North Korea: The Myth of a Hermit Kingdom

About this Episode

Guests
Deborah Solomon, Mitchell Lerner, Youngbae Hwang

In this episode of History Talk, hosts Brenna Miller and Jessica Blissit speak with three experts on North Korea: Deborah Solomon, Mitchell Lerner, and Youngbae Hwang. Westerners tend to think of North Korea as an isolated "Hermit Kingdom" led by crazy dictators, but what is the view from inside Pyongyang? Join us as we discuss when and how North Korea got its nickname, debate its accuracy, and find out what's shaping North Korea's decisions. 

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Cite this Site

Brenna C. Miller, Jessica Viñas-Nelson , "North Korea: The Myth of a Hermit Kingdom" , Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective
December, 2016
https://origins.osu.edu/historytalk/north-korea-myth-hermit-kingdom?language_content_entity=en.
December, 2016

Transcript

Jessica Blissit  

Welcome to History Talk, the podcast that brings together a panel of experts to discuss current events in historical perspective. I'm your host Jessica Blissit.

 

Brenna Miller 

And I'm your other host, Brenna Miller. Many people around the world are familiar with the now iconic image of the Korean Peninsula. Taken at night from space, the image shows South Korean cities and towns alight throughout the country, while the North is virtually cloaked in darkness. This image has become a symbol of the stark differences between the two countries' developments and outlooks, and the perception that many Americans have of the isolation, secretiveness and hostility of the so called "Hermit Kingdom."

 

Jessica Blissit  

But what does the world look like from North Korea's perspective? Today we're here with three historians to explore how, when, and why North Korea seems to have diverged so much from the rest of the world, and to try to understand and figure out what the world looks like from inside the Hermit Kingdom.

 

Brenna Miller 

From Otterbein University, we have Deborah Solomon, an assistant professor of history and political science, specializing in Japanese colonization of Korea.

 

Dr. Deborah Solomon 

Hi, it's great to be here.

 

Jessica Blissit  

From Ohio State University, we have Mitchell Lerner, an Associate Professor specializing in US-Korean relations, and director of the Institute for Korean Studies.

 

Dr. Mitch Lerner 

Thanks for having me.

 

Brenna Miller 

And finally, we also have Youngbae Hwang, a lecturer at The Ohio State University in International Studies Department and a faculty member in Korean studies who focuses on East Asia.

 

Dr. Youngbae Hwang 

Thank you for having me.

 

Jessica Blissit  

Thanks for joining us today. First off, let's talk about the impression that many Americans have of North Korea. Why is North Korea nicknamed the "Hermit Kingdom?" And how long has it had this reputation? Is it accurate?

 

Dr. Deborah Solomon 

Well, actually, the nickname The Hermit Kingdom really predates the division of Korea along the 38th parallel in 1945. So that the first known instance of it being called the Hermit Kingdom is in a Western book that talked about it as Korea in general as a hermit kingdom in the early 1880s.

 

Dr. Mitch Lerner 

Yeah, it's really actually I think kind of ironic. We have this image of North Korea as the Hermit Kingdom. And yet the name actually refers to Korea going back hundreds of years. And without going through Korean history, it's a name that's really born out of a number of invasions and wars in the 1500s and the 1600s conflict they have with Japan, with the Manchus, that really, along with some nationalist values and a unique sort of Confucian heritage in the country, that really creates a nation that divides itself, that withdraws from the rest of the world, particularly as the West is starting to expand in East Asia in the 1800s. And the real irony is now that the country's been divided, we think of North Korea as the Hermit Kingdom rather than recognizing that this is part of the long historical tradition of the country itself. And the irony is that North Korea is really not a hermit kingdom. They certainly are closed off to some extent to the west and they made it pretty clear that they don't welcome Western involvement, but they're actually fairly well involved in the word. There are roughly 50,000 North Korean workers who are scattered around the world working in China, working in Russia. They have ties and they have diplomatic recognition with any number of countries. And if you look back over the years of the Cold War, it's off and on sometimes, but they had good relations with Cuba, with East Germany, will Albania. So they're really not the hermit kingdom that we think of in the West and it's really that's a name that would have been much better applied a couple centuries ago when it was one nation and really not in today's vernacular.

 

Dr. Youngbae Hwang 

One of the historical explanations about the nickname hermit kingdom, I think it originates from those the western diplomats when they visit or scout around East Asia in 19th century and 18th century. But it's actually between 1392 and 1910. There's a dynasty called Chosŏn Dynasty, or Yi Dynasty is, is actually the longest single surname dynasty in the history of human civilization. The Chosŏn dynasty has that kind of reputation. So if you have 500 years old, a kingdom with a single surname, Yi, and outside from the outside perspective, it's a kingdom of a hermit.

