Home Truths on North Korea from Monaco

Aidan Foster-Carter is honorary senior research fellow in Sociology and Modern Korea at Leeds University, and a freelance writer, consultant and broadcaster on both Koreas
Aidan Foster-Carter is honorary senior research fellow in Sociology and Modern Korea at Leeds University, and a freelance writer, consultant and broadcaster on both Koreas

At the invitation of Roger Shine, on October 30, Aidan Foster-Carter gave a talk in his capacity as an expert on North Korea to members of the Churchill Club in the Churchill Room at the Hotel de Paris.

Monaco and South Korea established diplomatic relations in June 2007, when HE Il-hwan Cho became the first Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Korea to the Principality; the current Ambassador is HE Chul-min Mo.

Five years later, Seok-Joh Hong was appointed Honorary Consul of Monaco in Seoul, Korea.

And, as Mr Foster-Carter pointed out during his speech at Monday’s luncheon, there is a connection between Monaco and North Korea also. “I’m reliably assured that in their Swiss schooldays both Kim Jong-un and his sister Kim Yo-jong, now promoted to the Politburo, visited here and elsewhere on the Riviera, chaperoned by their aunt Ko Yong-suk,” the frequent commentator on Korea to BBC and Sky News said. “Such jaunts were curtailed after auntie defected to the US in 1998.”

“Another visitor, several times, was the ill-fated Kim Jong-nam: the half-brother Kim Jong-un never met, but notoriously had killed using VX nerve agent in Malaysia in February. Thirdly, the DPRK State Circus comes often to the International Circus Festival.”

The self-described Korea watcher since 1968 added that North Korea is “a big subject, and we have little time” and so preceded to address ten home truths.

As the Spice Girls ask: Tell me what you want, what you really, really want
Speaking exclusively to Monaco Life later that afternoon at Club 39, Mr Foster-Carter, author of “North Korea After Kim Il-Sung: Controlled Collapse?” and “Korea’s Coming Reunification”, touched upon some of those key points in an interview.

But if I was hoping to get the inside scoop of what Kim Jung-un is really up to, I learned that, indeed, it’s complicated.

“It is actually quite hard to know, and has become even harder under the new, not-so-new leader Kim Jung-un, what North Korea wants,” expressed the Old Etonian, with a Phd/DPhil from Oxford, Cambridge, LSE. “Certainly there is a defensive motive. If you’ve been put on an axis of evil by the US, which then invades the first country on that list, then you’ve seen what also happened to Libya, the lesson drawn is that without nuclear weapons you are vulnerable to America specifically.”

North Korea’s first nuclear test was eleven years ago, but now under the leadership of Kim Jong-un, and what is leading to the current crisis, is that the pace of testing of nuclear weapons – two in one year of bigger and better missiles – has accelerated.

“Let’s not be literal-minded and think of him as a Bond Villain exactly, although he plays the part so well – “Mad Dictator Plans To Destroy The World”. If this had been his father, Kim Jong-il, you’d have the balance of threats and then the proposals, even if outrageous.

“In my view, we need diplomacy but it makes it difficult not knowing what this chap wants.”

A different mix of stick and carrot but never this unpredictable element
Add to that uncertainty, President Trump. “In several different ways Trump echoes the bombast. North Koreans know what they are doing. When they say they are considering firing a missile near Guam, then that is their intention. No one spontaneously Tweeted that at 3 in the morning.”

The contributor to the Economist and Financial Times added that “As Trump gives us fire and fury, he sends mixed messages. He said he could meet Kim Jong-un over a burger, and would be honoured to do so, and then he calls him ‘Rocketman’ in a puerile exchange of playground insults and, in the UN, of all forums, he threatens to totally destroy North Korea and bring down the regime.

“There’s a wildness from the US that we’ve never seen before. We’ve had a different mix of stick and carrot but not this unpredictable element.”

While Mr Foster-Carter affirmed he was never a fan of Steve Bannon, he did admit that the former White House Chief Strategist “said it best” when he told American Prospect magazine: “Until somebody solves the part of the equation that shows me that ten million people in Seoul don’t die in the first 30 minutes from conventional weapons, I don’t know what you’re talking about, there’s no military solution here, they got us.”

If military is not an option, could China play a bigger role? The Republic is the financial lifeline to the DPRK and “is their trade” but as Reuters reported, China’s imports from North Korea fell for a seventh straight month in September, dropping 37.9% year-on-year.

“China has been honouring US sanctions more than they have in the past but people expect China to do America’s heavy lifting. China would dearly love, I’m sure, for North Korea to stop testing nuclear weapons but it would be worse if North Korea, a buffer state, collapsed: Loose nukes, American troops coming in, and massive refugee flows.

“The conclusion I draw is that China will never risk this so support will come.”

Kim Jong-un: the economic reformer
In an article for TIME titled “Is Kim Jong Un Preparing to Become North Korea’s Economic Reformer?”, Bill Powell wrote that the dictator recognises “what North Korea has been doing for decades economically doesn’t work”. Is there any evidence of this?

“The great paradox is that Kim Jong-un is an economic reformer. Each Kim has had a slogan, and for Kim Jong-un it’s ‘tandem together’ – and the two things are nuclear weapons and economic development. He seems to think this can work and has created policies for about 20 new economic zones.

“Politically, it looks like the young man educated in Switzerland has more guards for the pictures and statues of his dad and grandfather. But literal starvation in the 1990s started the growth of grassroots markets and under his father, these markets would be reigned in. Kim Jong-un knows that he cannot.”

The expert then pointed out, “We have reports that anything that the North Korean leader touches can never be used again and must go into a glass case. Irrationality is costly.”

Mr Foster-Carter referred to friends who train entrepreneurs in North Korea, which has a population of 25.37 million. The Chonson Exchange is a non-profit group in Signapore that has coached more than 1,600 North Koreans on the basics of business and economics since 2010, either in Pyongyang or, in some cases, the workshops have been taken internationally.

Founded by Geoffrey See, the Chonson Exchange focuses on three key themes: women in business, provincial development and entrepreneurship among younger business leaders.

Additionally, there’s the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology for the elite, which is primarily funded by born-again Evangelists.

“There is more going on in North Korea than one might think, although I’m not suggesting it’s a normal society that we know anywhere else. Life is still very grim.”

Trump’s trip to Asia: what to expect
Donald Trump will start a 12-day, 5-country tour through Asia tomorrow, his first as President. And while the WSJ reports that “South Korea’s leader used a closely watched speech to oppose military action in countering North Korea as the US builds up its forces in the region”, Mr Foster-Carter stated, “The single most important foreign policy relationship is between China and the US. There are other issues for China and the US to discuss, so it wouldn’t be smart to let North Korea dominate their meetings.”

Mr Foster-Carter has a plan. “But I’m conscious it’s a bad one. I do think you need diplomacy and to take comfort in the fact that North Korea is very solitary, and not an Islamic State.

“So therefore you buy them off. Rewarding a country that is systematically broken and behaves as North Korea does seems unpalatable, but you need to go with the grain and Kim Jong-un’s drive for economic development and we can then monitor their nuclear weapons.

“But at the moment he doesn’t seem interested and in the US the time for diplomacy is over. We are far from that place.”

“A couple of missiles got through the South Korean defence, which is enough to kill 300,000 people right away, before the radiation kicks in. And Trump, safe in the US, was Tweeting ‘Bad North Koreans’.”

Aidan Foster-Carter shakes his head slightly. “I feel so uncertain.”

Max Hastings and Nicholas Soames, Churchill’s grandson, have been previous guest speakers for the private members’ Churchill Club in Monaco. Article first published November 2, 2017.


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