What if North Korea didn't exist?
Interview with Prof. Dr. Rüdiger Frank: "I don't see why North Korea should ever give up its nuclear weapons"
2018 was a very eventful year in East Asia. In addition to meetings with neighbors China and South Korea, the first meeting between North Korea and the USA took place in Singapore. North Korea expert Prof. Dr. Rüdiger Frank in an interview with the OAV.
Professor Frank, your last trip to North Korea took place in May 2018. How have the tightened UN sanctions affected the lives of the population? Have you noticed any visible changes during your trip? Was there a food shortage or something like that?
First of all, one must say restrictively that as a western observer, of course, one does not notice everything. The authorities go to great lengths to show foreigners only the best of their country. However, as a regular visitor you develop a feeling for the situation over the years and notice changes - especially if you keep going back to the same places. One pays attention to power outages, the number of vehicles seen on the streets, whether smoke is coming from chimneys, what the market exchange rate of the local currency is, whether prices are stable and shops are full, or what and how is being sold on the roadside. Based on these factors, I could not see any dramatic changes in May 2018. People do suffer and complain about the sanctions, but that has been the case for years. I even noticed positive developments here and there, such as an increasing number of newly built gas stations and rest stops on the roads leading towards China. This fits in with the visibly increasing movement of people and goods by minibus or delivery van. This is an indicator of the growing economic role of the middle class.
Do you believe that North Korea's readiness to negotiate is the result of the sanctions?
No, at least not in the straightforward way that some Western commentaries have portrayed. It is more the case that North Korea sees itself as a nuclear power in a position of strength since the successful intercontinental missile test in November 2017. In addition, with Trump in the White House, Moon in the Blue House and China's increasing self-confidence towards the USA, you see good opportunities to assert your own interests. Hence the willingness to negotiate; it was definitely not born of necessity, but the consequence of North Korea seeing itself in a favorable strategic situation.
How were the Kim Trump Summit in Singapore and the last two meetings with South Korea's President Moon Jae-in in North Korea presented? Were the results of the meetings communicated within the country or was other or no information at all leaked to the North Korean population?
There was extensive and timely reporting, although the whole thing was of course sold as a great victory for its own leadership. I was particularly interested in a 45-minute video that explicitly mentioned that Kim Jong-un had flown to Singapore “on a Chinese plane”. This is very unusual for the proudly self-reliant North Koreans, who are otherwise so proud of their independence, and indicates active efforts to improve relations with Beijing. You are recovering from a competition between the two greats, China and the USA, from which you can then benefit just as North Korea succeeded for a while in the dispute between China and the Soviet Union in the 1950s.
"There is no trust in China or the USA."
China and Russia only partially participate in the UN sanctions. This is why President Trump recently described China's North Korea policy as unhelpful and accused Beijing of undermining US efforts in North Korea due to the trade war. Do you think that the North Korea conflict is being instrumentalized by the great powers?
Korea has a long history of being instrumentalized by neighboring countries and great powers. In Pyongyang people are very sensitive to this and are under no illusions: there is no trust in China or the USA. Therefore, we see very clear efforts in both Koreas to take the reins into their own hands and to take action instead of reacting to the actions of the great powers. This will always remain difficult due to the existing balance of power, which is why I often believe I recognize the attempt to manipulate the great powers in my own way. From this perspective, 2018 was a good year for Korea.
South Korea's President Moon is seen as the driving force and mediator in the negotiations between North Korea and the United States. Unlike his predecessors, President Trump is also willing to speak to North Korea. Do you think this momentum can be sustained should there be a change in government?
Political forces are forming in South Korea who regard any negotiations with North Korea as weakness and naivete. Should they take over power, South Korea's previously very active role in rapprochement would suddenly come to an end. Would Trump go on alone? Definitely, because he doesn't seem to care much about the opinions of his allies. Will he continue to approach Kim Jong-un? Nobody can really say that, as Trump seems to act impulsively, which makes him difficult to predict. An interesting variant for the future would be the continued willingness to cooperate in South Korea and the return of the USA to confrontation. If so, there is no guarantee that Seoul will bow to Washington's will. China is increasingly willing to present itself as an alternative to the USA and to accept the consequences. Korea could be the first place in world politics where one could consciously choose to ignore the wishes of the USA in the hope of Chinese support. If that works, then the entire current world order would be shaken.
"The willingness to negotiate is definitely not born out of necessity, but a consequence of the fact that North Korea sees itself in a favorable strategic situation."
In your opinion, how realistic is a denuclearization of the Korean peninsula?
I don't see why North Korea should ever give up its nuclear weapons. Even after reunification, there is a high likelihood that the weapons will remain on the peninsula. But the problem is not the existence of these weapons, but the danger they pose - whether it is about use, proliferation or technical security. All of these things can very well be handled. as the USA, Russia, India, Pakistan, France and Great Britain more or less succeed in doing.
Let's go one step further into the future. Should the sanctions be lifted and, as a result, North Korea opened up, in which sectors do you see opportunities for German companies and what difficulties would you expect as a foreign investor in North Korea?
North Korea needs just about everything. This applies to mechanical engineering, traffic and communication infrastructure, and mining. Renewable energies are also an issue as the dependence on foreign oil is seen as a strategic problem. In addition to the still lacking legal certainty, the risks for German companies include competition with China, South Korea and Japan, all of which know the North Korean market better. All of this suggests that it is better to try it in cooperation with a partner from these countries rather than going it alone.
Univ.-Prof. Dr. Rudiger Frank
Univ.-Prof. Dr. Rüdiger Frank is Professor of East Asian Economics and Society at the University of Vienna, where he heads the Institute for East Asian Studies.
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