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Articole Center for European Policy Evaluation

Interview with Professor Antonio Fiori on North Korea

Antonio Fiori is a university professor at the Political Science Faculty of the University of Bologna, teaching Politics and Institutions of Korea and Eastern Asia and International Relations of Eastern Asia. He lived for a long period in Asia and was a visiting fellow at the United International College of Zhuhai (PRC), at East-West Centre of Honolulu (USA) and Kyunjanggak Institute for Korean Studies of Seoul National University. His areas of interest are the inter-Korean relations and the study of the civil society in Korea. His last book, Asia Orientale, was published in 2010.

In March and April 2012 the Asian continent seized world’s attention. One of the countries that became a press and political scientist’s subject of analysis was the North Korean with her nuclear program. Despite the fact that at the end of February 2012 the North Korea approved a Moratorium on freezing the nuclear program in change of humanitarian aid, consisting of food, two weeks later, they came with the announcement that they wanted to launch a satellite for economic reasons. Ignoring all international warnings over the consequences of such an action, in April, the North Koreans did it their way and launched the missile. In front of all these events, the interview which C.E.P.E. took to Antonio Fiori, university professor at the University of Bologna, offers a very interesting approach over how we can understand what is happening nowadays in North Korea.

Center for European Policy Evaluation (C.E.P.E.): I would start by asking how would you characterize the relations that the North Korea has developed with the world. What has the nuclear programme brought to North Korea?

Antonio Fiori:  This is a very difficult question as the relations of North Korea with the rest of the world are very complex and complicated. They are developed on a double axis structure: there are the relations with Beijing and the relations with Washington. In what regards the contacts with China, traditionally they are very good. The Chinese have always proved their availability to help the North Koreans, although not even the Chinese have been always very happy with North Koreans’ behaviour, especially during the moments of high tensions: I refer to the underground nuclear tests, the missile tests and others.  The relationship with US varies from administration to administration, but also within the same American administration we could notice different approaches of the matter. The relation between the two sides has been at their odds during the Clinton Administration. But due to internal problems and especially with the majority of the Senate seats won by the Republicans, there was a breakdown of these contacts. So, North Korea mainly maintains its international relations within these two paths, but it has also developed good relations with other so-called rogue states: among which Syria, Iran, with which North Korea maintains a consolidated relation centered on supplying weapons. This activity is important for the survival of the regime, as the arm trade and especially the drug trade (according to estimates, huge quantities of opium are produced in North Korea) bring important amounts of money to the regime.  They are also the best dollar counterfeiters from outside US. In what regards the second question, it is hard to answer if the North Korean choice of nuclearisation was or not an advantage. Most probably it wasn’t, but from the moment they have decided to follow this path, from the 50s, it is hard to tell if it could have been a better alternative or if it is advantageous or not for them. Now, it is not possible to go back, it would be too difficult and too expensive given the domestic characteristics of the regime. The legitimacy of the regime was built in this manner. For the world, we can say that it was not a good thing that North Korea decided to go for a nuclear programe and probably not even for North Korea.

C.E.P.E.: We know that the North Koreans had a good relationship with the Soviet Union. What it could be said about the contact with Russia after the demise of the Soviet Union?

Antonio Fiori: The nuclear programme of North Korea was developed with the help of the Soviet Union, and, particularly in the middle of the 50s, were actually the Soviet scientists to help them develop this sort of programme. It can be said that the Soviets share ”a part of the responsibility” for the nuclear programme of North Korea, but, obviously, we have to admit that we were in front of an international order extremely different from nowadays. It was a bipolar system and within this international settlement it was very important for the Soviet Union to be in the position to bring North Koreans under its umbrella. Being able to develop a nuclear programme within North Korea would have helped them to counterbalance US power. So from this point of view, it is understandable the Soviet choice. But because of the behaviour of the North Koreans the relationship with Russia changed very much, going as far as to generate a fracture when the ideological grounds that tied the two regimes in the past have fallen apart. For a better understanding of how the relationship between the two has evolved during time the following happening is very suggestive in this sense: when Kim Il-Sung was sick, when he had for the first time a heart attack, the North Koreans immediately demanded for help from the Soviets. Moscow sent a team of cardiologists to treat the Korean leader. Obviously this tells a lot about how appreciated or important was for the Soviets the figure of Kim Il-Sung and how relevant were the ties with Soviets for the North Korean leadership. But when in 1994, Kim il-Sung suffered another attack and died, North Koreans did not ask for the help of the Russians. This has a lot to tell about how their relations have evolved.

