Category Archives: North Korea

“Corea as Commons” Asia Times

Asia Times

“Corea as Commons”

October 24, 2018

Layne Hartsell


Emanuel Pastreich

Could an emergent North Korea provide the world with a new, from-scratch benchmark of sustainable, collaborative economic and social development? With geopolitical change and emerging technologies, the idea of a national “commons” now looks increasingly feasible.

Relations between North and South Korea are changing so rapidly, the pressing question is no longer what the next step in this process of reconciliation will be, but rather where the peninsula is heading in the political, economic and cultural senses.

A door is opening for the institutional transformation of the “Hermit Kingdom” with new concepts and technologies. The implementation of new approaches to government and the building of new infrastructure could make North Korea an inspiring experiment that other nations can model. Read more of this post

Discussion on North Korean Human rights on Alex Jensen’s TBS eFM show

I had the opportunity to speak about the Trump-Kim summit on TBS eFM’s “This Morning with the inimitable Alex Jensen on June 12 (just a few hours after the summit).

It was a great opportunity to discuss the summit with a variety of experts from around the world.

The discussion is available at

This Morning with Alex Jensen 

“US -North Korea Summit & the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula”

The other guest on Alex Jensen’s show was Sarah Son, research director of the NGO Transnational Justice Working Group.

She spent most of her time talking about the abysmal human rights situation in North Korea. I did not disagree as I am certain that North Korea, like many other developing nations, suffers any number of human rights abuses. I also kept my mouth shut as she detailed the prison gulags in North Korea that are so offensive that they must be discussed at the summit.

But that is where it all fell apart. I was asked my opinion and I responded that not only does the United States have the largest prison population in the world, not only does it abuse prisoners as laborers, not only does it have for-profit prisons, but that it is now engaged in the explicitly illegal activity of separating children from parents among immigrants. Such actions are an act of intentional and unnecessary cruelty. It is also a blatant violation of international law—the sort of action the US has condemned other nations for.

Ms. Son was silent on this topic. When she was pressed, she responded that she dealt only with North Korea in her work. She refused to say a single negative word about the Trump administration.

But that was not all. When I suggested that Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un had much in common as the products of inherited dynasties of corruption and power, she was again silent.

The working assumption for Ms. Son was that North Korea was somehow horrible in a sense that no other country in the world is, a miserable universe unto itself.

This argument did not convince me.

Finally, she was not interested in engaging in the question of whether North Korean workers were entitled to protection from exploitation. This part I was not able to press her on—as I wanted to keep it polite. But you listen to yourself.

My impression from what she said is that North Koreans are entitled to “human rights” like advanced Western countries, but that they have no rights to protest against their exploitation by corporations and they have no rights to collective bargaining.





“Efforts made outside Trump-Kim meeting are the most crucial”

June 10, 2018

Emanuel Pastreich


The unprecedented meeting between President Donald Trump of the United States and Kim Jong Un of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) does have the real potential to transform the world and lead us in a positive direction.

However, Trump and Kim lack the maturity, vision, and understanding to make full use of this meeting. They also have not welcomed the broad participation of ethical and committed citizens throughout Asia, and around the world that is necessary to make this effort successful in the long run.

Now that the summit is already in play, there really is no value in debating whether it should take place. It will take place and we must work hard to make sure that whatever curve ball comes flying out of the Capella Hotel, we are ready as a unified international community to give it our very best Singapore swing.

To start with, this is not an event for the common man, nor for the experts. The exclusive hotels aimed at the super rich that Trump and Kim so enjoy are full of commercial media who are gathering for a spectacle, not for the search for truth or for justice. There will not be many experts in international relations or non-proliferation.

