On June 15th, Civic Series welcomed Professor Sung-Yoon Lee – the Kim Koo-Korea Foundation Professor of Korean Studies and an Assistant Professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University – to Workbar Cambridge for a conversation about North Korea.
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Professor Lee began the conversation by explaining a bit about the historical circumstances leading up to the emergence of the North Korean state in 1948. After World War II, the primary “victors” divided the Korean peninsula – a land thoroughly unified by a shared past, language and culture – according to their own logic, with the U.S. occupying the South and the then-U.S.S.R. occupying the North. While South Korea has grown to become one of the largest world economies, North Korea is the only industrialized, fully literate nation to have experienced a famine (caused by intentional starvation of the population).
Under the Kim dynasty, North Korea has taken shape as a ruthless totalitarian state, condemned by the international community for crimes against humanity and for limiting freedom more than any other contemporary nation. As a country without a clear raison d’etre, it is strenuously opposed to reform, which might call its legitimacy into question. And with nothing else to offer, it clings to its claim on military superiority, as one of the world’s nine nuclear powers.
Professor Lee asserts that Kim Jong-un is most likely the most well-known Korean in the world, and perhaps the 3rd-most recognized world leader after Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin – rather odd for a country of its small size and political capital. But the fact that he is often viewed as crazy, silly, or like a child trying to gain attention is precisely what makes him so dangerous. Rather, he and his generals are clever, calculating and ought to be taken seriously. Kim Jong-un has, Professor Lee argues, established himself as the head of an enormous crime syndicate, selling illegal drugs internationally, expertly counterfeiting U.S. currency, and selling knock-off name-brand cigarettes in the U.S. North Korea punches above its weight internationally by relying on foreign governments to comply with its demands, for fear of creating a “North Korea problem” in the form of nuclear retaliation.
What can be done? Professor Lee argues that the situation in North Korea can only be influenced if a myth is debunked: that foreign nations, particularly the U.S., have already done all they can with sanctions. This is simply not the case (many other nations are under many more sanctions than North Korea). Despite fear of retaliation, the only solution may be to impose secondary sanctions on Chinese banks, which help to fund the North Korean regime. These two nations, Professor Lee asserts, have an alliance forged in blood by the Korean War, as do the United States and South Korea – the Korean nation now enjoying far more freedom and prosperity.
Check out the video!
About the speaker: Prof. Sung-Yoon Lee is the Kim Koo-Korea Foundation Professorship of Korean Studies and an Assistant Professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University. He 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 former President of the United States of America. Prof. Lee is a frequent commentator on major international media organizations, including BBC, PBS, NPR, PRI, CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX, CBC, Bloomberg, Voice of America, Radio Free Asia, and others.