 

Dr. Deborah Solomon 

This idea that North Korea is somehow more hermetically sealed from the outside world than the rest of the peninsula is historically not something that we see.

 

Brenna Miller 

Today the country has a reputation of being very difficult, especially for Westerners as you mentioned, to get information from, so how do scholars and journalists learn about North Korea today?

 

Dr. Deborah Solomon 

I would say that that is probably the biggest problem with trying to study North Korea today, is how unreliable all of the sources of information are, how limited and really narrow they are, and how difficult it is to get a well-balanced and well-rounded picture.

 

Dr. Mitch Lerner 

Yeah, the question of how we get sources is a difficult one. And a lot of what we know about North Korea comes from defector testimony, and there's thousands of defectors from North Korea that have settled in the south or elsewhere. But there's always questions about their reliability. So we use those with some caution. There’re other sources, especially in the electronic age, there's growing numbers of satellite images that we use to decipher particularly if you work in sort of national security as I do, we use satellites that we, over the North so we can detect when they're moving prison populations, when they're closing one of their kwanlisos, one of their political prison camps. We use them to monitor the Yongbyon nuclear facility. So to some extent, we can use technology. But by and large as Deborah says it really is it's, it's like a black hole and there's just not a lot out there. Now, one thing that we have had access to over the last decade or so, with the fall of the Soviet Union, we started to get access to North Korean government records through the communist bloc states. Now we can't get access, obviously, into you know the file cabinets of North Korea, if there even are file cabinets in North Korea. But there were times when the North Korean ambassador in Moscow or in Beijing or wherever it happened to be, was sending information. And as we've normalized relations with the communist bloc states, we've gotten access to a lot of these materials. Now, this only takes us really through the 1980s. But there are,  there's a scholarly project based in Washington that really uses these materials to draw lessons from the past, but also to apply them a little bit to understanding what motivates North Korea, what its values are, and then apply those lessons to contemporary society.

 

Dr. Youngbae Hwang 

Yeah, there is no question I mean, the gathering information from North Korea is extremely difficult, as Mitch just told about those North Korean defectors. Now we have probably more than 50,000 North Korean defectors all around the world. There's probably 30,000 more than 30,000 in South Korea. So it's always the one of the best information you get is from human intelligence. Before those, level of information gathering is very difficult to have those information from North Korea because North Korea is an extremely homogeneous country, in terms of linguistically, in terms of ethnically. 99.9% of North Korea is homogeneous. So it is a Mission Impossible, it's impossible to infiltrate inside North Korea and gathering information if you are outside. So the limit of human intelligence is probably the biggest barrier to understand North Korea. And I believe that's exactly the reason why North Korea can just disguise themselves as a hermit kingdom or country of mystery so the people can guess about their behavior because when you're a country that poor, that desperate surrounded by all those great powers with famine and starvation, all kinds of negative things going on, you try to claim a prize yourself with that kind of image and limit information so we can guess. So they have, we can miss so they can maximize their gains out of our miscalculation.

 

Jessica Blissit  

Perhaps that homogeneity also helps explain our next question. We tend to think of North Korea as largely static, but it's gone through at least three generations of leadership since the 1950s. What do we know about how life inside North Korea has changed through these transitions and how the leadership's internal logic has changed? Is there an evolution we can discern?

 

Dr. Deborah Solomon 

I would say that there are definitely a lot of different internal changes and a lot of evolution that's gone on in North Korea and certainly the leadership transition in late 2011, early 2012 was something that was really closely watched. And there were a lot of predictions that North Korea would open up more, or become a more engaged country with Western nations and other things like that. And really the opposite seems to be happening, at least in relation to the west where there really seems to be a kind of hunkering down and a tightening of the borders. I know that refugees to South Korea have really dropped since 2012, for example, and other things like that. So there's really been a ratcheting up of the security and kind of isolation in North Korea.

 

Dr. Youngbae Hwang 

For people in North Korea, for three generations of dictatorship, is just I mean it just a piece of cake for them, because they have a 500-year-old dynasty experience between 1392 and 1910. There's 27, 28 kings and all those kings have the last name, Yi. So they have only three Kim's in past seventy years or something like that. So for them, the leadership, the duration of political control is nothing new. They just, so natural when you talk about many North Korean defectors, I mean their complaint is mostly about economics, or social or cultural conditions. They seldom complain about those political issues. And many North Korean defectors themselves want to be classified as economic refugee, not political refugee, because for them it's nothing new. It's only three generation. Come on. We have 27th generation of single surname dynasty.

