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Northeast Asia Peace Initiative

S. Linton: Keys to Understanding North Korea

North Koreans are not always easy to like, but are impossible to ignore. This is not a trait unique to the northern half of the Korean Peninsula. Koreans have been this way throughout their history.

This mountainous peninsula in the heart of East Asia has been called a “bridge” (by China) and a “dagger” (by Japan) has always been the center of controversy in the neighborhood. Not surprisingly, Koreans prefer to see their nation as a victim of great powers, a “shrimp” whose back has often been broken in the collision of “whales.”

Whether bridge, dagger, or shrimp, Korea’s East Asian neighbors have long known that ignoring Korea can be dangerous to stability and security in the region.

The last two “whales” to learn this lesson were the United States and the former Soviet Union. Unable to agree about Korea’s future in 1945, they “temporarily” partitioned the peninsula at the 38th parallel. But instead of passively accepting the status quo, East Asia’s trouble spot almost went global five years later. The division of Korea’s fiercely independent people into two hostile camps cost millions of lives during the Korean War and nearly launched World War Three. Korea today remains the greatest security challenge of the Post Cold War era.

Three keys to understanding North Korea

The division of Korea has made understanding the peninsula more difficult. Still, Koreans have never been the proverbial enigma that is supposed to be characteristic of East Asia. This is even true of North Koreans.

Like East Asia’s proverbial three-legged stool, North Korean thinking is influenced by the interaction of three readily identifiable characteristics: a) a particularly radical brand of post-colonialism, b) a strong traditional-conservatism, and 3) and division-consciousness: a fixation on the division what was once a unified nation. These three modes of self-awareness reinforce each other and contribute to North Korea’s surprising stability under extreme stress. Even more importantly, they provide a framework for interpreting and predicting North Korean behavior. While many other nation states share one or two of these characteristics, the combination of all three elements contribute to North Korea’s uniqueness.

All three have profound psychological dimensions and contribute to the nation’s overall ethos. Radical post-colonialism, for example, is the main ingredient of North Korea’s ideology of Juche or self-reliance, while conservative-traditionalism is the major constituent of the cult of leadership. Division-consciousness, on the other hand, dominates perceptions of other Koreans, particularly South Koreans.

Apparent tensions and contradictions between these three characteristics give North Koreans their ill-deserved reputation for unpredictability.  This is true because official versions for events reflect what North Korea wants outsiders to think while keeping its real reasons for a particular action private.

Illustration of the principle. A good example of this is North Korea’s continued support for Kim Jong-il despite economic collapse, widespread famine and diplomatic isolation. Although North Korean propaganda credits Kim Jong-il’s intellectual genius and revolutionary spirit as qualifying him to succeed Kim Il-sng, few outside observers expected him to survive his father’s death. Their assessment was based on a plethora of unflattering reports about his drinking habits, physical ailments, personality disorders, and mental instability. Initially, Kim Il-sung’s legitimacy was tied to radical post-colonialism. Nevertheless, the stability of the succession has far more to do with North Korea’s conservative-traditionalism. For this reason, Kim Jong-il’s survival can be credited more on his identity as a filial son than as a revolutionary.

Boundaries for behavior. North Korea’s reaction to a given situation cannot always be predicted but usually falls within a circle subscribed by radical post-colonialism, conservative-traditionalism, and division-consciousness. Key to predicting behavior is to keep in mind what North Korea feels compelled to do (or not to do) as a result of its interpretation of its origins, its relationship to traditional society, and the continuing division of the peninsula.

The most common error made by outside observers is to ignore internal motivations for North Korean behavior.  When viewed from the outside, North Korea’s leadership often appear to have far more latitude for action than is in fact the case. While they can be bold, calculating and arbitrary, some risk-taking is compulsory.

As an outsider whether engaged in official diplomacy or humanitarian work, one needs to develop an intuitive understanding of what kinds of situations are most likely to encourage flexibility rather than risky or unproductive responses from North Korean counterparts. Each of the characteristics noted above can make this process more or less difficult. In the end, success often depends on developing proposals that North Korea is tempted to accept rather than obligated to reject.

Radical post-colonialism

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, according to its self-interpretation of history, was founded by Kim Il-sung after a successful struggle again Japanese colonialism. North Korea, by its own definition, is an anti-colonial state. Until the founding of the DPRK, Korea’s political life had been flawed by a tendency to rely on powerful neighbors. This historical character flaw, according to North Korean ideology, had denied Koreans their rightful place in the sun.

