Insights on North Korea

Humanities professor George Katsiaficas on what is really happening inside the secretive state of North Korea

When North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il died in January, many thought it could signal the end of the regime and—quite possibly—the end of the country. Instead, the longtime ruler’s son, Kim Jung-Un, has taken up the reins—a move that raises as many questions as it answers. We asked humanities professor George Katsiaficas, an expert on the Korean peninsula and author of a new book detailing South Korea’s 20th-century social movements, for a bit of perspective on what’s happening in Pyongyang. —DAN MORRELL

1) The North Korean leadership is not the mafia.

“Most people view the country as a one-family dictatorship—that’s not right. It is a very entrenched bureaucracy with many levels of power and privilege and various factions. If Kim Jung-Un wants to do something, he would have to get approval from all kinds of people. The state bureaucratic system in North Korea is what runs the entire society. Plus, [Jung-Un] is not even thirty, and elders are the most respected in North Korean society. This is a society where young people at meals routinely wait until the elders have taken the food they want before they take theirs.”

2) North Korea has been quietly reforming for years.

“North Korea has watched as their closest ally, China, has become a capitalist country. And they have seen China’s prosperity and are trying to emulate it by bringing Chinese firms into the country. They see it as one of the few ways to climb up the economic ladder.”

3) North Korea is not on the verge of collapse.

“Factions in the US and South Korea have long thought that there would be a massive change that would take place quickly—like what happened in East Germany with the fall of the Berlin Wall. But look at the plan for Korean reunification: From 1997 to 2008, they made all sorts of progress. They built a joint economic zone with North Korean workers and South Korean capital. They opened a tourism site in North Korea that was visited by more than a million South Korean tourists. They built railroad ties between the countries. They allowed family visits. You had ten years of forward motion with a long-range, strategic view that the country would be reunified step by step. But if it didn’t collapse then and it didn’t collapse when Kim Jong-Il died, when would it collapse? I don’t think it is going to happen.”

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