As one of the most reclusive countries in the world, there is always a dearth of information on North Korea and, consequently, a great thirst for insights into the country. A respected journalist and scholar for over fifty years, Selig Harrison boasts a long history covering events on the Korean peninsula and is well qualified to help quench this thirst. At this May 3 Asia Program event, Harrison offered the first public report of his most recent visit to North Korea.

This—his eighth trip to the country—came on the heels of an April filled with rarities, a disaster, and some firsts for North Korea: Just prior to Harrison's arrival, Kim Jung Il made a rare and secretive visit to Beijing; he departed the peninsula only days after the April 22 train collision. The tragedy prompted an unprecedented, albeit informal appeal for international assistance. This past weekend, Pyongyang accepted the first cargo flight of aid from South Korea, and reports suggest that that country will allow a truck convoy to cross the border—another first in North-South relations.

From the outside, North Korea appears to have changed little in the past fifty years. Though the country lags behind its Asian neighbors in nearly all respects, Harrison reported that a spurt of capitalism is occurring in both urban and rural areas throughout the country. Would-be entrepreneurs are slowly emerging, adding to a social ferment not seen in recent history. But the country has a long, steep road ahead.

In intense conversations with Kim Il Nam, Kim Jung Il's "number two" man in Pyongyang, the foreign minister, vice foreign minister, and a top general, Harrison came away convinced that North Korean leaders both are well aware of the country's dire economic situation and believe the country's fledgling nuclear program is the ticket to financial recovery. As Harrison noted, "North Korea is extremely pragmatic—and extremely opportunistic." Indeed, North Korean leaders are holding the program as an all-important bargaining chip.

Pyongyang has three primary demands: 1) comprehensive economic aid, 2) the removal of North Korea from the U.S. State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism (which precludes the country from receiving important ADB and World Bank aid); and 3) most importantly, that the United States become a "friend" before denuclearization. This is perhaps the biggest sticking point in the debate between Washington and Pyongyang; the United States insists that North Korea first denuclearize as an act of goodwill before any discussion of normalization.

In Harrison's interviews, leaders emphasized that they were not concern with a Northeast Asian arms race or see a nuclear China or Russia as a threat. Rather, Pyongyang's nuclear proliferation is only designed to deter a U.S. nuclear attack—an event that seems more likely to North Korean leaders, given the Bush Administration's liberal use of its preemptive doctrine exercised in Iraq.

Harrison reported that North Korean leaders are concerned with the country's negative image throughout the world. Kim Il Nam went to great lengths to distinguish between selling missiles (which they must do for economic reasons) and nuclear materials (which they would never do, as a matter of protection). To demonstrate that it does not belong to President Bush's "axis of evil" or the State Department's state sponsors of terrorism list, Kim Il Nam proclaimed his disgust with al Qaeda and denounced the 9/11 attacks on America. But North Korean leaders also insist that President Bush is linking terrorism to North Korea to manipulate U.S. public sentiment. In total, however, Harrison sees a toning down in Pyongyang's rhetoric.

The bottom line, according to Harrison, was that North Korean leaders are largely eager to begin step-by-step denuclearization, provided that it is linked to normalization with the United States and a significant increase in economic aid and support. Contrary to some predictions, Harrison does not believe the Pyongyang regime is about to collapse. He believes that the United States must accept that North Korea, in its current political form, will likely muddle through for decades to come. Therefore, he suggests that Washington move toward normalizing relations as a sign of goodwill, to convince North Korea that the United States is not a threat. Yet, he also contends that the United States must not back down militarily and must prepare for the albeit unlikely event that hardliners in North Korea launch an attack on U.S. allies or interests in Northeast Asia.

Drafted by Timothy Hildebrandt, Asia Program Assistant
Robert M. Hathaway, Director, Asia Program
Ph: (202) 691-4057