26 March 2014
Children of North Korea

Richardson and Schmidt to North Korea

Former US Ambassador to the UN, Bill Richardson, and Google chief, Eric Schmidt, are now in North Korea, defying the advice of the US State Department. We think the mission is a very good idea.

Bill Richardson, former US Ambassador to the United Nations and former governor of New Mexico, and Eric Schmidt, Google`s executive chairman, have just arrived in North Korea.

The US State Department advised Richardson that the trip is not "helpful" in light of the recent rocket launch by North Korea. But it has noted that they are going as private citizens, and cannot stop them. In contrast to State, we think that the mission is a very good idea.

This "private humanitarian visit" will not be Richardson`s first trip to the hermit kingdom. He has been there on several previous occasions to secure the release of American citizens taken prisoner. And on this occasion, he will be endeavoring set free Mr Kenneth Bae, a Korean born American citizen, who has been arrested for committing "hostile acts against the republic".

Other leading US political figures like Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter have also made similar missions in the past to North Korea to secure the release of American prisoners. It is good domestic politics in North Korea to force the world's superpower to come begging for clemency. It runs a special museum for gifts that foreign dignitaries have brought for its leaders.

The invitation by Richardson to Eric Schmidt to join this mission "as a private citizen" to the world's most information restrictive country is more curious. Schmidt is of course a staunch advocate of global Internet access and the power of connectivity in lifting people out of poverty and political oppression.

Let's take a quick look at the North Korean context in which this visit is taking place.

Just over 12 months ago, KIM Jong-un was thrust into the country's leadership, following the sudden death of his father, KIM Jong-il. There was much speculation that KIM Jong-un's youth and inexperience could lead to instability in Pyongyang.

Ironically, we should be grateful that KIM Jong-un seems to have consolidated his position as leader, with the support of his aunt and her husband, following purges in the military. Infighting and power struggles between rival factions, including the military, could have had some unpredictable consequences in this country with the world's fourth largest standing army and many loose canons.

KIM Jong-un's crowning achievement has been a successful rocket launch in December. In addition to strengthening his position domestically, it is a useful way to attract attention and win concessions from the international community. Brinkmanship can be an effective form of diplomacy.

In his New Year's Day speech, KIM followed up with a call for the end of confrontation with South Korea in what seems to have been an overture to the incoming South Korean President, Park Geun-bye. She has adopted a more conciliatory tone to the North than that of her predecessor.

In short, things seem to be moving. But there are other reasons which suggest that this could be a good timing to attempt a new rapprochement with North Korea.

Western countries would like China, the main supporter of North Korea, to play a more active and constructive role. But despite its substantial economic and political support, China finds North Korea almost as irritating as the West does. It regularly ignores China's advice. And recently it detained some Chinese fishermen in the Yellow Sea.

North Korea takes advantage of Beijing's strong wish that a reunification of North and South Korea not take place. The last thing that China wants is seeing American troops sitting on its border. And China also likes to use Pyongyang as a bargaining chip with the West, despite its unreliability.

In short, we can't rely on Beijing to bring Pyongyang to heel.

North Korea's chronically weak economy is also coming to life through marketization, and the progressive weakening of central planning controls following a famine in the 1990s. At least half of food consumed now comes from private markets, rather than the government.

And exports of minerals to China have grown rapidly in recent years, thereby permitting imports of food and other goods. The government is now considering letting farmers keep at least 30 per cent of their yield.

On his visit to Pyongyang last November, Alexander Liebreich, conductor of the Munich Chamber Orchestra, discovered a city very different from 2006. "There were more shops, more people on the streets. Coachloads of Chinese tourists emptied into restaurants and hotel lobbies -- our hotel was packed. There was more electricity, a lot of renovation and new architecture."

There may also be the beginnings of new mindsets. Like all totalitarian regimes, the mobilization and cohesion of the North Korea people have been fostered by ideologies like ("self-reliance" and "military first politics") which run deep in the North Korean psyche. North Koreans are taught to believe that the outside world is a hostile enemy, and that they are a pure, unique race.

While KIM Jong-un has not yet put his own stamp on North Korean ideology, he is projecting a totally different image, a more extrovert and populist leadership style. This, together with his new beautiful wife, "North Korea's Kate Middleton", is modernizing the country's personality cult. In other words, the atmospherics of North Korea are also changing.

Another factor which is changing North Korea is the flow of outside information into the very strictly controlled media environment. Information is now seeping across the border through foreign DVDs, radio and TV broadcasts, USB keys and mobile phones. There are now more than one million mobile phones in North Korea. While they do not have international access, those near the border can illegally make use of the Chinese mobile network.

All things considered this seems a very opportune time to test a new opening with North Korea. Its new leader has made it through his first year with surprising success. And the stars may be aligning as the US has a newly re-elected president looking for a legacy, and China, Japan and South Korea all have new leaders.

For his part, KIM Jong-un must feel the irresistible winds of change in his own country. He has also seen in the Arab Spring the effects of trying to resist inevitable change, and in the case of Burma, an example of getting ahead of the curve.

KIM Jong-un is not even 30 years old, and he can only be too conscious that his regime cannot survive the coming 50 or so years before he joins his father, the "Eternal General Secretary", and his grandfather, the country's "Eternal President", in paradise. Also, as a member of the "Google-generation", he must be excited by the visit of Eric Schmidt.

There have of course been disappointments in the past. Veteran North Korea watchers will recall the false hopes back in 1994 when KIM Jong-un's father took over the reins of power.

And the internal political structure of the Korean Workers Party, the security apparatus, mass organizations like KIM Il-sung Socialist Youth League, and the military will be wary about the short-term risks to their grip on power. They are the great beneficiaries of the North Korean system.

But there may be some wise heads who are open to outreach from the West. In any event, it is certainly worth a try, and Richardson and Schmidt could be the right guys to break the ice.

Interestingly, the North’s state-run Korean Central News Agency confirmed the American group’s arrival in Pyongyang, calling it “a Google delegation.” Let's see what happens!


John West
Executive Director
Asian Century Institute
Tags: asia, north korea, Bill Richardson, Eric Schmidt, KIM Jong-un

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