Asia Institute Seminar with John Feffer (April, 2012)

Asia Institute Seminar

21st April 2012

“Engaging North Korea”



John Feffer

Author of

North Korea/South Korea: US Policy and the Korean Peninsula, Power Trip: US Unilateralism and Global Strategy After 9/11

& Crusade 2.0

Co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus

The Institute for Policy Studies


Emanuel Pastreich


The Asia Institute

(Associate Professor, Kyung Hee University)


Emanuel Pastreich:

So the conflict between North Korea and South Korea just seems to go on and on. We can blame this president or that administration on the Northern side, or the Southern side, or we can even blame the United States or China, but clearly the problem goes beyond the capacity of one individual, or even a group, to change.  What might be a new way of tackling this problem?

John Feffer:

What has worked in the past in the relationship between North and South Korea is identifying overlapping interests. Obviously that approach worked with respect to the Kaesong   industrial complex. That project worked reasonably well and it survived the downtrend in North-South relations over the past 4-5 years precisely because it offered something of substance to the South Koreans as well as the North Koreans.  For the North, the Kaesong Industrial Complex was an incredible employment opportunity and it also provides them with hard cash for their rather cash-strapped economy.  For the South, Kaesong offers their small and medium enterprises a competitive advantage against China, which has been hitting South Korea hard in the area of production costs. Korean small and medium enterprises simply cannot compete internationally as they don’t have the economies of scale that the larger South Korean enterprises have.

We can look at Kaesong as a very successful North-South venture that can be used as a model going forward. But there are other areas where North and South Korean interests overlap, such as the IT sector, specifically animation. North Korea has demonstrated a significant competitive/comparative advantage in this sector. IT is also a field in which South Korea excels and North and South strengths are complementary. South Korean programmers readily acknowledge that despite their institutional handicaps, North Korean programmers are quite good. The fact that North Korean programmers have participated in the production of animations that we see in the West is an important point in understanding North Korea’s role in the global economy. Many people do not even realize just how big the role of North Korean animators has been in mainstream productions. That ability to compete globally testifies to their quality of their work as well.

Emanuel Pastreich:

I was not aware of North Korea’s role in animation globally. What is an example of a well-known animation in which North Korean animators played a significant role?

John Feffer:

The most famous animation work produced with the help of North Korean animators is “The Lion King.”

Emanuel Pastreich:

Any other significant opportunities for such confidence-building cooperation?

John Feffer:

There has also been considerable effort made in the tourism sector,   There has been a long-time program for the development of tourism in the Kumgang Mountain range run by Hyundai Asan together with North Korea. The Kumgang Mountain range tourist development included hotels and other facilities aimed at South Korean tourists, and it was successful for quite a long period of time and brought over an enormous number of South Koreans.  I think there is still a great demand there for tours to the Kumgang Mountain range as well as the famous crater lake at Paektusan Mountain and other sites in North Korea. Although the tourism program has been frozen, it would not be difficult to start it up again quickly.

The other overlapping interest between North and South Korea is less economic and more ethnic and nationalist. Imagining Korea’s shared cultural past is a way to start meaningful dialog. There are some examples, and there could be more, of representatives of both sides sitting down to consider important archeological sites in North Korea from long before the Korean War and the division.   Those discussions about Korea’s past provide a space in which both sides can say to each other,  “ Hey we share a common history and we have a common interest in recovering that lost tradition.” Such a discourse is ethnic nationalist in the sense that it appeals to blood kinship as a unifying force. Let us look at how North Korea has appropriated the Tangun mythology (the arch ancestor of the Korean race) as a central part of its self-legitimation. There you have a situation in which a regime whose central ideology, namely communism, has lost focus and influence and therefore has retreated to an earlier cultural reference point. So that constellation of archeological, historical and mythological layers that make up the murky ancient Korean history form a fecund primordial soil for sprouting nationalist sentiment.  There is some good in this mythology in that it allows North and South Korea to develop a shared myth of origins that can be useful as we look ahead toward national reunification. When reunification actually takes place, it is not going to be a reunification based on archeology or mythology alone. North and South Korean cultures have diverged substantially in the last decades and are not likely to suddenly merge because of the promotion of a mythical common ancestor. But that sense of ethnic unity might play an important role.

Emanuel Pastreich:

The common culture linking North and South Korea remains quite strong despite the ideological divides. I had a chance to speak with the North Korean Ambassador to Mongolia last year at a dinner for about an hour and I must say, he seemed pretty much like the Koreans I have come to know and love. The institutional differences are significant, and we know about the cases of North Koreans who have so much trouble adapting to South Korean society, but the cultural continuity remains unchanged despite fifty years of separation.