The whole event looks like a mixture of Pebble Beach and reality TV, with the nonproliferation specialist Dennis Rodman thrown in, compliments of the chef. Trump and Kim are focused on what they really care about: image. Read more of this post

“Pompeo in Pyongyang” Korea Times June 9, 2018

Korea Times

“Pompeo in Pyongyang”

June 9, 2018

Emanuel Pastreich




Perhaps you watched the forced smiles on the faces of President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as they exchanged words with Kim Yong Chol, vice-chairman of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, on the grounds of the White House. Or perhaps you observed how Trump first told the press that he had read the personal letter delivered to him from Kim Jong-un, and then stated a few hours later that he had not even looked at the letter.

If you felt sick to your stomach, it is not because of the omelet that you eat for lunch. There is something so grotesque going on in Washington D.C. today that it rivals the institutional decay under Louis XVI or Nicholas II.

Maybe you had solace in the suggestions that Trump might win a Nobel Peace Prize, or you read the editorials suggesting direct parallel between his daring actions and Ronald Reagan reaching out to Mikhail Gorbachev.

But is the end of the Cold War the more apposite parallel? Perhaps we should remember the treaties for cooperation signed between Germany, Poland and the Soviet Union in another strange historical moment that few of us remember. Read more of this post

“A meaningful plan for North Korea’s development” Korea Times


Korea Times

“A meaningful plan for North Korea’s development”

May 27, 2018

Emanuel Pastreich


We must feel sympathy for the North Korean government officials suddenly faced with slick corporate operators from Koch Industries, or elsewhere, who come in to overwhelm them with gaudy presentations, to bribe them and to do everything in their power to get them to hand over the keys to their resources so they can be exploited for the benefit of investors who will never step foot in North Korea.

That process is all too well known. We saw it done in the case of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states in which originally British Petroleum, and then Standard Oil (and later others) seduced a small group of the elite with the allure of riches and created a society in which natural resources are ruthlessly exploited for the sake of foreign investors, and a handful of Saudis, and the domestic infrastructure, let alone education and social services, are left in a state of deep decay.

North Korea will need our help and our timely advice on how to respond to these challenges in a meaningful manner. The possible rape of North Korea can become the rape of Korea.

Needless to say the United States government, which has been stripped of all experts on climate change and is engaged in a reckless campaign to deny the very existence of this catastrophe, cannot play a role in that assessment of the environmental impact, or social impact, of foreign investment in North Korea. In fact, no corporations, or corporate consulting firms, can play a role because they are all subject to market pressures that force them to distort their findings in the interest of profit.

Here is a suggestion as to what the essential points in a proposal for North Korea’s development might look like. The proposal is so different from what is actually being discussed in government and industry that many readers may perceive it to be fantastic, entirely unrealistic. I hold that it is common for the truth to appear alien and out of place when it suddenly appears on a stage that has been trotted for decades by the deceptive and the duplicitous.

I invite you to take a careful look and to make your own assessment. At the minimum, I hope that Koreans will have the bravery, and the vision, to keep this model on the table as they debate other proposals made by those who are paid lavish salaries by the people who hope to profit from the “development” of North Korea.

What is often forgotten in Seoul is that once the North opens up, North Koreans will become simply Koreans and that South Koreans will be subject to the very same sorts of abuses that North Koreans will be subject to. This is a critical moment to put forth a vision for a better future.

Tentative plan for North Korea’s economic, cultural and political development

The process for making a plan

First, throw away any proposals made by corporations, by consulting firms linked to corporations or by government agencies that have corrupt relations with the corporations that stand to benefit from the exploitation of North Korea’s resources, or of its labor.

We then need to establish an international advisory committee, including a few North and South Koreans, that will provide relevant and helpful advice to the North Korean government and to its citizens as it struggles to respond to the coming confusion born of rapid social and economic change.

The advisory committee should be made up of experts from around the world who are known for their high ethical standards and for their profound understanding of the specific economic and social challenges that North Korea will face. Not one member of this advisory committee should have ties to investment banks or corporations that stand to profit from the exploitation of North Korea’s resources or of the labor of its citizens.

