On the 65th anniversary of the signing of the armistice agreement that ended the Korean War, the American president had some warm words for North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong-un.
“I want to thank Chairman Kim for keeping his word,” President Donald Trump said Friday, praising Kim for relinquishing the suspected remains of 50 American servicemen. Trump also announced that Vice President Mike Pence would meet families of US soldiers killed in Korea when the remains arrive home.
Six weeks after the historic Trump-Kim summit in Singapore, we got a reality check from professor Andrei Lankov of Kookmin University in Seoul. Lankov spoke to The World’s Marco Werman from Washington, where he was meeting with experts and taking part in a conference on North Korea. The following is a lightly edited transcript of the interview.
Marco Werman: When President Trump met with Kim Jong-un on June 12, part of me could not help but be hopeful. Here were two leaders who only weeks before were tweeting nuclear threats at each other and now they're actually shaking hands. What would you point to for signs of hope today?
Andrei Lankov: Well, frankly, I've never had much hope. I had no hope during the Singapore summit and I don't have much hope now. First of all, neither North Korea or the United States are going to start a war. There used to be reasonable a high risk of a unilateral US military operation last year, but not anymore. However, North Korea has no intention to surrender its nuclear weapons. Officially, the major goal of negotiations between the United States and North Korea is to achieve the denuclearization of North Korea. But there is one problem. The North Korean government, the North Korean elite, not only Kim Jong-un but many, many thousands of people around him, everybody who matters in North Korea, believes that if their country surrenders nuclear weapons, it will go the way of Iraq and Libya. And they don't want it. They see it as a suicide and they have not the slightest intention to do it.
Even with President Trump shaking hands with Kim Jong-un? I mean, that never really happened with Iraq and with Libya.
So, what is magical about shaking hands with the US president? Does he have some kind of supernatural power in his hands? Well, maybe in the past, in medieval times, people would believe something like that about kings.
It's not a supernatural power, but it is symbolic. Don't you agree?
Well, symbolism is great. But it's cheap and meaningless. North Korea is run by hard-nosed realists, people who don't care about symbols. They care about money, power and guns.
What about the story that's come out in recent days about the North Koreans beginning to dismantle a key missile facility? How big of a step was that?
It's not a key missile facility. It's one of many missile facilities. What's happened? Last year, it looked like the Trump administration was ready to strike North Korea if they don’t make any concessions. At the same time, American diplomats succeeded in creating a united front with China. So, China joined an unprecedented, tough sanctions regime. Essentially North Korea was banned from conducting any foreign trade starting from earlier this year. So, economic crisis and probability of American military attack: Is it nice? Definitely not. The North Koreans decided to start making concessions — as little as possible, as few as possible — but they decided to give up something, to surrender something. There were some unilateral concessions. All are reversible and it's going to continue.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration started a trade war with China. The united front on North Korean issues between US and China collapsed. China is not that serious about sanctions anymore. North Korea is quietly trading with China. They get a bit of money. And the US military threat cannot be taken seriously in the near future. But [the North Koreans] have to play it safe. So what we are going to see now is typical North Korean tactics. They will work hard to win time. There will be some concessions, like this test site. It's not expensive. It can easily be rebuilt. But they will make a wonderful show of it. Then, there will be returns of the remains of the US soldiers killed during the Korean War. So, they will make some concessions to keep what is now called “good optics,” and win time. Their task is simple: outwait Donald Trump.
You kind of establish as a truism that the US is not going to start a war and invade North Korea, nor is North Korea going to give up its nuclear weapons. I understand the second part of that. How are you so certain that the US won't take some unilateral military action against the North?
I'm less certain under President Trump, and this is exactly the reason why all these talks between North Korea and the United States are taking place. It’s because North Korean leaders are not certain either. In the past, the situation was very simple. The capital of South Korea, the city of Seoul, is located within the shooting range of the North Korean heavy artillery. It was assumed that if the United States, an ally of South Korea, hits North Korea, the North Koreans will hit back at US military installations in South Korea and maybe the city of Seoul. So, in a sense, 25 million people who live in Seoul and its vicinity are hostages and for decades it was an assumption that no US president would ever risk using armed force against North Korea, because the North Koreans will probably retaliate by hitting Seoul and it will lead to massive casualties.