As the founder of the DPRK, Kim Il-sung’s legitimacy too was grounded in the notion that he marked a turning point in Korean history. His authority derived not only from alleged accomplishments as an anti-Japanese fighter, but even more on his claim to be the first Korean leader who “just said no” to “big powers”.

Strategic considerations aside, North Korean leadership can ill afford not to take a confrontational attitude toward the outside world, particularly when threatened because they loose credibility with their own people if they bow to pressure.

Distrust of international organizations. As a corollary to its post-colonial ideology, North Korea insists on absolute state sovereignty when dealing with the outside world. Psychologically still at war with the United Nations, North Korea has the same fear of “one world government” as right-wing U.S. groups like the John Birch Society. As a result, any claim by a UN or other international organization to have a “right” to promote human rights or to provide humanitarian aid to DPRK citizens will be rejected out-of-hand.

Diplomatic brinkmanship. North Korea is well known for employing brinkmanship to gain diplomatic advantage. Less recognized is the linkage between political legitimacy and resistance to “big powers.” Compelled by internal pressures, North Korea’s leadership may also feel compelled to use this tactic, especially when threats or insults have been leveled at them in public.

Defense strategy. Koreans have historically relied on what they call a “hedgehog defense,” a national defense posture strong enough to make the peninsula too much trouble to conquer to be worth the effort. Koreans encouraged others to think of them as a poor country to make invasion that much less attractive to a would-be conqueror. North Korea too is committed to a hedgehog defense, and would rather remain poor and armed rather than prosperous and unarmed.

This does not mean, of course, that North Korea’s government is free to ignore the plight of ordinary citizens. “Improving the lives of the people” has long been one of the official goals of the state. Still, the survival of the state and revolution, along with more traditional values like social harmony will continue to take precedence over the welfare of individuals. North Koreans have a siege mentality and consider the victims of food shortages as battle casualties in a war for national survival.

North Korea’s doctrine of self-reliant self-defense does not necessarily rule out the possibility it will accept certain limits on the production and sale of weapons of mass destruction (particularly if adequately compensated). Nevertheless, North Korea’s present leadership is unlikely ever to permit access needed to verify that the DPRK is completely nuclear or missile-free.

North Korea’s major ally China knows that Pyongyang’s radical post-colonialism is tempered by conservative-traditionalism. As a result, Beijing is not particularly threatened by Pyongyang’s bellicose rhetoric. China’s tolerance of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, in fact, reflects a highly stable, well-defined relationship between the Middle Kingdom and the Korean Peninsula that dates back to the beginning of the Yi Dynasty in 1392.

Conservative-traditionalism

The least recognized characteristic of North Korean society is its conservative-traditionalism. As evidenced by its military philosophy, Korean culture and history have a lot more to do with North Korean behavior than has been commonly acknowledged. North Korea cannot be understood, in fact, without a deep appreciation of its linkages to the peninsula’s past.

Several characteristics of society as it existed before Korea came into contact with the West approximately 150 years ago show remarkable similarities to North Korea:

- The Korean king was considered the “father” of the people and the entire nation mourned his passing for three years.
- Korea was called the “Hermit Kingdom” by outsiders and its citizens were discouraged from travel or befriending foreigners. Internal travel was also strictly controlled.
- Foreign seamen who were shipwrecked in Korean territory were often not returned home, a direct violation of the international norms of the day. They were detained because officials did not want foreign governments learning about Korea for fear of compromising national security. For the same reasons, visiting foreign delegations were often confined to the capital city and accompanied by official guides when they traveled.
- Despite economic hardship, vast sums were invested in capital city construction projects designed to enhance the dignity of the regime.
- Koreans entertained their guests with lavish hospitality, giving the impression of abundance even in times of great need.
- The Yi Dynasty (1392-1910) outlasted two Chinese dynasties and was quite stable despite chronic food shortages.

Similarities aside, North Korea is not simply a new-old society. Nevertheless, the relationship between North Korea’s leader and its people, between its social classes, and the way North Koreans deal with outsiders often reflect its tradition even more than its revolutionary heritage.

Characteristics most resistant to change, obviously, are traits where traditional and revolutionary values overlap. What is not often recognized, however, is that an approach sensitive to traditional culture can be highly effective in dealing with North Koreans in a wide variety of situations. Stated simply, North Koreans are far more flexible when approached through their culture than through their ideology.