The task of that committee, and for those in North Korea who are involved in the process, will be to draft a plan for the development of North Korea that is focused exclusively on the long-term interests of the country, but does so in accord with scientific principles, without exaggeration or posturing, speaking the truth and presenting a vision for what is possible that is inspiring. The plan should stress that North Korea cannot be successful long-term if it does not avoid short-term fixes that generate income for the few but undermine the livelihoods of its citizens, and that destroy the environment in a manner that will bring terrible costs in the future.

At the center of the plan must be the recognition of two fundamental facts that have been proven through scientific research beyond any doubt, but which are ignored by irresponsible politicians and a sensationalist media to the determent of all of humanity. First, that the greatest threat facing humanity is climate change, which is impacting North Korea primarily in the form of spreading arid land (and eventually deserts) and rising temperatures that affect agricultural production. The response to climate change must be a core concern in any program for development.

Second, that the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few people has done tremendous damage to the social fabric of Asia and that it has undermined a healthy society for all of us. Any plan for the development of North Korea must promote profoundly different economic paradigms that encourage development starting at the local level and which assure that capital is used for the benefit of ordinary citizens. Addressing the problem of the concentration of wealth, and the abuse of finance by the few is critical because the world is poised on the edge of a massive financial collapse. North Korea must avoid, at all costs, getting itself into heavy debt during the first stage of its development because there is a high risk that foreign firms that move in to make short-term profits will pull out of North Korea quickly, with no warning.

Natural resources

There is tremendous interest from multinational corporations in North Korea. That interest has nothing to do with the human rights of North Koreans or the poverty that affects so many. Rather, investment banks are drawn in by the potential profits to be derived from the exploitation of the extensive deposits of coal, uranium, iron, gold, magnesite, zinc, copper, limestone and rare-earth metals (required in the electronics industry now thriving in the region) that lie beneath the surface in North Korea. According to the South Korean mining company Korea Resources, the value of those resources are around $6 trillion.

North Korea is a poor country and its government officials lack the expertise to judge the environmental impact of the exploitation of resources, or its social and economic impact. Underpaid government officials can be easily seduced by shows of opulence, or outright bribery, into making decisions that future generations will regret.

An unconditional freeze should be placed on the exploitation of any mineral resources in North Korea until Pyongyang possesses sufficient expertise to assess the long-term impact of the development of natural resources on its own, or with the help of disinterested, ethical international advisers. All proposals for mining of resources must be subject to extensive environmental impact studies conducted by true experts. Strip mining for uranium, coal and other resources, which destroys the far more precious soil and causes irreversible damage, should be prohibited.

What to do with the massive reserves of coal found in North Korea is a far greater challenge for us than the dismantlement of its nuclear program. The overwhelming evidence from scientific research is that the use of coal use has a catastrophic impact on the climate and that if we continue to use coal (and petroleum) we will make our Earth uninhabitable in the next 30 years. The best policy is for North Korea simply to leave the coal in the ground untouched.

Those who hope to make profits off of the sale of coal think about this issue differently, and they offer the only opinion that is presented in the mainstream media, or discussed by business leaders, or by politicians. But what the majority of people believe based on misleading, or false, information is not of any relevance. The only relevant point is the truth, and if the truth is accessible to the people, in North or South Korea, the conclusion will be clear.

The development of natural resources in North Korea should be eventually managed by regulated national monopolies that have no profit incentive and that are entirely capable of ending operations if the resources that they develop are judged through scientific investigation to have a negative impact on the environment or on society. The profits for the exploitation of mineral resources should be focused entirely on the development of the North Korean economy in terms of investments in education, improved governance, and welfare. Above all, developing a new generation of educated and motivated North Korean government officials who have the knowledge, the ethical principles and the bravery to stand up for the long-term needs of citizens will be critical for future development.

The negative impact of the development of natural resources is not limited to pollution. The sudden influx of wealth is often limited to a small number of the power elites and does little to benefit the vast majority of citizens. We need only look at the process by which British Petroleum, and later Standard Oil, developed Saudi Arabia in the 1950s and 1960s. The Saudi royal family became fabulously wealthy and sent all their assets overseas. Saudi Arabia suffered from terrible infrastructure, poor education, spreading deserts and poor wages for the vast majority of citizens.

