Event Summary: North Korea – February 24, 2015 (Boston)

Moira Pulitzer-Kennedy • February 25, 2015 • Boston, Event Summary

On Tuesday, February 24th, the Civic Series welcomed to Professor Sung-Yoon Lee to Workbar Cambridge, for a discussion on North Korea. Prof. Lee holds the Kim Koo-Korea Foundation Professorship of Korean Studies, and is an Assistant Professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. Prof. Lee has testified as an expert witness before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs Hearing on North Korea policy and has advised senior officials and elected leaders in the U.S. government, including the President of the United States of America.

An intimate group of nineteen people joined for the discussion. After Laur introduced Prof. Lee, he framed his remarks by referring to North Korea as a “model failed state” and, acknowledging his intentional grammatical error, asserted that the nation is “uniquely unique.” What makes North Korea different than every other country on the planet?

Prof. Lee shared that North Korea is the only Communist State in which power is transmitted from father to son, as it was most recently from Kim Jong-il to Kim Jong-un in 2011. This means that despite the nation’s political philosophy, maintaining the dynasty and its cult is of utmost importance. It is the only fully literate, industrialized nation to experience famine in peace-time (in the 1990s), and its military is funded by 30% of the nation’s GDP – an enormous percentage compared to all other nations (with nations such as Israel and Saudi Arabia following at 10%). It is the only nation in the modern era that has never published statistics on its state, and since he came to power, Kim Jong-un has never met with any other head of state.

In speaking with us, Prof. Lee aimed to identify prevailing myths about North Korea. He asserted that the most dangerous myth is: North Korea is like a child prone to throwing tantrums. He suggested that our tendency to patronize the nation and view it as an “oddity” doesn’t serve us (i.e. the U.S.) well. In fact, North Korea is highly strategic and “knows when to strike” – on Sundays, holidays, and when the U.S. is weak or distracted by international war. Similarly, the myth that North Korea is experiencing an internal power struggle (doves vs. hawks) eclipses what is, in truth, strategic deception.

Today, Prof. Lee stated, North Korea is being ruled by the most brutal of its dictators. Despite the nation’s denials, it is now unquestionable that North Korea operates a huge system of forced labor camps, or gulags, (with some as big as Houston or Los Angeles), as part of its extreme repression of its population. Those seeking to escape North Korea to either China or South Korea, are returned to concentration camps or worse. Residents need a permit to travel from town to town, and no access is granted to outside media.

Despite North Korea’s aggression, Prof. Lee shared that powers like China, Russia, the U.S. and Japan have not retaliated against North Korea’s ballistic missile testing and attacks on South Korean and American vessels. North Korea’s nuclear and other military capabilities “must be respected”; they are so great that they could do very serious damage to neighbors South Korea and Japan. Short of an attack on American soil, nothing would provoke retaliation by U.S. armed forces.

The North Korean situation is far too complicated to be covered in two hours or summarized in one page, but Prof. Lee gave an overview of the history and political climate of the region that was highly engaging and understandable to lay listeners – whose questions were answered deeply and thoughtfully.

For those looking to learn more on the subject, Prof. Lee highly recommendeds:

Other recommended readings include:

Craig S. Coleman, American Images of Korea (Seoul: Hollym, 1990). Interesting compilation of vignettes of Korea as represented in publications, TV, and film, etc. up to the late-1980s.

Guy Delisle, Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005). Amusing and insightful portrayal in comics of life in Pyongyang.

Nicholas Eberstadt, The End of North Korea (Washington, D.C.: The AEI Press, 1999). Scholarly analysis of internal contradictions within the North Korean economy and polity which might presage regime collapse.

Carter J. Eckert et al., Korea Old and New: A History (Seoul: Ilchogak, 1990). Standard text book on Korean history.

Gregory Henderson, Korea: The Politics of the Vortex (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968). Scholarly analysis of Korean political culture. Widely considered still, more than 46 years after its initial publication, the best single-volume study of its kind.

Kang Chol-Hwan & Pierre Rigoulot, Yair Reiner, tr., Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag (New York: Basic Books, 2001). First-hand account of ten years in a North Korean political prisoner concentration camp.

Andrei Lankov, North of the DMZ: Essays on Daily Life in North Korea (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland and Co., 2007). Interesting scenes from everyday life in North Korea as seen and interpreted by a Russian scholar of Korean history.

Bradley K. Martin, Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty (New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2004). Monumental study of the North Korean leadership.

Don Oberdorfer, The Two Koreas: A Contemporary History (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 2001). Engaging account of post-World War II Korean political history.

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