In November of last year, I wrote about an extraordinary meeting with North Korean diplomats, and concluded that while we could talk at each other (or past each other’s shoulders), it was impossible to have a real conversation, or a meeting of minds. Last week, we did it all over again. We had a meeting in Brussels with a delegation from the North Korean Supreme Peoples’ Assembly.
Their leader Mr. Ri insisted that the primary aim of the government of North Korea was the welfare of the people. Given that the people of North Korea are amongst the poorest in the world, that malnutrition is widespread, that levels of perinatal mortality are alarming, and that the country depends on subventions of oil and food from other countries and international organisations (the UN, the EU), Mr. Ri’s claim is hard to accept — as is the North Koreans’ claimed philosophy of “Juche”, or self-reliance.
And he added that North Korea would welcome inward investment.
As usual, I asked a challenging question. As usual, I prefaced my question with protestations of courtesy and respect, though based on my years spent working in Korea, (1990/94) I very much doubt if those protestations carried much weight. Let me try to reconstruct, as near as I can remember, our exchange, plus my thoughts in response to Mr. Ri’s answer. Given time pressures and the queue of other members waiting to ask a question, I had no opportunity to challenge Mr. Ri’s reply.
RFH: Mr. Ri, you say that your government’s primary objective is the welfare of its citizens. But if so, this has surely been a spectacular failure, since your people are amongst the poorest in the world, and are dependent for energy and food on hand-outs from other countries. After the Korean war, North Korean per capita GDP was slightly ahead of South Korea. Today, South Korea’s GDP is twenty times — not 20% more, twenty times more — than the figure for North Korea.
And the reasons are not hard to find. This is not some accident of history. It is the direct result of your state central planning system, a system which has failed and been abandoned in every other country that has tried it. And your wholly excessive military spending. I understand that your military spending as a percentage of GDP is the highest in the world.
You say you would welcome inward investment. But investors are not sitting waiting for an opportunity to invest in North Korea. They look around the world for the most attractive place to invest. And if they consider North Korea, they will be deterred by political risk. They will think of the Kaesong Industrial Project, which has been subject to political harassment, or the seizure of South Korean assets at the Kumgang mountain resort. No one will invest in the face of those risks.
Why do you not learn from the experience of China, or Vietnam, countries which have switched from ideological state planning to a more open model, with great success? There’s a prosperous world out there, and we’d be delighted to welcome you, if you want to join it.
Mr. Ri: Well we were doing better than the South, but much of our trade was with the Socialist countries of Eastern Europe, so when they collapsed we had a problem. (So why did you not learn the lesson that state-sponsored socialism doesn’t work? Why do you not trade with other countries?). We dealt with those countries by barter trade. (Korea prides itself on its ancientry and longevity — but still, why insist on using a trading mechanism that’s 2000 years out-of-date? Why not join the real world and trade using money, like everyone else?).
We have been subject to trade sanctions from the West — we’re not even allowed to import French perfume. (But Kim Jong Il seemed to have no problem in importing Hennessey French Brandy while his people starved. Maybe if you hadn’t decided to play political and nuclear brinkmanship, and to mount periodical attacks on the South, you wouldn’t have been hit with sanctions). We were obliged to spend money on our military because of the threats we face. (Threats? Invasion? Who on earth do you think wants to invade an impoverished North Korea? There is no military threat, but you use invasion paranoia to justify the suppression and starvation of your people).
It is simply impossible, as you will see above, to have a rational conversation. But we cling to the hope encapsulated in Churchill’s dictum that “Jaw Jaw is better than War War”.