Such a scenario must be avoided in North Korea. Our goal is to produce a new generation of healthy, highly educated, ethical and motivated North Koreans who can run their country for themselves and for their brothers and sisters. Linking economic development to the exploitation of cheap labor will slow down cultural and social integration of the peninsula.

There is already a dangerous trend in North Korea towards the concentration of wealth in the hands of a tiny elite. If future economic development is further concentrated in the hands of the well connected, who are in turn tied to international banks, they will have no incentive to end the exploitation of workers in factories and mines, or to stop the use of coal-powered power plants.

That is to say that the growing disparity of wealth could be a more serious problem in the long term than the poverty of ordinary citizens in North Korea.


It is common for politicians to show a satellite photograph of the Korean Peninsula at night and to remark that the complete darkness seen in North Korea, in contrast to Japan and South Korea, is testimony to the lack of economic development in that country. Although it is true that North Korea’s citizens have suffered needlessly from corrupt and arbitrary governance over the past few decades, lighting up the sky at night should not be a priority for anyone.

If anything, South Korea should strive to make sure that its territory is as dark as that of North Korea at night by ending the extravagant use of electricity and encouraging a culture of frugality. If North Korea, by contrast, builds dozens of coal-powered plants and lights itself up at night like a Christmas tree, that will be a monumental catastrophe for the entire region.

The smartest plan for North Korea is to stick to 100 percent renewable energy from the beginning and never start the import of fossil fuels, even if that may slow down the process. Encouraging traditional low-consumption habits can go hand-in-hand with efforts to promote better awareness about nutrition.

There may never be a need to import fossil fuels if North Koreans continue their frugal habits. There may be a need to import solar and wind-power technologies, but it will be critical that North Korea quickly acquires the capacity to produce such products on its own. Toward this goal, technologies related to solar and wind power should be made widely available without any payments for patents.

If North Korea becomes 100 percent renewable energy, it will be a point of pride for its citizens and will become something that South Koreans will come to learn about. Such a sense of worth and of purpose for North Korea is absolutely essential. That sort of psychological boost cannot be purchased with money. We must make sure that North Koreans never feel they are behind other “advanced countries” if they do not waste resources or indulge their impulses in response to commercial advertising. They should know, and we should know, that “small is beautiful.” That is the essence of traditional Korean culture.

The frugality we see in North Korea is in part a result of poor economic planning over the past three decades which has limited North Korea’s ability to develop. Yet frugality is not a sin, but a virtue. If anything, South Koreans can learn from North Koreans about how to live meaningful lives without indulging in mindless consumption.  Read more of this post

North Korea and Climate change

Nothing could be more alien to the debate on North Korea today than to mention climate change. The whole media circus seems to be set up specifically to avoid the topic. Certainly everyone is assuming, at least in South Korea, that the point will be to make North Koreans consumers who eat a lot and waste a lot, use smart phones and live in big apartments. It is often assumed to be fine for South Korean companies to exploit low labor costs in North Korea in order to increase profits.


But the recent interview on Fox News of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo by Chris Wallace on Fox News (May 13, 2018) was particularly revealing.


