Interview with Sir Malcolm Rifkind on North Korea, part 2
Photo: Sir Malcolm Rifkind
VM: In your previous answer, you mentioned that South Korea, with a population of 51 million, is twice as large as North Korea, and its wealth and GDP of nearly 3 trillion US dollars, are vastly greater than North Korean GPD of 40 billion USD, and that the North Koreans flee to South Korea.
I can add that that the defence budget of South Korea is nearly equal to GDP of North Korea. That is statistic, which is considered accurate, but reality might be different. For example, statistic does not take into consideration costs of labor or level of taxation, “administration” costs, or cost of production of energy resources or products, or tanks, guns and missiles in these countries… In 2017, average salary of American has buying potential equal to the average salary of American in 1958… With all todays thousands of dollars!
As a student, my son visited North Korea. He spent in North Korea one month. 17 students paid for dinner in best restaurants in Pyongyang about 8 dollars, in total! The prices have not changed much since that time. So, GDP in North Korea is different from GDP of South Korea or of the UK...
Most important, statistics don’t take into account neither relations between South and North Korean people, nor their traditions, values, mentality…
Some of the North Koreans take refuge in the South, very few South Koreans want to move to the North, but many South Koreans admired and respected Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il and now respect Kim Jong-un.
The South Koreans don't admire what was created in the North, but they think that negative features of the North Korean system and regime, as the division of Korea, to great extent are the result of external pressure and policy of the foreign countries. They think that united Korea will be much better for Koreans than two present Koreas. The Koreans do not put it like “either North or South”.
The conflict between North and South on Korean peninsular was created by foreign powers: the Soviet Union and China in the North and the US in the South. The foreign powers still influence the situation in Korea. These powers can turn from blind pressure on Pyongyang to support of the process of improving relations, developing cooperation and starting re-integration of two Koreas into one. Nobody can predict in detail how this process will go and what the future united Korea will look like, but the world powers and the UN can try to organize this process properly, with trust, taking into consideration mentality and traditions of the Korean people, providing security for both Koreas. It is clear that through changing and improving relations, both Koreas will go through transformation. By changing relations, you change systems and structures. North Korea will become different, South Korea will also change, interacting with each other, and there is a great chance that these transformations will be positive.
Through changing relationships between two systems, we can change the systems.
Do you think that the world powers, mainly the US, China and Russia are ready to change their policies in order to improve relations and situation on Korean peninsular?
MR: I can fully accept that most Koreans aspire to see the reunification of their country. I can also understand that some South Koreans might be impressed by the determination of the North Korean regime to assert their independence and ability to defend themselves. That does not alter the fact that North Korea has the most repugnant regime in the world in the way that it treats its own citizens.
It has allowed mass starvation and hundreds of thousands of avoidable deaths in order to squander the countries resources on unnecessary weapons of mass destruction. The fact that the GDP of North Korea is $40billion compared to $3trillion in South Korea speaks for itself as to which regime provides prosperity and a decent way of life for its own citizens.
I do not doubt that the US, China and Russia are prepared to consider changing certain aspects of their policies if that would persuade Kim Jong-un to terminate his nuclear weapons programme. The South Korean President has also shown a similar willingness. So far there has been no constructive response from North Korea. That is why sanctions must be intensified and China remains the one country that could make a profound difference as it control's North Korea's access to essential oil supplies.
In 2002, Kim Jong-il visited Russia on the invitation of President Putin. After few months, Russian cultural delegation, including musicians, singers and dancers went to North Korea with the return visit on the invitation of Kim Jong-il. In North Korea, the military people occupy higher position in the society and are respected more compared to civilians. In Moscow, it was decided that the leader of the Russian delegation had to be a General. Sergey Strygin, Commandant of the Moscow Kremlin, was appointed as the leader of the delegation. After his return from Pyongyang, Strygin received a telephone call from the Embassy of South Korea in Moscow. The Korean Ambassador told General Strygin that one of the top Korean businessman, who visited Moscow, wanted to invite Strygin for dinner.
Strygin was very surprised. He asked the Head of the Russian Federal Service of Guards Yevgeniy Murov, whether he was to accept the invitation. Murov allowed Strygin to meet the Korean businessman, but suggested that Strygin should go for this dinner with his deputy Mikhail Firsov and an interpreter, who was to be outsider, not from the Service of Guards.
Strygin called me and asked me to come with him. I worked for many years on the Kremlin projects and knew Strygin and Firsov well. I had also family relation with the Kremlin guards. My grandfather worked in the Kremlin for many years during Stalin times. He was responsible for the maintenance of the fireplaces and heating in the Moscow Kremlin and all “objects of the 9-th Department of the KGB (Guards)” in Moscow and around the city.