The following illustrate North Korea’s psychological ties to traditional society.

Rural vs. urban culture. Despite its relatively high level of industrialization and urbanization, North Korea’s ethos is essentially rural. (By contrast, South Korea’s rural areas have been urbanized.) Reconstructed after the Korean War according to a unified plan, Pyongyang, a capital city of some 2,000,000 people, is still a rural vision of what an urban center should be.

Until relatively recently, East Asian rural communities were marked by a high degree of self-sufficiency. One western observer noted as late as the 1950’s that remote villages in South Korea imported only “kerosene and rubber shoes” from the outside world. Confucianism, East Asia’s dominant ideology, anchors the state on agriculture, particularly rice agriculture. Mercantilism, on the other hand, and the accumulation of surplus wealth (except in land) was suspect. Traditionally, social harmony, rather than material progress, has been the highest social ideal.

Clearly, North Korea’s ideology of Juche or self-reliance reflects its leadership’s acquaintance with a rural environment where almost everything needed was locally produced. North Korea’s emphasis on community and social order also reflects rural values.

This does not suggest, however, that North Korean society is uniform or stagnant.

The succession from Kim Il-sung to Kim Jong-il marked not only a change of generations but the passing of the top leadership from older, rural-oriented elites to North Korea’s first crop of home-grown urban oriented leaders. The future of Kim Il-sung’s political legacy depends not only on whether North Korea can survive economic collapse and famine, but also whether Pyongyang’s young urbanites (represented by Kim Jong-il) have assimilated the rural values of their elders.

Important to outsiders, North Korea’s opposition to what it calls “western decadence” reflects not only a critical attitude toward western culture, but also a profound ambivalence about urban values. In short, communication is easier when close attention is paid to North Korea’s agrarian perspective.

Several examples illustrate North Korea’s traditional rural values:

North Korea’s leadership is far more open to the idea of increasing farm production than exporting their way out of the present food crisis. This is one of the reasons why the recent United States proposal for potato production assistance struck a responsive cord.

As the last three years demonstrates, North Korea can tolerate significant loss of life due to food shortages without significant social unrest. Starvation related to poor harvests has always been a factor of rural life. Traditionally, community survival has been more important than the life of the individual, meaning that North Korea could very likely survive further population contraction.

Kim Il-sung once surprised a visitor by declaring that he wanted his people to enjoy “a bowl of rice and soup with meat in it.” Today, North Koreans say “sufficient food and warm clothes are enough.” In other words, North Koreans are being encouraged to adjust their expectations downward in conformity with age-old rural ideals that place community and social harmony above material prosperity. South Korean peasants, on the other hand, were encouraged during the 1960’s to increase production by the slogan “Let’s live well too.”

Relationships vs. rules. North Korea also reflects conservative-traditionalism in its emphasis on personal relationships. Personal relationships are of paramount importance to people in the DPRK and must be cemented before anything concrete can be done.

While this might be said of many other Asian societies, several reasons make personal ties particularly important in North Korea. First, isolation from normal diplomatic relations with the West has helped to preserve diplomatic conventions that are more closely related to East Asia's past. Secondly, until he died in 1995, Kim Il-sung had ruled by the force of his personality for the entire history of the nation. Ordinary citizens were taught to feel a sense of kinship with him and now, with his son, Kim Jong-il. This makes it only natural for North Koreans to emphasize personal relationships in their dealings with each other and would expect the same from foreigners.

On the positive side, this means that warm and cordial relationships can move mountains. But when personal relationships are characterized by hostility, simple and reasonable tasks become almost impossible to negotiate. Even more importantly, North Koreans feel little obligation to keep agreements they have signed if the other party acts in ways they consider “insincere” or in violation of personal trust.

Maintaining relationships that are characterized by “sincerity” on both sides is mostly a matter of style, not expense.  Considerable investments of personnel and time, however, are essential to building (and maintaining) good relationships.

The importance of ritual. Every culture has a distinct symbolic universe and not surprisingly, so does North Korea. But while usually ideology influences official rhetoric, the underlying symbolic structures are more traditional than revolutionary. This is particularly true in North Korea’s relationships with the outside world.

Traditional Korean society placed a high value on rituals. Expenses for rituals connected with birth, marriage, and particularly death required major family investments. Rituals, such as the three-year mourning period for the death of a parent, close relative, teacher, or king, dominated life, particularly for the upper classes.

