becoming a much more emotional idea. So the summit had a very positive emotional impact for large parts of the population. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t other large parts of the population that are very sceptical of Kim Jong-Un’s intentions. But it does seem that there has been a net positive impact on the South Korean public as a result of the summit.
What about the older generation of South Koreans? Do they have a different view?
Among the older generation of South Koreans, I see two distinct camps. One of these camps yearns for Korean reunification, because that means the reunification of families who have been divided since the Korean war in the early 1950s. For them, it’s a very human matter. Forget the tax burden or the geopolitics. This is about humanity. On the other side of the spectrum are individuals who say that there’s no way we could reunify with such a brutal regime, one that systematically oppress 25 million Koreans, and that has no qualms extending this utter disregard for human life to people of other countries as well. Therefore, they are very sceptical of what Kim Jong-Un has in mind.
So there are plenty of social divisions to keep in mind. But what about political pushback to the summit? Is South Korean President Moon Jae-in experiencing a lot of political opposition to his rapprochement with the North?
Absolutely. He is from the more liberal party, and he is an individual who has a history of being a democracy activist while South Korea itself was under a military dictatorship. He has experienced on a personal level what it means to be an activist who has been oppressed and repressed. That has informed a lot of his current opinions on his arguably “soft” stance on North Korea – one that is pro-engagement, for open dialogue, and for moving on from the past. He is very popular in parts of South Korea. But on the other side, among conservatives, this position is seen as very naïve, as someone who is continuing to eat out of Kim Jong-Un’s notoriously tricky hands, and who is setting up South Korea for embarrassment, failure and exploitation.
Raising hands: Two Korean leaders met at the village of Panmunjom, Friday April 27, 2018.
Earlier this year, President Moon credited US President Donald Trump with being a decisive factor in bringing Pyongyang closer to the negotiating table. Yet earlier this month when President Trump temporarily suspended the Singapore summit, President Moon still met Kim Jong-Un inside the de-militarized zone. So how much credit does Trump really deserve for bringing these summits about?
I think President Trump, and I’m an American born citizen so he’s my President, has definitely played a role in the lead-up to the summits. That is both the summit with South Korea, and of course the upcoming one on June 12th in Singapore, which as of the news this morning is still going ahead! What causal role he has played in the inter-Korean summit, I’m not sure. Some people say yes, some say no – I’m not sure.
But that very public, and very aggressive rhetoric did probably signal to Kim Jong-Un that Trump is not going to be someone as measured, as careful or as calculating as past American presidents. He seems to come from a very unpredictable position, so it seems reasonable to think that that may have played a role.
And what do you think is the South Korean perception of President Trump and his involvement?
South Korea has about 50 million citizens, so obviously there’s a wide variety of views. But those views are certainly being formed in contrast to President Obama’s very measured position. I think there are two main camps of opinion around the impending US-North Korea summit. Some people really seem to appreciate the very bold behaviour and rhetoric that Trump is propounding. That is something that the South Korean President is in no position to do – it’s just too sensitive given their position. And it’s not a type of behaviour or rhetoric that past US Presidents have used.
On the other hand, some South Koreans see this as very un-presidential. America is not a perfect country, but as leader of the free world, people think that there is a lot of responsibility that comes with being American President. And they don’t feel that a President should present himself in this way when dealing with one of the world’s most difficult challenges.
What are the key issues that are going to be on the table at the US-Korea summit next week, and how much do you think that we should realistically expect from it?
From what I can gather, denuclearization will be the Number One issue on the table between Kim Jong-Un and President Trump. The problem is that there doesn’t seem to be consensus between the two parties about what denuclearization means in North Korea, or how to achieve it, or a feasible time-frame. So I think before setting a strategy to talk about how to denuclearize North Korea, both parties are going to have to figure out what they mean by denuclearization, and whether or not Kim Jong-Un actually wants denuclearization as Trump sees it. I think there will be a lot of secondary conversations before they can come to the point of talking about how to denuclearize North Korea. That’s going to take up a majority of the time.
But there could be some sweeteners, and parties could address some humanitarian issues and other lower hanging fruit that they can more easily agree on.
For instance, the hostages being held by North Korea, and the US could also make some more short-term concessions to sweeten the conversation. As much as my colleagues and I would like for the human rights situation to be raised during the summit, I doubt that it will be, as it is such a sensitizing issue for the North Korean regime. So I don’t think it will come up at this summit, although I very much hope it does. It is by far the primary issue that affects 25 million North Korean citizens.
Do you imagine that we will see a possible reunification within the lifetime of current generations? And what might that look like?
As readers may know, the two Koreas are currently at a standstill but the Korean War is technically still going on. So if a peace agreement is made before North Korea rolls back its nuclear weapons program, I think this is going to put South Korea in a very difficult position. There must be some mutual conditioning between denuclearization and a peace treaty if these two things are going to be pushed forward. I do hope that the two Koreas end the war, but ending the war has so many legs to it.
Whose control will Korea be under? Will there be only one capital? Will it be under Seoul’s current democratic rule or Pyongyang’s socialist rule? It’s obvious that most world leaders won’t want unification under Pyongyang’s rule. How do we even discuss what the practical implications of a peace treaty mean? How are the two nations going to integrate – socially, legally, structurally? All these questions have to be addressed before we can approach a decision of whether a peace treaty is going to be made.
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