C.E.P.E.: This month on 12 of April, North Korea tried to launch a satellite into space. The launching failed but there are a lot of controversies around the event. First of all, why the entire dispute around the subject, why the US, Japan and South Korea have opposed so drastically to this launching?

Antonio Fiori: First of all because it is a forbidden thing according to the United Nations resolutions: it is forbidden to launch a missile wherever and whenever you want. Although the North Koreans have tried to convince the world that they were actually trying to put into orbit a satellite, the interpretation we offer may vary. If we want to put our trust in what the North Koreans want to make us believe and have declared to aim to achieve, then we should interpret the things like this: they were actually trying to launch a satellite, thing that they have tried another time, three years ago. But if we interpret the same thing from the point of view of the states that you mentioned, and especially from the point of view of US, the fact acquires another signification. The United States have always seen things in this manner: the North Koreans do nothing else than trying to disguise under a so-called satellite launch intention their real aim to test a missile for military purposes , the Taepodong II under which the eventual satellite was to be mounted. So they argue that this was a test to understand the range of the missile. In other words, the Americans were saying that if this is a missile with a range of 9000km, then, clearly, we are also interested, because at 9000km there are US’s coastlines which can become a target of such a missile. Then the neighbours, Japan and South Korea feel threatened by this type of intentions. Japan is physically and logistically involved in such a launching, because the missiles are usually launched in that direction.  South Korea is preoccupied by this for domestic reasons and because there are few kilometres from the Pyongyang, so they are directly exposed to the North Korean threat. Hence these are the reasons for which these states are so preoccupied and reluctant to any military power demonstration from the North Koreans.

C.E.P.E.: Which could be the consequences of this launching?

Antonio Fiori: The consequences of this launching are still to be seen. From my point of view, for the North Koreans the consequences have been catastrophic, in the sense that it was a failure that the North Koreans had to recognise in front of the world. And probably this failure would render even more difficult the process of transition that started formally with the death of Kim Jong-il. Also, from an international point of view it will be very detrimental to the North Koreans interests, because from the last information one of the possibilities taken into consideration is that UN will sanction even harder Pyongyang, rendering it even more isolated and depriving it from any aids. I refer, especially to the American aids consisting in thousands of tonnes of food for the North Koreans promised in exchange for the North Koreas’ Moratorium on nuclear programme, aid which was already cancelled.

C.E.P.E.: But why did the North Koreans riskso much, why go ahead with the test knowing that one of the consequences could be losing these important quantities of American humanitarian aid?

Antonio Fiori: You are asking me in fact why they launched the missile. From my point of view, this has only one explanation, there might be of course others that I don’t see, but I think that the fact is quite simple to tell. The things have to be treated taking into account what is happening inside the state. And inside the country we have the following facts: a young man, with less than 30 years is taking the lead of the state. We are speaking about a young man that it was not prepared to take the power and probably he was not even formally nominated to take the power, in the sense that  his  father might not have done any choice from this point of view. And this young man found himself in the situation of having the power in his hands without being prepared, he was put in the middle of a group, that I call the “accompanying group” formed by figures that are trying to teach this young man how to do his job. For different reasons, Kim Jong-un, had to launch this missile or take this sort of actions in order to create a certain type of internal legitimacy. As the military body is the one on which the North Korean leader could count on, Kim Jong-un had to prove to them that he was on their side and for sure he could assure them of this through this type of actions.

C.E.P.E.: So he is actually continuing the legacy of his father, he’s following the same path?

Antonio Fiori: Yes, I think so, but from some different reasons it is a given path that he is somehow obliged to follow.

C.E.P.E.: During 26-27 of March in Seoul, South Korea, took place the Nuclear Security Summit. Is there any relation between this summit and the launching of the North Korean satellite?

Antonio Fiori: During this Summit, a great part of the speakers had made some references to the situation from North Korea, as the summit was held in Seoul. What better way to suggest to the North Koreans that their military nuclear programme should be abandoned? Obviously, they didn’t succeed in convincing them to abandon the idea of the launching not even within this framework of full  significance.

C.E.P.E.: My following question refers to the internal situation of North Korea. Worldwide people are asking how come those Korean people do not try to overthrow their government? Do you think the North Korean population could be blamed for the way in which they are living?