We came to one of Moscow restaurants and had dinner with the President of one of the biggest Corporations in South Korea. During the dinner, we talked about Moscow, Russian traditions, Russian – South Korean relations. At the end of the dinner, Strygin and Firsov became slightly nervous. It was not clear for them what was the purpose of that meeting.
- Ask him, why he invited me to this dinner, - said Strygin, looking very uneasy.
I asked the Korean businessman very straightforward.
He kept silent for a minute, looking at the table as if he was afraid of looking at us.
- I know that General Strygin visited North Korea, - he said.
- Yes, - I confirmed.
- I know that he met Kin Jong-il, - he said and kept silence for a minute. Then he continued,- and General Strygin took photos with Kim Jong-il…
I looked at Strygin and translated the words of the Korean businessman.
- Yes, - said Strygin, looking interested.
- Can General Strygin give me few of these photographs? – asked the Korean, bending forward and keeping his red face close to the table.
- Of course. There is no problem, - said Strygin happy that the request was so easy to fulfill. – But, why do you want these photos, of the leader on North Korea?
The South Korean looked at us smiling happy that Strygin had agreed with readiness, so easily.
- We respect Kim’s family, - he said. – They keep and protect our national identity. The heart of our nation is there, in the North. Nearly all Koreans in the South have at home, in special sacred places, photos of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. Sadly, we can get only official photos. General Strygin has unofficial photos, nobody has them, and they are very valuable for us.
- Of course, tomorrow morning I’ll send to you copies of the photos. The photos will be delivered to you at 8.30, - said Strygin looking at the Korean businessman with respect…
Forgive me for this rather long story, but I recalled it to show that behind statistics lie relations, which can show statistics, facts and figures in different light. Many South Koreans keep photos of North Korean leaders in sacred places in their homes. They think that North Korea preserves Korean traditions, philosophy and values, its independence while South Korea is still under influence and control of the US.
VM: North Korea has been developing its nuclear programme for at least 30 years. In 2001, Kim Jong-il told Vladimir Putin that North Korea had already nuclear weapons. How it is possible “to stop” nuclear programme, which has been successfully developing for decades? China knew about it, Russia knew. I am sure that Washington also knew, but started demanding its termination only now.
You assume that the US, China and Russia are prepared to change certain aspects of their politics, but not the existing system of relationships with North Korea, which can’t guarantee security for Pyongyang. This system is based on confrontation. Washington openly threatens Pyongyang with “annihilation”. It will be impossible to change the situation on Korean peninsular without changing the system of relationships and policies.
Does Washington have another plan of actions in case Pyongyang does not yield to pressure and refuse to terminate nuclear weapons programme? What will happen then? Is there any vision in the West beyond intensification of sanctions, which fail to achieve goals so frequently and may not work against North Korea? What is the alternative to increasing economic pressure? War? The destruction, the deaths of tens of millions of people?
It is obvious that the US has no military capacity to occupy and control North Korea. It is obvious that in case of US military intervention, China will be forced to support Pyongyang, and for Russia, it will be extremely difficult not to support China and Pyongyang. Do you believe that Trump will initiate annihilation of 30 million Koreans and tens of thousands of Americans and Japanese to “terminate” programme successfully implemented for at least 30 years?
MR: You suggest that it will not be possible to stop North Korea's nuclear weapons programme because it has been developing for several years. That does not follow. Iran was pursuing a nuclear weapons programme for several years although, unlike North Korea, it denied it. A combination of powerful sanctions, approved by the UN Security Council, a desire to avoid a military confrontation with the international community and a willingness on the part of those negotiating with Iran to compromise led to an agreement. This has resulted in Iran terminating its nuclear weapons programme for at least the next few years and perhaps permanently.
I do not approve of President Trump's rhetoric against Iran. I believe it has been foolish, emotional and likely to be counter-productive. However, even President Trump has not suggested that he is contemplating a pre-emptive attack using nuclear weapons on North Korea . His references to "annihilation" were quite clearly in regard to how the United States would respond if North Korea launched a military attack on the United States or on countries neighbouring North Korea.
You have, sadly, failed to acknowledge the responsibility of China and Russia to do all in their power through economic and oil sanctions to press the North Koreans to the negotiating table. At least the United States is pressing for effective economic sanctions as an alternative to a military confrontation. Both China and Russia have been silent as to what they will do if Kim Jong-un continues to ignore their requests, exhortations and disapproval of North Korea's nuclear weapons programme and continues with nuclear weapons test explosions and missile being launched over Japan.
Photo: Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-il, Moscow, Kremlin
VM: China and Russia support Washington’s efforts to pressure Pyongyang into a deal, they both applied sanctions, but both of them are sceptic about the US approach.