Language and ritual are convenient points of departure for discussing the growing cultural differences between North and South Korea. In South Korea, the use of “honorifics” in language has migrated downward, meaning that “high talk” (verb endings denoting respect) previously reserved for persons of high status is now routinely used when addressing ordinary citizens. In North Korea, on the other hand, honorifics have migrated upward, where “low talk” is often used to address someone of higher rank. This does not mean that North Korea has done away with distinctions in speech. Elaborate verb endings have been retained for addressing the highest level of leadership.

Evolution of ritual in both societies has undergone a similar process. In South Korea, elaborate rituals for celebrating birth, marriage and death formerly beyond the financial means of commoners are now open to those who can afford them. In North Korea, on the other hand, rituals for ordinary citizens are very simple (and inexpensive) while elaborate and costly rituals are reserved for the state.

North Korea has also retained traditional attitudes toward diplomacy and other interactions with foreigners to a much greater extent than has South Korea, where western norms are commonly applied to international relationships.

Social distinctions. Even the most superficial examination of North Korean society can find clear evidence of varying degrees of social privilege. On the surface, this appears quite contradictory with the essential revolutionary character of the state. Many have wondered why North Korea’s underprivileged do not rebel against their social superiors, particularly in the face of acute shortages and even starvation. How can North Korea adhere to an ideology of class struggle on one hand while also granting significant privileges to select members of society at the same time? As with most North Korean paradoxes, the answer to this question lies in the superimposition of revolutionary ideology over traditional conservatism.

Traditional Korean society recognized three general categories of privilege: 1) class affiliation, 2) blood relationship, and 3) merit. In the past, the status of “merit subject” was an official status granted to someone who had risked life and limb to found a dynasty or rescue it in times of crisis. More importantly, the status of merit subject was inheritable. True to its revolutionary heritage, North Korea has scrapped distinctions based on class but has retained privileges associated to blood relationship and merit. Consequently, as long as social status conforms to culturally acceptable norms, severe contrasts in the way people are treated are not intrinsically destabilizing.

Division-consciousness


The division of Korea, more than anything else, dominates North Korean psychology. Division-consciousness extends far deeper than the simple fact that the Korean Peninsula was partitioned into two separate political entities in 1945. Koreans have an organic view of society, meaning that the division has had the psychological effect of physical dismemberment.

Just why Koreans tend to see their nation as a living body is rooted in an animistic world-view that predates recorded history. North Korean ideologist have skillfully incorporated this ancient religious tradition into the national ethos just as they have borrowed from Confucianism, Buddhism, and Christianity. The cult of Paektu, Korea’s sacred mountain, for example, has been linked to the personality cults of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, reinforcing their claim to be the only legitimate Korean leadership.

The quest to be the sole legitimate Korean state by both South and North has created fissures in Korean consciousness that extend from the present backward into the mists of pre-historic myth.

Setting aside ideology for a moment, Koreans from South and North do not agree about issues as fundamental as 1) which of the three Korean states united the peninsula for the first time, 2) what city has been the historical “center” for Korean life and culture, or even 3) what dialect should be the standard speech.

No longer is the division of Korea simply something that happened in 1945. Like Humpty Dumpty, Korean self-identity has been shattered while “all the king’s horses and all the king’s men” North or South have failed to reconstitute that identity or to build a new self-consciousness for their half of the peninsula.

Clearly, a detailed treatment of the psychological impact of division-consciousness on Koreans North and South is beyond the scope of this paper. Awareness of this dimension of North Korean thinking, nevertheless, is vital to a deeper understanding of thought and behavior. Several general attitudes are described below:
Division of the Nation

Many observers have commented on the tendency of North Koreans (and to some extent, South Koreans) to apply zero-sum thinking to disputes with others. According to this approach, there is no win-win option: if one side gains something, the other must have lost something.

The zero-sum approach to conflict has given Koreans a well-deserved reputation for being tough negotiators. Like brinkmanship, however, zero-sum thinking also has an underlying psychological component. While the idea of Korea is indivisible, the division of Korea into two competing societies has meant that both Korean states are locked into a winner-take-all struggle to determine which society is the true Korea. Interaction with the outside world, therefore, can potentially either affirm or deny legitimacy.