Antonio Fiori: Well, this is another question very difficult to offer an answer, as the situation is very complicated to be explained in few words. There are probably two things to be brought into discussion: first of all the leader of the regime is counting on a group of bureaucratic and military elites that have the power in their hands. These elites obviously do not want the leader to be touched upon by no one, because in this case they will also lose power. So there is this large enough group that benefits directly from the friendship with the Kim’s family and does not want this type of power to suffer any scratches. On the other hand we have the rest of the population that has to deal with the consequences, even physical ones, of what happens in North Korea. But they have not been able to succeed in giving voice to their complaints towards the regime. There have been some manifestations at the beginning of 2000, particularly in 2002, when there have been uprisings in some areas of North Korea, but these riots were generated by the collapse of the economic reform. There was an economic reform that at the beginning of the 2000 and in 2009, took inflation at very high levels when the people lost their purchasing power and they became even poorer than before. Which was the consequence of these manifestations? The North Korean Government allowed the apparition of the first forms of private market, an incipient privatization of commerce; the government has tolerated these forms of market and allowed them to set up because it could not control all the things that were occurring in North Korea. In 2005, they started to contain these tendencies because otherwise they could have lost control over the situation. In 2009 with the failure of the financial reform the only one who was blamed and judged was actually the one who initiated the financial reform. I have to say that there are some information that the government, even when  Kim Jong-il was still alive, started to manifest some sort of fear of losing power. These fears are connected with what was happening in Middle East. With the first outbreaks of the Arab Spring we can observe several consequences in North Korea: first of all they tried to keep secret within the country what was going on in the Middle East. And they did this also within the diplomatic body; all North Koreans that were in the countries where such type of riots took place were not allowed to come back in North Korea. Why this? Because they could have related what was going on in the world. This of course could lead us to believe that there was a sort of fear, that the leaders were scared that something that might make them fall and lose power could happen. Then there is another thing that I’ve always pointed out:  in North Korea there is no need for so much control in the sense that the regime does not exercise such a drastic control as we might think. Of course there is control, but the problem is that if in North Korea the two of us had a conversation none of us would had have confidence in the other, and this is the control that passes through the minds of the North Koreans.

C.E.P.E.: From your point of view, what would be the proper manner to solve the North Korean nuclear programme problem?

Antonio Fiori:  This is a question that cannot be answered. I sincerely don’t know,  I don’t know if the nuclear problem has a solution or either if there is a real will to solve it. But I have always believed, and I might be wrong, that North Korea should be considered a nuclear power with all the consequences that come with this status. I think this message should be present in the minds of all decision-makers as it is pointless to consider forever North Korea as a nuclear threat and tell the North Koreans that “unless you suspend that nuclear power we cannot have any sort of relationship.” It seems to me that this way of reasoning is not the proper one anymore. I would suggest another approach: to realise that they have already in their hands nuclear weapons and to try to do somehow to limit the use of these weapons, try to make the North Korean leadership not to think on resorting on this kind of weapon. I think this is how the things should be now perceived. It is a very difficult path to follow, mainly because I noticed that there is a propensity to further isolate North Korea and an isolated North Korea becomes even more threatening. This is how I see the things.

C.E.P.E.: The last thing I would like to ask you: when speaking about the North Korean situation and how do deal with its nuclear programme, what aspect do you think people usually omit to take into account?

Antonio Fiori: There is an aspect that seems to me many forget and it is annoying to me a little bit. When many analysts think that the only possibility to deal with the North Korean problem is a military intervention or that there should be even more drastic general sanctions, I think they forget a very important aspect: that in countries with regimes like the one in North Korea, if there will be a military intervention there will be the loss of lives of millions of people that have no responsibility, no guilt. I think that in the first place we should think at the civilians as they are very important, their lives should not sacrificed. I argue that we should always be aware that inside North Korea there is a population of almost 24 millions of people that have no responsibility for what the regime is doing, their only guilt might be that they live inside a country where the image of the Kim dictatorship is absolutely fierce. It must be understood that inside North Korea there are citizens. If in this country were living only 4 persons and those 4 persons were the ones to be blamed, then a military response would be more understandable. But there are living innocent people, thus I think it is necessary to soften the language.

C.E.P.E.: Thank you for this revelatory interview!


The interview with Professor Antonio Fiori took place on the 18th of April 2012 in Forli, Italy



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