Putin made his understanding of the situation very clear. He said that by pressure and sanctions nothing could be achieved. In 1994, Washington and Pyongyang agreed to terminate nuclear program, but after reaching agreement, the US started violating the agreement by arresting North Korea bank accounts and demanding more concessions from Pyongyang. As a result, North Korea walked out of the agreement and continued to develop nuclear program under sanctions and pressure. In 2001, North Korea had nuclear weapons. Now, Pyongyang has hydrogen bomb and ballistic missiles. That is the result of the policy of sanctions and pressure and non-cooperation.
China also doesn't believe in sanctions. It stands for providing guarantee of security to Pyongyang and starting demilitarization of Korean Peninsula. China stands for developing cooperation between North Korea, South Korea and the West. Beijing is under pressure from Washington and is forced to go into sanctions, but Beijing is doing it reluctantly, understanding that this is not the right way.
I think that it is possible to terminate nuclear program of Pyongyang, but not by sanctions and pressure, but by changing the whole system of the relationships with North Korea. Washington pushes itself and the world into dead end, saying: “Stop development of weapons, otherwise our relationships will become very bad and we will attack and destroy you!” This policy doesn’t work, because Pyongyang understands that the relations between North Korea and the USA are already so bad, that if North Korea does not become strong enough, the US will destroy them.
The only possible way out of this conflict and deadlock is to change relations, to bring trust and feeling of security. In changing relations lie opportunities.
I know groups and movements in both Korean States, as well as in China and the West, including the UK, who propose alternative approach, which includes:
- guarantee of security to Pyongyang by the US and other world powers,
- support of the efforts by North Korea and South Korea to develop cooperation and integration of their economies,
- start of political process of re-unification of Korea.
What do you think about this alternative approach to the policy of pressure and sanctions?
MR: I do not accept your historical narrative which seeks to put the blame on the United States for North Korea resuming its nuclear weapons programme after 1994.
At the end of your question you list 3 possible ingredients of an alternative approach through diplomatic negotiation. I have no problem with these objectives and believe that the United States would consider them seriously if they were to lead to North Korea terminating its nuclear weapons programme.
North Korea would be more likely to agree to a negotiated solution if that would also secure the lifting of economic and other sanctions. The stronger these sanctions were the more North Korea would have additional incentives to choose the diplomatic path. If China had stopped all oil supplies to North Korea it is reasonable to assume that a prime North Korean objective would be the lifting of such oil sanctions. It was sanctions, after all, that led Iran to agree to a negotiated compromise. North Korea is like all other countries. It wants to achieve benefits and remove disadvantages. That would be the objective of any negotiations.
To great extent, political problems in relations between the West and North Korea have their roots in misunderstanding by the Western politicians of the character of the regime in North Korea, of its ideological foundation and the mentality of the Koreans.
Communist ideology plays important role in North Korea, but mental cord of the North Koreans and of the present regime is Juche, the teaching of Kim Il-sung, the first leader of North Korea and the grand farther of the present leader Kim Jong-un.
Actually, Kim Il-sung had not invented Juche, but developed it from the communist positions. Juche is a part of Korean philosophy of the Middle Ages. According to Juche, man can be free and determine his destiny only by keeping and preserving his identity, his nationality, traditions of his family and nation. Nation can also be protected, successful and free only by preserving its identity, traditions, its mentality, by developing its own country on the principles of self-reliance in economy, defence, education, culture, sport and other spheres of activities.
The central point of Juche is the idea that Leader of the Koreans is the holder and the protector of traditions and mentality of the nation. He is responsible for keeping, protecting and developing Korean traditions and keeping integrity of the nation. The North Koreans are to protect their Leader, to unite round him and if necessary, to give their lives protecting him and the country.
Juche is absolute opposite to the modern European multi-culturalism. It is another world, another civilization.
Several generations of the North Koreans were brought up and lived with these ideas. They still live with these ideas, and with these ideas only. The absolute majority of North Koreans truly believe in Juche, they follow Kim’s ideas. They created a superorganism, a social system with the highest level of self-reliance, self-control, centralization and devotion to the Leader and its national traditions.
In 1990-s, there was an attempt by Bill Clinton and Kim Jong-Il to reach an agreement. According to this agreement, North Korea was to stop developing nuclear weapons, the diplomatic, trade and economic relations between North Korea and the US were to be established. At that time, North Korea stopped its nuclear programme, but George Bush came to power, and the US policy was changed. No diplomatic relations were established, the military presence of the US military in South Korea increased. As a result of this policy, the nuclear tests and missiles development were resumed by North Korea.
Now Donald Trump threatens North Korea with “armada” and “very powerful submarines” hoping that North Korea stops its defense progammes. It looks very unlikely that North Korea will sacrifice its defense and change its mentality and basic principles of its existence facing growing and open threat from the enemy. From their point of view, there is no logic in Western policy.