Zero-sum competition with South Korea has mandated more than a military arms race. North Koreans have struggled to build Pyongyang, the ritual center of their society, into a city that compares favorably with the South’s capital. While Seoul has financed improvements through exports, Pyongyang has had to pay for improvements through government funding. Seoul’s tower on Namsan, for example, has been answered by the Juche Tower, while Pyongyang boasts an imposing hotel on an island in the Taedong River similar in shape (if not in height) to Seoul’s Yuksam Building on Yoido. Both the Han and Taedong rivers have been turned into lakes bordered by extensive parks. Even without the collapse of socialism and the impact of the economic embargo, competition with the South alone could account for a large portion of North Korea’s economic woes.

Division of the community. While Koreans North and South agree that “big powers” bear the primary responsibility for the division of Korea, they also admit, if only to themselves, that betrayal of Koreans by Koreans was also partly responsible. This sense of having been betrayed by Koreans in the South (or North) has been the primary obstacle to inter-Korean dialogue. From the perspective of the outside observer, it would seem that the two Koreas have an almost infinite capacity to doubt the motives of the other side.

Although propaganda focuses on the leadership, this sense of suspicion is not just directed at specific individuals but at the opposite society as a whole. Division-consciousness has not only polarized Korean-Korean relationships but has also eliminated neutrality within the community. Non-Korean mediators, furthermore, are not acceptable to either side. While Koreans may on occasion turn to outsiders for assistance in a dispute with fellow Koreans, in most circumstances they are looking for advantage over their opponent rather than compromise. For the most part, Koreans do not believe non-Koreans have the capacity to truly understand their problems with other Koreans. Besides, to give an outsider a hand in resolving a peninsular dispute would undermine Korean autonomy.

Division of the self. This brief study of North Korean psychology has completed a circle subscribed by post-colonialism, conservative-traditionalism, and division-consciousness. To state it differently, the division that began with the partition of the peninsula has not only divided the Korean community, but in some sense, has introduced contradictions into the individual Korean’s perception of him or herself.

Korea did not survive its transition to modernity, a fact that cut deeply into the psyche of its people during the first half of the 20th Century. This period of history is known commonly as “the national disgrace.” The division of Korea in 1945 was another “national disgrace.” This tragedy too was imposed on Koreans by outside forces, but has made Koreans doubt themselves even more. The Japanese often pointed to Korean factionalism as one of the reasons why Koreans could not govern themselves.

Although they hate to admit it, Koreans also recognize that a tendency toward factionalism has often weakened Korea even in times of national crisis. Admiral Yi Soon Shin, Korea’s hero during the Hideoshi Invasion in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, for example, was victimized by his enemies at court.

Not surprisingly, North Koreans give Kim Il-sung credit for overcoming factionalism among anti-Japanese resistance fighters. In this sense, Kim Il-sung is believed to have provided the solution to the individual and cultural as well as national character flaws of the Korean people.

Three windows, one door

Korea lost its independence in 1910 and has yet to regain its identity as a unified, independent, sovereign nation. This sense of “brokenness” has impacted Koreans politically, culturally, and psychologically. This is especially true in North Korea where its patient population has borne a half-century of sacrifices – all in the name of a reunited Korea, a memory that is fast fading from the land of the living.

North Koreans unconsciously assume that reunification will happen, and to say (or think) otherwise would be treason against history. Paradoxically, this faith, common to both sides of the peninsula, is also one of the greatest obstacles to North/South dialogue. The vision of where things must lead is so strong that it often trivializes efforts to achieve it. Even worse, the conviction that reunification is inevitable is so absolute that principals are not sobered enough by the thought that their actions may actually have permanent consequences. And yet, Korea remains divided.

Even more than ideology and tradition, division-consciousness is the greatest obstacle to dealing with North Koreans.  It is the third party to every negotiation and the uninvited guest who threatens the celebration of every achievement.

In summary, post-colonialism, conservative-traditionalism, and division-consciousness are three windows into the North Korean soul. It is a mistake, however, to assume that all three can serve as a door to friendship. North Korea may have three windows, but only one door for the westerner interested in a positive relationship with North Korea.

The outsider needs to understand division-consciousness, primarily to know what to avoid. While it is essential to be “reunification-friendly,” it is never useful to assume that as the representative of a foreign entity, one can play a leading role in bringing reunification about. Korea may have been divided by foreign powers, but only the Korean people can put it back together again.

The window of post-colonialism (ideology) is not a recommended approach to a successful relationship either. “Fellow-travelers” are never really trusted, particularly when they verbally abuse their own nation and leadership. Why? Because North Koreans place a very high value on personal loyalty. Another reason: North Koreans would rather deal with the proverbial “center” of a society because they know that’s where the power is. As long as one is sincere and respectful (particularly of their leadership), North Koreans are quite open to people whose ideas and philosophies differ from their own.