Mike Wallace: I want to go back to the comment – and Kevin just played it – your comment on Friday that if Kim chooses the, quote, “right path,” the U.S. is prepared to work with North Korea to, quote, “achieve prosperity.” What does that mean in terms of direct U.S. investment in North Korea? And are we, as part of this, willing, in effect, to guarantee Kim’s security, that regime change will be off the table?
Mike POMPEO: Chris, here’s what this will look like. This will be Americans coming in – private sector Americans, not the U.S. taxpayer – private sector Americans coming in to help build out the energy grid – they need enormous amounts of electricity in North Korea; to work with them to develop infrastructure, all the things that the North Korean people need, the capacity for American agriculture to support North Korea so they can eat meat and have healthy lives. Those are the kind of things that, if we get what it is the President has demanded – the complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization of North Korea – that the American people
will offer in spades.
We must remember that the Trump administration has pulled out of the Paris Accord and thrown all science out of the Environmental Protection Agency. it is undoing regulation on pollution in the United States and encouraging the massive consumption of oil and coal, in the face of overwhelming evidence of the destruction of the atmosphere which will be catastrophic for all of humanity. Here, clearly the intention is for US corporations to take over the North Korean energy grid, encourage North Koreans to buy American meat (some of the least healthy around and no longer subject to serious inspection). No doubt this also involves the exploitation of North Korean coal (which ought to be left in the ground) to fuel this effort and of course all sorts of deals for the exploitation of natural resources.
Sounds a lot like what was done to Iraq. Perhaps we might suggest that the low energy consumption in North Korea is not entirely a negative and that developing organic farming in North Korea is far more important than importing US beef. In any case, it would not be unreasonable to demand that we know what agreements have been signed.

Korea’s True Security Challenges (Essay)

Korea’s True Security Challenges

 July 20, 2017

Emanuel Pastreich


Decay of the media and of the decision-making process

The Korean peninsula faces a daunting array of security problems that will require tremendous efforts over the long term to overcome.  But the most serious security risk of all is the complete inability of the Korean people to understand what the real threats are that they face. The media, the entertainment industry and a vast culture of denial has combined forces to distract and misdirect the Korean people away from the real dangers of this age.

Koreans are told over and over by their newspapers and TV news that the greatest risk is of a nuclear missile being launched from North Korea which will destroy Seoul. In fact, North Korea’s military posture is entirely defensive and there is no chance that they would launch a missile at South Korea except as a response to an attack.

By contrast, Koreans are all but unaware of the collapse of the ecosystem in Northeast Asia, the death of the seas (and the fish that they depend on for food) as a result of warming waters, the spread of deserts and shortage of water which threaten to engulf the Korean Peninsula in an enormous desert stretching into central Asia. They have not even started planning for the rising oceans, a massive infrastructure project that will leave Korea with no budget to pay for fighter planes, tanks or other outdated military equipment.

 As opposed to the highly unlikely attacks from North Korea that are hyped in the privatized media, the threats to the environment are essentially 100% guaranteed.  So any consideration of the issue of security on the Korean Peninsula should start out by noting that most people in South Korea are fed a diet of fictions that makes it far more difficult for them to grasp what the dangers are. They are often convinced that North Korea is about to rain down nuclear weapons on them even though that it almost impossibility.

Nor is the death of the ecosystem the only threat that the Korean Peninsula faces.

The rising inequality in Korean, and East Asian, society is tearing the fabric of society apart and will lead to serious conflicts domestically and internationally in the next fifteen years. The media covers North Korea in a less objective manner because it is controlled by concentrated capital that makes tremendous profits from military defense systems. Sources for unbiased information about how the world works like newspapers and universities are so deeply linked to the stock market and the secret world of capital investments that they are incapable of articulating an alternative viewpoint.

Although Koreans are aware that the concentration of wealth, and the death of a public sector in Korean society over the last thirty years has led to greater inequality, they do not understand exactly how and they are not encouraged to think deeply about this crisis. Even extremely liberal groups do not offer opinions on the profound contradictions of a decadent industrialized society. They do not advocate that banks or telecommunications companies should be highly regulated public monopolies. But that assumption was common sense to liberals and conservatives in the 1950s.

The death of sources of information independent from the stock market and foreign investment banks, the death of local community groups that gave meaning to the lives of ordinary people through regular meetings, cooperative efforts and mutual aid has left many Koreans exposed and profoundly lonely. We can see this fact evident in the high suicide rate for both youth and the elderly.

