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Review by Francis P Sempa: Talking to North Korea

Francis P Sempa, (2018). Review: Talking to North Korea – Glyn Ford, Asian Review of Books, 14 November. DOI:

In the concluding chapter of Glyn Ford’s new book, Talking to North Korea, the author proposes diplomatic measures to bring about the denuclearization of North Korea. He suggests that any deal that works must resemble the Agreed Framework of 1994 that he claims “halted Pyongyang’s nuclear programme for a short decade.”

Ford, a former member of the European Parliament and currently the Director of Track2Asia (as well as a frequent contributor to this journal) does a commendable job of placing the nuclear issue within the overall context of Korea’s geography, history, and relations with the United States, China, and other countries. He has visited North Korea often and has engaged in what he calls “extended political dialogue” with the Vice-Chairman of the North Korean Communist Party’s International Department.

Ford is especially good at objectively and realistically describing daily life in North Korea. It is a grim place—“closed, isolated, and tightly controlled”. It is an “arbitrary society”, where everyone breaks the law because “[w]hat is not specifically allowed is forbidden.” Travel between towns and provinces requires an official permit. Hospitals and medical clinics lack heating, medical equipment, clean water, and sanitation.

The state and Party control the media and access to the intranet (a government restricted communications network), using them as propaganda tools. Education, likewise, is state controlled and history is taught through the lives of the “Great Leaders” of the Kim family.

“North Korea,” Ford writes, “has a dire human-rights record.” Between them, the Ministry of People’s Security and the State Security Department maintain order, provide domestic surveillance and intelligence, and manage the North Korean version of the Gulag. In short, they are the repressive organs of the Party.

North Korea is, in other words, a Stalinist dictatorship, though Ford instead calls it a “theocracy with communist characteristics.” “North Korea,” he writes,

is the only Communist state that metamorphosed into a theocracy. It has its messiah who works miracles and a church of the elect, with an internally coherent set of ideas that explain the world and its works. They are imbued with a missionary zeal to spread the gospel.

Ford argues that capitalism is emerging in Pyongyang. He describes this development as “market Leninism,” where “[s]mall-scale private enterprise operates under the close eye of the Party.” But he recognizes that North Korea “lacks the mechanisms, institutions and laws necessary to regulate” the market.

Ford also describes in North Korea another common feature of communist countries—the nomenklatura, or Party and state elite, who provide themselves with special privileges and luxuries denied to common citizens.

Ford’s objective realism, however, seems less in evidence when he discusses the US-North Korea diplomatic relationship, especially the nuclear standoff.

Washington, not Pyongyang, Ford writes, is to blame for the failure of the Agreed Framework and other diplomatic efforts to denuclearize North Korea. He asserts that the Clinton Administration signed the Agreed Framework “in bad faith as a way to buy time until North Korea collapsed.” He accuses the United States of being a “serial discoverer” of North Korean secret nuclear programs. US actions, especially those of the George W Bush administration, “provided good reasons for [North Korea] to seek uranium enrichment capability.” US bad faith, ill will, and incompetence “turned North Korea into a nuclear power.” Bush and the US “military industrial complex” conspired to “destroy the last best chance of stopping Pyongyang’s drive to develop a nuclear deterrent capable of hitting the US mainland.”

To be sure, US diplomatic efforts to denuclearize North Korea have been far from perfect. But it might also be hard to fault US policymakers and negotiators for approaching talks with North Korea with skepticism and a healthy sense of distrust. History teaches that it is incautious to accept at face value any promise and any representation made by communist regimes. As President Ronald Reagan was fond of saying during his arms control negotiations with the Soviet Union: “trust but verify.”

Ford rightly notes that another Korean War is possible, and that the US and North Korea must talk to each other to avoid such a conflict. He suggests that the UN or the European Union can play a role here, and that a good first step would be formally declaring the 1950-53 Korean War over. The US, he writes, needs to discard its goal of “regime change” and instead promote efforts to “change the regime” in North Korea.

It is far more likely, however, that the US will simply have to accept that North Korea is a nuclear power and use its alliances in the region and its nuclear deterrent to maintain what the great nuclear strategist Albert Wohlstetter called the “delicate balance of terror.”

Francis P Sempa is the author of Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century and America’s Global Role: Essays and Reviews on National Security, Geopolitics and War. His writings appear in The Diplomat, Joint Force Quarterly, the University Bookman and other publications. He is an attorney and an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University.