John Feffer:

I don’t sense any absolute break between the two. If you sit down in Seoul today with someone in their early twenties who has recently arrived from North Korea and a similar individual who grew up in Seoul, the degree of shared habits and culture will be most striking—even if there are a few minor differences in terms of pronunciation and mannerisms. So at one level the differences may seem minor. At the same time, however, a longer conversation reveals divergence that is much more profound, although of a different order.  We are talking about a culture in South Korea that has been globalized to a such a degree that aspects of American or Japanese language, food, thinking have been completely domesticated. In the case of North Korea, by contrast, there has been a systematic resistance to that degree of globalization and it has been labeled negatively.

I think the understanding of the role of the individual in society, the functioning of the community and of  the family, as well as the Confucian traditions that undergird them, all these points serve as reference points in common between North and South Koreans, even if there are differences in degree. A focus on divergences between North and South in terms of current habits and assumptions presents a challenge to reunification, rather than something that would facilitate it. By contrast, if you are inspired by an all-encompassing mythic nationalism, one which speaks of one nation, one blood, one people with 5000 years of common history, and that nationalist sentiment makes clear that Korea is distinct from Japan, China and the world, that nationalism can generate the energy and enthusiasm necessary for national reunification. For that reason I think that any projects which tap into that deeper national sentiment can be useful.

Emanuel Pastreich:

What you suggest is that nationalism can serve as the solution to the separation of the Korean Peninsula. That is very true. But at the same time, we have to bear in mind that nationalism was the very source of the problem—Korea was not originally split geographically into North and South, but rather split ideologically. Those ideological splits were already there long before 1951. The radically different interpretations of what national identity should be is one of the major issues that split the country apart.

John Feffer:

In many respects that point is true, and obviously in order for nationalism to serve the purpose of reunification, it would have to be reinterpreted for, or tailored to, that new purpose. That process is not going to be easy, but I think North Korea has proven itself to be quite flexible in this regard. If you looked at North Korea twenty or thirty  years ago and predicted that country would start to stress the deity of Tangun, the mythological founder of Korea,  everyone would have dismissed what you said. Such a move would have seemed so completely counter to the Communist ideology that underlay everything that happened in North Korea.  After all, everything in North Korean culture seemed to be written on a blank slate, as if there was no Korea before Kim Il-Sung leveled the preexisting political institutions, as if there were no Korean economy before all economic systems were leveled by the forces of collectivization.

If we see this growth of nationalist identity, as opposed to communist ideology or deification of Kim Jung Il, increasing in North Korea, we should anticipate that this could be the favorable direction in which the two countries should go. After all, in spite of all of the transformations of South Korea’s political culture, despite the impact of globalization, it remains a tremendously nationalist country. Korea finds itself as a small country pitted against considerably larger economic powers like China, Japan. For this reason, nationalism has proven to be a very effective survival tool for South Korea.

Emanuel Pastreich:

But at the same time, one could say that South Korea is a nationalistic country precisely because of the problematic situation with North Korea. If South Korea had not been confronted with the powerful North Korean nationalist ideology, would have probably been less nationalistic itself. If you had come to Korea in 1948, you would have found that a country that was not that nationalistic. In fact, there was deep profound confusion as to what it meant to be Korean.  The nationalism we see today was created in the 1960s as part of the Park Chung Hee administration effort to establish a consensus for, and motivation for, industrialization.

John Feffer:

I think there is much truth to that argument. Of course modern Korean nationalism already emerged in the teens and the twenties under Japanese colonialism. We can see the initial movement to identify a distinct and modern Korean nationalism that went beyond old concepts of the nation and embraced a Wilsonian “self-determination” form of nationalism. There were already a number of movements that started in the 1920s, like the “Buy Korea” movements, which were recapitulated in Korea during the Park Chung Hi administration. And we see new variations on that theme today.

But modern South Korean nationalism was definitely formed in the crucible of the Korean War and it is shaped in large part by an understanding of what North Korea represented in terms of Communism and authoritarianism. Modern South Korean nationalism is hard to imagine without the existence of North Korea. And in common is a certain anti-Japanese sentiment located somewhere deep down and a suspicion of the reemergence of a Sino-centric universe.