Life has been taken over by a ruthless consumption- driven culture that holds up as the definition of “happiness” the immediate satisfaction of the individual through the eating, drinking or watching of things that give a short-term thrill. Even politics has been reduced to a popularity show with little interest in the details of policy, or long-term developments and overwhelming fascination with the latest statement on the social media.

Such an environment makes it impossible for citizens to even comprehend what “security” is about and the politicians have become babysitters who tell citizens what they want to hear. As the old saying goes, “the people do not want leaders, they want magicians.”

The careful analysis of social, environmental and economic factors that are destabilizing Northeast Asia has been replaced by sensationalism. The rise of the video game culture has played a role in this grotesque transformation of the public sphere. Many Koreans (and Japanese), including adults, spend their time playing video games that glorify ruthless military conflict and make it appear as if shooting guns and blowing people up is not only good fun, but solves all problems. This gaming culture makes so effort to explain how security has become a more complex problem, nor to draw attention to social inequity or the collapse of the ecosystem.  Video games suggest that it is split-second response that is critical for security. That myth is critical to the military industrial complex.

So the best business is pumping up the stock value of military contractors through articles that suggest that a new nuclear submarine, or THAAD anti-missile system will protect Korea even though there is no evidence that this is the case. The profits from building submarines or anti-missile systems are staggering  but there is no scientific evidence that they do anything but increase the risk of conflict. Sadly, Korea is being pulled in the direction of the United States economic system, a criminal state  in which a large percentage of wealth is siphoned off in the interests of “defense” to pay for useless weapons systems that make the rich richer. The media is happy to play its profitable role. IN fact, because the media in general offers so little of any use to ordinary citizens, this spinning of fantasies may be their only profitable role.

  Read more of this post


Sunday, May 15 2017

2 PM

March for Peace


Front of Sejong Culture Center

Gwanghwamun, Seoul



The Korea Peace Movement and the Asia Institute are holding a March for Peace on Sunday, May 15, starting at 2 PM in front of the Sejong Culture in Gwanghwamun, Seoul.


We live in an age in which conflict and destruction has torn so many countries apart and there is a real threat of world war if we do not make an effort to promote peaceful cooperation and offer up a peaceful model for how we can combine forces to address the tremendous challenges of our age.


Please do join us for this march and show that world that it is not enough to stand by in silence, we must actively wage peace.


“Seoul should be unpredictable” Febuary 20, 2017)

JoongAng Daily

“Seoul should be unpredictable”

Febuary 20, 2017

Emanuel Pastreich



The recent meeting between Shinzo Abe and Donald Trump was a farce. Both men were clearly complete strangers with no common interests other than to push for their own domestic agendas. Anyone watching their forced actions could see that it was a marriage of convenience.

Both politicians make good use of “political unpredictability.” Abe has abandoned Japan’s long commitment to peace as a goal and is moving quickly away from its social welfare system that was so impressive to us in the 1980s. Trump has not only abandoned the free trade stance which was the core of U.S. policy since the Second World War — without even bothering to ask Congress to pass the laws necessary, he is taking steps domestically, such as personal attacks on judges, that undermine the rule of law.

Of course, North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and advanced missile technology is profoundly destabilizing and dangerous. Yet the odds of the North actually using nuclear weapons against the South or the United States is extremely low. Rather the risk is that continued development of nuclear weapons will set off an arms race in the region which will end up creating tensions not only with Pyongyang, but between all the nations of the region, and that process, unchecked, could end in nuclear war.

I would like to suggest that Seoul engage in its own version of “unpredictability” by doing something that no one ever guessed it would do: tell the truth.

Not only should Seoul state bluntly that the greatest danger of the North’s nuclear program is its risk of triggering an arms race. It should call on the United States to engage in serious negotiations with the North, China and Russia to create an environment in which we can reasonably expect that the North will first stop testing nuclear weapons and then take steps to eliminate those weapons. Read more of this post

The North Korea table at Kyobo

Kyobo Books has a whole table piled up with books about North Korea.

The woman defector in search of freedom seems to be a popular genre.





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