Robert Kelly: 'The media makes North Korea look more legitimate'

In recent weeks North Korea has resumed short-range missile tests, worrying neighbours and provoking new concerns about inter-Korean peace talks and US-North Korean dialogue.

The Asia Media Centre spoke with Robert Kelly, Professor of Political Science at Pusan National University in South Korea, during his recent visit to New Zealand.

Robert Kelly

Korean relations expert Professor Robert Kelly.

North Korea has launched a few short-range missiles in recent weeks. What’s motivating that activity?

The short-range tests are designed to needle the Americans to move along on some kind of offer. There hasn’t been a lot of progress in North Korea-US negotiations since Trump and Kim first met in Singapore. There have been big summits and good photo-ops. Trump walked around in North Korea, it was all very symbolic, and we all watched it on TV. But there hasn’t been a treaty or a deal.

The Americans are still having an internal debate about what to offer North Korea in exchange for things like nukes and missiles. Nukes and missiles are valuable in North Korea, and they aren’t going to give them up for some cash and sanctions relief. The North Koreans want something big and juicy.

Does media coverage contribute to North Korea’s strategy?

The North Koreans like media coverage. When Kim met Trump in Singapore, the optics of it were really important. The big part of that meeting wasn’t some deal on nukes. The North Korean leader got to meet the American president in front of the North Korean and American flags and shake hands as equals. That imagery was the real goal of the North Koreans in Singapore.

By meeting the American president and having its flag on television, North Korea — the world’s worst human rights abuser and basically a slave state — looks more normal. The North has always been seen as the failed version of the real Korea, which is the South. But now that the North Koreans get to meet the Americans, it makes North Korea look more legitimate. To get that, you need to be seen on the media.

What is the approach to North Korea by Moon Jae-in’s administration?

Moon is a liberal, which in South Korean parlance means that he’s an engager vis-à-vis North Korea. The idea is if we engage North Korea, we can mitigate its behaviour. I don’t accept that myself. I think it’s highly unlikely that North Korea will change internally because we’re talking to them.

The Moon government is stymied by international sanctions that have limited economic interaction. There’s a powerful, widespread discourse on the South Korean left that sanctions are the biggest stumbling block to the improvement of inter-Korean relations — if we could just roll back some of the international sanctions, if we could get the Americans to take their foot off the neck of the North Korean economy, then the North Koreans might engage more and we could draw them into better behaviour.

We’ve seen something like this in the past. From 1998 to 2007, two liberal presidents pursued something known as the Sunshine Policy. In fact, President Moon’s effort to engage North Korea is sometimes called the Moonshine Policy. The Sunshine Policy was a great idea that was worth trying, but that it didn’t get us a great deal. We gave the North Koreans a lot of stuff — around five billion dollars in aid. The North Koreans didn’t lighten up on human rights, they didn’t open up or liberalise. On top of that they detonated a nuke for the first time, which is pretty bad faith behaviour. We’re supposed to be getting along with them, and they go build the world’s most dangerous weapon.

The challenge for the Moon government is to explain why Moonshine is going to work where Sunshine didn’t. To be honest, I don’t think the Moon government has a good answer. The usual argument is that Kim Jong-un is reformer where his father Kim Jong-il was not. But Kim Jong-un has been a pretty typical blood-thirsty Kim monarch. He killed his uncle. He’s killed dozens if not hundreds of officers in the North Korean military in order to consolidate his power. There’s been no liberalisation on human rights.

So is the continuity in North Korea a failure by international policy makers?

Well, there’s not much we can do about North Korea. Forcing North Korea to be different is hugely dangerous because they have a large military and now a nuclear weapon. If there was something, we would have done it. This problem has been hanging over us for decades. It was really in the 1960s that North Korea became this almost theocratic personality cult state. The personality cult, quasi-religious interpretation of the Kim family, extreme totalitarianism, extreme social control, the gulags — that’s all been around for decades.

I’m not sure there’s a whole lot from the outside that we can do to change that. We can make it a little bit less awful through sanctions. We can slow down weapons development by going after North Korean money in banks, by going after North Korea’s relationship with other countries. North Korea is not self-sufficient. It requires a pipeline to the global economy in order to operate, and that runs through China.

In fact, the North Koreans are quite proud of the fact that we tell them to do one thing and they go off and do another. It’s been a constant source of frustration not just to the Americans, but to everyone including the Chinese and Japanese.

How should a country like New Zealand approach the international response to North Korea?

Mostly just stay out of it. Getting involved with North Korea is not a good idea. Ultimately, it’s not that relevant to your security. It’s an issue for the Americans, Chinese, Japanese and South Koreans. For most other countries, I’d say let those guys handle it because it’s North Korea! Just keep away!

The most effective thing you could do is participate in the moral consensus against North Korean behaviour. When North Koreans murder defectors abroad or take South Korean fishermen hostage, the middle powers in the region should broadly support the UN resolutions and statements from relevant countries like South Korea and Japan. There should be a common front that this behaviour is not acceptable and North Korea is not going to drive wedges between us.

The other thing is to hold the united front on sanctions. North Korea is always looking for gaps in the sanctions net around it. Usually the big hole is China, but North Korea has also mucked around in Africa and Southeast Asia. It’s important that countries hold the line so North Korea can’t go — ah! There’s a hole in New Zealand and we can send some people down there to buy luxury goods to get around the luxury goods ban. It’s tedious work, and no one really wants to do it. The Americans have asked the New Zealanders to send a patrol plane to monitor North Korean shipping. It’s hard to do and expensive, but that kind of collaboration is necessary if the sanctions are going to work.

Interview and editing by Rebecca Townsend. 

 - Asia Media Centre