And it would also seriously undermine the alliance between the United States and South Korea. However, rightly or wrongly, many people believe that President Trump is different, that he doesn't care as much about allies and if he believes that something is necessary for the national interest of the United States — the US alone — that he’s willing to act unilaterally. Last year, we heard a lot of talk about possible military action, if the North Koreans continued building up their nuclear and missile programs. So, these stop programs for a while. They are talking about possible concessions, which are going to be minimal, and it's happening exactly because there are seemingly some risks of US military action, because of President Trump's view of the outside world.
If the US and China are no longer a united front, does that raise or decrease the risk of hot war?
I think it's difficult to say, but I would say decrease, though I'm not so sure. Because there is a problem. So far, we are going to see slow motion negotiations, broken deadlines, minor concessions, another round of negotiations, but what if President Trump decides that the North Koreans are sort of double-crossing him, or cheating him? Well, it's quite possible that he will decide to go back to what was officially called the “maximum pressure” policy of last year. This is sometimes called the “fire and fury” policy, because of one of President Trump's tweets. If this happens, there is a possibility for unilateral action. Then, maybe Chinese support would provoke North Korea into doing something excessively bold and provocative, and it would provoke US action. So, I'm not so sure if this [collapse of the US-China “united front”] is good or bad overall. It’s good for the average North Korean. Their living standards are not going to decline anytime soon. But for the general situation, I'm not so sure.
You’re in Washington right now. What sense are you getting there in the US capital about what's going on with regard to North Korea?
The official line here is that we are in the beginning of a negotiation process and the goal is denuclearization. More and more, professional Korea watchers and security specialists realize that denuclearization is not an achievable goal. I spent roughly the last 15 years saying so. I used to be in the small minority and now it's pretty much in the majority. People believe that democratization is not achievable as long as Kim's family is in control. But it seems that the major hope, realistically, is arms reduction. Indeed, if North Koreans still feel insecure, if they still feel uncomfortable, then they're willing to make some concessions. They should not always demand these concessions, but US diplomacy should aim at maximizing these concessions. And North Korean diplomacy will definitely aim at minimizing concessions, it’s the usual diplomatic activity.
Many opportunities were wasted in the last few months. But some opportunities still exist. And many people in Washington believe that it will be possible to get some concessions, some meaningful reduction of the North Korea nuclear and missile threat. Not denuclearization. I would think almost nobody among the North Korea specialists believe that denuclearization is possible. But arms reduction, it's still probably achievable and let's hope that something will happen. But let's not have exaggerated hopes, exaggerated expectations. Because in Singapore we had this euphoria, completely unfounded, comically exaggerated stories about age of prosperity, cooperation, denuclearization, blah blah blah. It was not going to happen. Let's not fool ourselves. But some improvement is still possible.
How do you fold into your analysis the reports that in private Donald Trump is frustrated by the lack of progress on the situation with North Korea?
Because it's quite possible that President Trump sincerely believed that denuclearization was possible. Some people, even the security establishment, as long as they have never, ever dealt with the North Korea issue, still believe this. President Trump probably hoped that he would have a deal, that he would shake hands, and that symbolism will be powerful and that North Koreans will be overwhelmed by the might and greatness of the United States, and they will trust him. Of course, North Koreans don't trust him. They trust nobody but themselves. So, [Trump] sees that time is going on and the concessions are very small, which was totally predictable. And he feels frustrated because probably he hoped for a miracle. And a miracle was not delivered. But, you know, miracles don’t happen.
You're Russian. You live in South Korea and you focus your research on North Korea. Early on in the history of North Korea, after and even during the Korean War, the Soviet Union was crucial on assessing the North's development and the Soviets had basically an intelligence pipeline going in and out of Pyongyang. In 2018, does your academic background allow you, today, any special insight into what's going on with North Korean?