 

And I generally agree with Deborah but I with a little bit of a qualification and then I said, I think this probably falls under the heading of the more things change, the more they stay the same. There have been a lot of superficial changes and never acknowledge that and then I know when Kim Jong-un came to power, and I was one of the people who was optimistic that maybe there would be changes going on. Instead things, the changes have been cosmetic and the place remains pretty much a repressed police state as she said. Now there are, there's maybe one change that I think I've seen over the course of these three sort of tyrannical police states and that biggest one for me is that Kim Il-sung, the founder and the first president, I feel like looking back at the historical records, he had somewhat of an ideological hold on the people. He had created a cult of personality that that really dwarfs almost anything we've seen in the modern era. And there's generally a sense I think, in the 60s and the 70s, that Kim Jong Il was something special that the nation was something special that we had to behave in certain ways in accordance with the precepts of the Kim family because this is ideologically the way we're trained, and understand this is a society where back in the 60s, people had to walk around with a button on their lapel shirt jacket all the time that was a picture of Kim Il-sung. When kids are raised in schools, most of what they're taught is Kim Il-sung. Even in nurseries as a young child, you're taking from your family five days a week, and you're fed with a huge picture of Kim Il-sung behind you. So you associate the Kim family with taking care of you. So I think that generation of the 60s and the 70s grew up, at least to some extent, thinking that this is just, this is the way it is for Korea. And that's good. The Kim family is wonderful and magnanimous. We have it better than most of the rest of the world. There wasn't same sort of information flowing in that there is today. Now I think it's a little bit more just a blatant police state. The new Kim rules much more through overt fear and repression, and in some cases, sort of buying over the loyalty of the elites in Pyongyang, but there's much less I think of genuine buy-in now than there was 50 years ago.

 

Dr. Deborah Solomon 

Right. And again, the question of how you measure genuine buy-in, I think it's a fascinating one, and it's really, really difficult to figure out if the only people that you have to talk about these things. If your only sources of human information are either North Korean state media, or refugees from North Korea who have clearly made the decision for whatever reason to flee. And one thing that I think is really interesting about the refugee population is that they tend to be from the most marginalized parts of North Korea. And I've heard that something like 70% of them are female. It's a really, it's something that it's often women in very poor regions that are escaping out of sheer desperation. And so they are, by their position in North Korea, the farthest away from the centers of political power. And on the one hand, they have really meaningful things to say about their experiences at even as those are problematic and on the other hand, those are obviously not normative representations of how North Koreans feel about what's going on inside the regime.

 

Brenna Miller 

To kind of continue on this idea of what it's like inside North Korea, so much of what we know, as you guys have mentioned, has been kind of from the outside looking in or from people on the margins of society who have kind of left. So what do we know about Pyongyang's view of the rest of the world? Has this view changed over time? And what is its relationship, especially with its neighbors?

 

Dr. Deborah Solomon 

I definitely think that North Korea and international relations is a really, really fascinating subject. And it's really an area in which we see a whole range of different tactics over time and really unusual kinds of strategies to try to get hard currency into the country, and other things like that. And so it really is a very, very fascinating and unique kind of international relations with the rest of the world.

 

Dr. Mitch Lerner 

I think the most interesting relationship, and here's an example of where history can maybe inform current policy in a way that it usually is not, that's relationship with China. Whenever there is a crisis in North Korea, our policymakers in our media tend to rush and say it's China's problem, China's got to control them. And there's this image of China as being sort of the puppet master and North Korea as dependent on them and China can control them. And I don't think history supports that image. If you look at it, and I mentioned these new materials that we have gotten from inside the communist bloc relatively recently, and you see the inherent tensions between North Korea and China. This goes all the way back even to the Korean War, when China really saves North Korea. And yet there's pretty clear underlying tension between the Kim leadership and the Chinese leadership, and their military tensions, there's diplomatic tensions and it continues over the course of the next generations. In the late 60s, there's a series of border wars, border conflicts fought between China and North Korea. Things are so bad that at one point in the Cultural Revolution, a group of Chinese ethnic Red Guard, kill a number of ethnic North Koreans living on the border. Then they put their bodies in a train and they seal it and they spray paint across it with graffiti, "You're next, you little revisionists," and they send the train back into South Korea. So this is not really a historically positive relationship. So even today we saw when the WikiLeaks documents came out, there's tension, there's rivalry. Sometimes I feel like China is just as frustrated with North Korea as the United States is. So the relationship there I think is one that is dramatically over-simplified. As for sort of a larger picture, I guess I feel like North Korea is really the ultimate example of a realpolitik. They have been advancing their own self-interest when they were a relatively weak and unstable country by exploiting rivalries and threatening their neighbors and all in all, with absolutely no loyalty to anyone, no true relationship with anyone. They have played a weak hand brilliantly and have used foreign policy as a mechanism to keep the nation stable and keep the Kim family in power.