North Korea remains a reference point for so many South Koreans in terms of their identity, even if they never mention it explicitly.  They are “South Korean” and not necessarily Korean as a whole because in their interactions with the world at large, they have to constantly identify themselves as being distinct from North Koreans. But the situation is evolving because the rivalry with North Korea for world attention is no longer so intense. If you look back at 1970 – 1971, the two countries were vying vigorously for recognition internationally and the economies were roughly comparable. It was not clear which country had the more promising future and the political systems even seemed roughly comparable. That sort of rivalry is a thing of the past today.

Emanuel Pastreich:

The political economies of North and South have diverged completely.  The South Korean Economy has clearly won in terms of GDP growth, interaction with the world economy and so the need to identify oneself as a South Korean as part of a critical economic struggle with North Korea for “who is the better Korea,” has past. That’s not to say North Korea doesn’t represent a challenge to South Korea in some respects. South Korea is still struggling to redefine its identity in the world. Some have embraced a “global Korea” as their identity, but others are not so sure about that position.

But let us come back to the specifics of South Korea’s engagement with North Korea. Let us consider the Sunshine Policy launched by President Kim Dae-Jung. What happened to that policy of engagement, and why has it almost disappeared over the last four years?

John Feffer: 

There was a certain belief with the launch of the initial sunshine policy that North and South Korea could handle the process of engagement and reconciliation by themselves; that outside forces could be held at bay.  As we look back, we can see that was ultimately a naïve assumption. Both South and North Korea were operating in a regional and international environment and external factors made the implementation of these projects rather challenging. There were forces pushing President Kim Dae Jung and later Roh Moo Hyun in South Korea, to accelerate engagement with North Korea, and to be less stringent concerning how much was paid to North Korea and in what manner because they needed to demonstrate clearly that their policies were working. Kim Dae Jung had only a five-year window of opportunity to show that his approach was right and he faced considerable opposition from within the Korean political establishment which pushed him to overreach.

North Korea’s leader Kim Jung Il also encountered his own form of push back from within the North Korean establishment, although the nature of that process remains obscure. There were two established political systems that had long identified themselves in opposition to each another and here came along two leaders who suddenly declared they were going to change this dynamic. That shift ran into considerable vested interests at home, and around the world. There were internal challenges and then regional and international challenges as well. The United States was on South Korea’s side during the first efforts to implement the Sunshine Policy, but not all that enthusiastic about a possible altering of the balance of power in Northeast Asia.

The most important thing for the United States in terms of policy is being able to predict what is going to happen one year, two years and five years into the future. If there is any potential instability, that possibility throws people into great confusion in Washington. The idea that the two Koreas are going to sit down and just talk to one another opens up all sorts of potential instability: What is going to happen to the U.S. troops stationed on the Korean peninsula? What is going to happen to US – Chinese relations? How is the US-Japan alliance going to change?  Etc. So there was naturally also push back from the US side, saying “don’t move too quickly, we want to make sure that our interests are secure on the peninsula.” There was also concern from Japan’s side, especially in light of the 1997 Taepodong missile launch over Japan. Japanese public opinion towards North Korea changed dramatically, and the abduction issue became a primary issue as well. Japan weighed in saying that the regime in North Korea is one we cannot be comfortable with.

On North Korea’s side China and Russia also had plenty to say about its engagement with South Korea, although the data is less accessible.  Everything was at stake: economics, security and political interests. There was support for the North and South Korean dialog coming from Beijing and Moscow, even as there remained some skepticism about what the motivation might have been on the part of South Korea. Because inter-Korean engagement was taking place in this regional context, the process became extremely complicated.

Suddenly we are talking about three-dimensional chess, where you have a number of players working at a number of levels. And that situation became even more complicated when Roh Moo Hyun took over in 2003 and began to articulate a slightly different foreign policy for South Korea. The difference between the optimistic mood at the time of the 2000 summit of Kim Dae Jung and Kim Jung Il and the period after  the George W Bush administration came into power and articulated a much stronger, more unilateral foreign policy, and stated openly that you “cannot trust” North Korea, was striking. So there was a reaction to that shift from Pyongyang and then a reaction from South Korea as well.

I think the two major problems for the Sunshine Policy came from internal push back due to vested interests of South Korea and North Korea on the one hand and pressures coming from the respective alliance partners in the region, on the other hand. That combination made advancing inter-Korean rapprochement extremely difficult.

Emanuel Pastreich:

The man on the street in Korea is bombarded with conflicting opinions. He hears arguments that greater engagement with North Korea will bring stability and he hears the other side saying you can never trust North Korea and demonstration of strength is all they understand. What is the average citizen to make of this?