Only basic understanding of the system, which was initially quite similar to the political system of the Soviet Union under Stalin. But the Soviet Union and North Korea evolved in essentially the opposite direction. North Korea became more Stalinist than Stalin's Russia. Then, the system disintegrated in the 1990s, and it's now similar to, in some regards, to the China of the early period of reforms, because it's reforming and quite successfully. And the idea of North Korea as a Stalinist country is outdated. The economy is growing quite well, because it's private now. It’s essentially a capitalist economy. The Soviet Union and North Korea parted ways decades ago. But there are some similarities in their ideology and the political structure. So, [my background] helps. As long as I'm doing research and history, many key available documents are still in Russian.
Let me ask you about the human rights situation in North Korea. About a week ago, a report came out called the Global Slavery Index and it found that 2.6 million people live under slavery conditions in North Korea. How surprising is that to you? And what are the chances of this situation changing as a result of Trump’s diplomacy?
Well, it depends on how you define slavery. I think that a significant number of North Koreans don't see themselves as slaves. They see their jobs as a being reasonably well-paid. Naturally, that’s because they have lived in this situation for their entire lives, most of them because the country is completely isolated from the outside world and not aware that life can be different. Having said that, talking about the impact of diplomacy on the human rights situation, I don't see how it's going to have any impact. The North Korean government, they are reforming the economy and their goal is to improve the material standards of life for the majority of population. And they're doing it quite well. It's still a very poor country. But the economy is growing, life is getting better, not only in Pyongyang, but for everybody.
At the same time, they believe that they have to remain highly repressive. They believe that if they allow safe, free exchange of information from the outside world, if they let their own people to learn how people in outside countries live, they are afraid that their people will start asking dangerous questions. So, they want to keep the country isolated. They want to enforce a very rigid, very repressive order. And it's not going to change, because people who matter once again, not only Kim but maybe a quarter million, half-million, one million people in the country believe that they have to remain repressive. They have to remain tough on their own population to keep the country stable and under control. Nothing is going to change this assumption, including any kind of diplomacy.
Years ago, John Bolton, who is now the national security adviser to President Trump, described North Korea as a “hellish nightmare.” Is that still the case? Would you agree with him now or then?
There are periods in North Korean history when it was a fairly good description. But now, I would not agree. It's a nightmare which is getting less and less hellish, and less and less nightmarish. As I have said, the economy is growing. Nobody is starving. A lot of people are malnourished, but nobody is starving. At least, poor people can eat corn gruel every day, while richer people can have some protein. There are many power-assisted bikes and a lot of construction. Life is getting better. And even in terms of political repression, yes it is extremely brutal. But until about 10 years ago, if somebody committed a political crime, even very minor crime, not a joke about leader — it’s a big crime to make a joke about that “great leader” — but a small crime, such as secretely listening to foreign broadcast. Until 10 or 15 years ago roughly, the entire family, all the people who shared household registration with that criminal, would be shipped to a prison camp. The entire family. Just because you are registered at the same address.
No. It’s not the case anymore, other than exceptional cases. Normally families are left alone. In most cases, if you're listening to say, a foreign broadcast, and you are caught, it's a problem. But first of all, you can pay a bribe to a secret police officer. That’s good, because secret police officers used to be incorrupt and that was bad. Now, you can buy your way out of prison. Twenty years ago, it was impossible. But you can pay a bribe, and in most cases they probably just turn a blind eye to minor illegalities of political nature. When it comes to daily life, as long as you are not engaging in violent crimes, they don't care whether you follow outdated instructions from the Stalinist era, because essentially the country’s economy is driven by a market economy.
Do you remember the hack of Sony Entertainment? A lot of fingers were pointing to North Korea after the movie The Interview came out, as sort of an act of North Korean revenge. Do you think the North Koreans was able to do that on their own, or did they need help from Russia?
I don't think they would ever get help from Russia, and from China, as a matter of fact. They did it on their own. They have very good hacking capabilities. They are hacking everybody. Basically, my computer is attacked by them every two months or so. And it's not only me. All North Korea specialists have this problem. They keep trying to get into our computers using quite sophisticated methods. They are very active hackers, based usually outside the country in China, Southeast Asia, Malaysia, Indonesia, all kinds of places, there are small groups of North Korean hackers operating. They are doing quite well. They are highly professional.