The most promising access to North Korea is through tradition, as the following general principles will illustrate:

Personal relationships. Unlike most western oriented societies, where the ultimate appeal is to impersonal laws rather than to personality, in traditional Korean society personality stands behind law. Instead of a wide variety of legally structured stable relationships, Korean interpersonal relationships tend to either spiral towards or away from intimacy. This characteristic means that North Korean diplomacy has a much stronger personal dimension and a much weaker legal dimension than is customary in the West.

From the North Korean perspective, human relations should never be made conditional to something else. To suggest that a problem must be solved or an issue addressed before a relationship is possible is to demonstrate insincerity. Problems should be portrayed as annoying obstacles to what is most important: personal relationships.

Putting results second. North Koreans are most responsive to negotiations that focus on people rather than problems. While they may not express it, North Korean sensibilities are often offended by excessively goal-oriented negotiations. For example, attempts to meet high officials, resolve sensitive issues, and conclude agreements, all on a three-day trip to Pyongyang, send the wrong message. To have integrity, negotiations must have a clear goal of building lasting relationships. A willingness to commit personnel, resources, and time to the effort is the best way to establish sincerity and facilitate problem solving.

Personal envoys. Persons within an organization assigned to work with North Korea should be designated as the personal envoy of the head of the organization. This makes for much faster progress because it sends a signal that there is significant interest in building the relationship at the “center.” The rank and title of the negotiator are not as important as access because proof of interest at the highest level is paramount to giving the negotiation process legitimacy. Repeated assurances that the top leadership are involved and committed can greatly accelerate relationship building and project implementation while the perception that the negotiations are of peripheral concern to the sponsoring organization will retard progress.

The importance of ritual. For millennia Koreans were obligated by their relationship with China to recognize the “Middle Kingdom” as the center of the universe. Practically speaking, this meant that Koreans had to make ritual pilgrimages to the “center” on a regular basis. North Koreans still expect “big powers” to take this approach when dealing with “little powers.” Consequently, sending envoys (repeatedly) to Pyongyang with no stated objective other than to reaffirm a relationship can be extremely effective because it demonstrates more than the expected tokens of sincerity and respect from a “big” to a “little power.” Inconveniences incurred in taking advantage of this approach should be weighed against the cost and expense of not doing so. Absent an atmosphere of respect and sincerity, North Koreans will exact payment for each step in the process, something they would not normally require of a friendly party.

While acting out of character for a representative of a “big power” can be extremely effective, in certain circumstances, acting according to traditional East Asian norms can also be an advantage. This is particularly true in demonstrating sincerity in dialogue.  When problem solving in Korean culture, the “big person” is supposed to display a “big mind” while the “little person” has far more latitude. The lesser party may throw tantrums and otherwise act immaturely…up to a certain point. A “little person” who behaves with excessive immaturity or a “big person” who displays insufficient “big mindedness” upsets the moral parity needed to resolve the conflict. Usually, each party tries to place the other at a disadvantage by excelling in the norms of behavior. Most representatives of foreign organizations are ritually “big persons.” The disadvantage of playing this ritual role is to display temper or the threat of violence, which results in a loss of moral high ground. On the other hand, demonstrations of openness and a willingness to dialogue can obligate North Koreans to be more flexible.

Conclusion


In retrospect, it probably was not necessary to point out that North Korea cannot be ignored. Over the last decade, Pyongyang has made that argument clear to everyone. What does need emphasis, however, particularly today, is that North Korea is not impossible to deal with. What is most needed (and most often most lacking) is focus. Given a willingness to devote time, effort, and patience, dealing with the world’s greatest negotiating challenge can even be rewarding.

Source: Lecture hosted by the Korean UNESCO Cultural Exchange Services in 200l, www.unesco.or.kr. Born in South Korea of missionary parents, Dr. Stephen Linton has made approximately 90 trips to North Korea. The Eugene Bell Foundation supports more than 40 North Korean medical facilities serving tuberculosis patients. Stephen Linton received a Master of Divinity from Korea Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. in Korean ethics and ideology from Columbia University in the U.S. He is presently a research associate at Harvard University.

[Reprinted from World & I Special Report: Korea at the Turning Point. Washington, DC: Interreligious and International Federation for World Peace, 2006]

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