John Feffer:

From the perspective of the man on the street in South Korea, I think he feels great deal of skepticism about North Korean motivations when he looks back at specific acts by North Korea, such as the shelling of the Yeonpyeong Island, or a whole host of incursions against South Korea dating back decades. In order for South Korea to engage with North Korea in a principled and open-eyed manner, South Koreans may have to maintain what might seem a contradictory attitude, or hold what seem to be contradictory beliefs.

On the one hand, South Koreans must grasp that North Korea is a weak power. It once was a power that was comparable to South Korea in terms of military and economic influence, but it is no longer comparable by any stretch of imagination. We are talking about a country which has a large army, artillery positions and some form of nuclear weapons. But if we look closely, we realize that North Korea is dangerous not because its power, but because of its weakness. In other words, it has a big army, but that army is ill-equipped, ill-fed & ill-prepared. It might have weapons of mass destruction, but its nuclear tests have not been successful. In the 1950’s and 1960’s it would have been laughable to think that Iran was technologically more advanced than North Korea. But in fact Iran has successfully launched three satellites into orbit over the last few years, and North Korea has failed with its three attempts. The concern is not so much that North Korea will use the artillery positions to launch an unprovoked attack on South Korea, but rather, out of desperation, North Korea will find its only card left is to use those artillery positions to fire on South Korea.

Emanuel Pastreich:

And yet, I would hold that there is still one respect in which North Korea is potentially stronger than South Korea, if you took the people of South Korea and you stop feeding them for a couple of weeks, cut off their electricity and disrupted their logistics networks–and so forth, they would be less able to adjust to such chaos than their North Korean counterparts. So if there was some sort of conflict in Northeast Asia, although North Korea may be at a disadvantage at the start, over time, it might have some real advantages in that North Koreans are so accustomed to adversity.

John Feffer:

It is true that North Korean capacity to survive in poverty is unparalleled, but I don’t know if that represents much of a comparative advantage.

Emanuel Pastreich:

If you imagine a war in which all things fall apart and survival itself is an issue, then the ability to endure is a factor. Although it is certainly a mistake to label North Korea as a threat if it is not, and I think that it is possible for North Korea to be brought around to a meaningful dialog, at the same time I think it is a mistake to underestimate North Korea’s potential strengths. If the situation is predictable, South Korea is in a very strong position, but things may not be that predictable.

John Feffer:

South Korea needs to simultaneously keep in mind paradoxical perceptions of North Korea. The first is the realization at a deep level by South Koreans that North Korea is a threat more because of its weaknesses than its strengths. The other point that must be kept in mind is that North Korea is a proud country and that there is something worthwhile, of value, in the North Korean tradition with which South Koreans can engage. South Koreans cannot go to North Korea with the attitude that everything out there is worthless and that we are here to just reconstruct your whole society along South Korean lines. That sort of attitude suggests that relations will be a one-way street. But there must be two-way communication and exchange.

Now what would interest the South Koreans about North Korea? Well, as you suggested, there might be something to be learned from the North Korean population’s ability to endure, to live frugally. There is also a tremendous natural beauty in North Korea, which is relatively uncorrupted by modernization and pollution.  North Korean society also, once you get beyond the propaganda, appears relatively untrammeled by globalization. In other words, the Korean culture exists in North Korea in an “unpainted way.”  There is also the capacity of North Korea to leapfrog, to move forward without going through all the intermediate steps, and this is also something we find in South Korean tradition. The South Korean shipbuilding industry wasn’t built on a long tradition, South Korea made a decision in the late 1960s and early 1970s for the state to invest in the infrastructure for shipbuilding, but it was able to become a leader in the world in ship building because of its ability to leap frog.

North Korea today is where South Korea was then in its economic capacity. If North Korea embraces the vision and gets the capital investment, it too can leap frog over existing technology, say in IT, or machine tools. North Korea has an extremely well educated population in terms of engineering and sciences. South Korea has to enter into this process with the attitude that North Korea is an equal partner, even as they know deep down that this is a country that has fallen behind so tremendously in terms of its economic capacity. If North Korea can be engaged in a positive manner, there is tremendous potential.

2 responses to “Asia Institute Seminar with John Feffer (April, 2012)

  1. Morton K. Brussel May 16, 2012 at 3:41 am

    As alluded to, would the U.S. (and Japan) “allow” a reunification in the foreseeable future? How powerful is the U.S. influence in South Korea?

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