Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Understanding North Korea Today

Greetings from the Australian National University in Canberra where Dr Emma Campbell, Korea Institute Postdoctoral Fellow of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre is speaking on "Inside the hermit kingdom - a tour of North Korea", based on a recent visit. She suggested looking at individual stories to see how history changes individuals and how individuals shape history. She gave the examples of Shin Dong-hyuk, who escapes a  North Korean prison camp, as described in "Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West" by Blaine Harden (Penguin Books, 2013). She then described visiting a school day at a North Korean town far from the capital, which she described as reassuringly normal. This contrasted with the much more regimented mass performances in Pyongyang. She argues that the west is mislead by North Korean propaganda, which the citizens themselves don't take a lot of notice of. Dr Campbell estimated that chronic malnutrition had stunted the growth of teenage children she saw at six years. But the message was not all negative, as she pointed out that there are vibrant private markets supplementing government rations.

Dr Campbell pointed out that the western sanctions against North Korea provides a propaganda weapon for the regime, which can blame hardships on the west. She recommended reading of the Pyongyang Project. She argued that North Korea is being driven to a closer relationship with China and so may follow a Chinese model, which may not be in the interests of the west. She ended by playing a clip of the Moranbong Band plays Rocky in North Korea.

The question which this excellent presentation leaves is if North Korea can escape from its history. One way might be through collapse as happened to the Soviet Union, however the risks from this would be very high. Another option would be the introduction of a market economy, while retaining central party control, as in China. Perhaps after a period of prosperity, North Korea might accept their nuclear facilities being supervised by Chinese nationals under a United Nations mandate.

Dr Emma Campbell recently returned from a 6 day visit to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea where she travelled through the Northeast of the country. Her itinerary included the cities of Rajin-Sonbong, Chongjin, Kyongsong and the Chilbosan region. In this lecture, Dr Campbell will share images and experiences from her recent trip. She will explore issues around travelling to North Korea by answering questions such as: can anything be gained from such restricted and monitored travel? Does travel to a country like North Korea help break down barriers between outsiders and the Korean people or does it give sustenance to the regime? And can anything witnessed in North Korea be considered ‘real’ or believable? Based on her long engagement with the Korean peninsula that began with a trip to the DPRK in 1997 during the country’s devastating famine, Dr Campbell argues that much can be gained by informed travellers who visit the DPRK. Despite the barriers presented by the controlled nature of tours, she contends that substantial insights that can be gained into normal life in the North. In this lecture, Dr Campbell will share some of these insights with the audience and suggest how such knowledge should shape the policy of Australia and the wider international community in their efforts to bring about peace on the Korean peninsula.

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