 

Dr. Youngbae Hwang 

I think it's probably better to look at North Koreans perspective toward the world. I mean, North Koreans is something like they are wearing sunglasses. But currently is I mean in 21st century after all, the second generation of dictatorship now is the third generation. I mean, they are wearing lens of transition. So it's something like I mean, when you're inside the dark interior of the house, you can have very clear lens. So the North Korean regime clearly understand what's going on inside the North Korea. But when you're wearing the transitional lens, and outside with bright, under the bright sun, they need those shields so they can look at from their perspective to the world. And you look at the North Koreans as a communist leading, they may have a laddish lens to look at the world. If they want to have some kind of opening of the market because they are so poor and desperate, and they have no other chance to be revitalized or leaving their economy. They have to look at the different color of the lens, but this all depends on North Korean regimes, leadership perspective, if leadership see those clear picture inside the building, they can do. But they definitely keep their transitional lens to the outside. So we cannot actually see what's going on inside because the dark shade of their glasses keeping to look into what's going on in North Korea, because that sunglasses block the movements over their lives. So we keep guessing then they try to maximize our guessing they are winning already. Because panic because North Korea is so unpredictable, with difficult to develop our strategy while North Koreans just relax and developing their own strategy and enjoyed sunlight, bright sunlight.

 

Dr. Mitch Lerner 

Yeah, I think Youngbae hits on an important point there and that's the fact that I think the North Korean leadership really subordinates its foreign policy to its domestic policy. In order to maintain power and stability, at least for the elites in Pyongyang, they will do anything. And it's the nature of the, what we think of as their own predictability, it's why sometimes they have close relationships with China and other times they're blasting China. It's why they have, in the Cold War, the same relationship with the Soviet Union. It's why sometimes there's outreach efforts to the south or to other nations, and it's really all designed to, above all else, stabilize a regime that is clearly pretty despotic and really has no legitimate claim to power. And so this notion of sort of rallying the people behind the leadership in it, whether that means to fight off a foreign threat or because their leadership deserves it, because they are better than certain some other regime or whatever it happens to be, it's foreign policy in the service of maintaining the leadership that currently exists.

 

Dr. Deborah Solomon 

Right. And so I think if you look at some of the forces that are at work in North Korea, I think that there's definitely within the regime, they really thrive on isolation. It's the way that they've been able to maintain the level of control that they've maintained, but they also are really targeting a very specific part of the population, because they really need the elite support in order for their regime to continue. And it's really only under this current mode of leadership that those elites could imagine retaining that high-ranking position in government that they have. Whereas if there was any kind of significant regime change, those elites know that they would really lose access to power and things like that. So there's both this attempt to really limit and distort information that's coming in from the outside but also a very targeted and uneven use of the internal population in order to gain support from the most critical people within North Korea.

 

Brenna Miller 

Most of the information that we have outside is then coming from people who are leaving and defecting these kinds of more marginal groups. And if then most of this foreign policy is in the service of these kinds of elite groups, then what do we know about how life might be different for different strata of people in society? Do we have any information about that?

 

Dr. Deborah Solomon 

I think we definitely have significantly less than we do almost anywhere else that I know of. I mean, I often think -- I'm watching what's happening in Cuba right now, for example, and sort of thinking about how a previously isolated regime is going to transition into life after Fidel Castro's death. But I also can't even begin to compare the level of connections that Cuba had with the outside world, even under Castro, with the kind of isolation that's gone on in North Korea. There certainly are sources of information. But I think that comparatively they are really, really limited, especially in relation to what we know about China, what we know about South Korea, what we know about Japan, it's just night and day.

 

Dr. Mitch Lerner 

And while that's true, I think we can generalize a little bit, particularly with regard to that question of class strata. The Kim family has always, and certainly the current Kim, they have maintained power because they have a close relationship with political and military elites in Pyongyang. There's maybe a growing sort of middle class and in an economic sense, it's very small. And by and large outside of Pyongyang in particular, things are dramatically worse in terms of economic situations, political influence. So there's a dramatic divide inside the country, maybe more striking, I think, then you'll find in almost any other place, where there's a powerful elite based in the capital city and then everybody else struggles to a much greater degree.

 

Dr. Deborah Solomon 

Right, definitely. And this gives you a sense of some of the difficulty of gaining information about North Korea, but the fact that everything that we do have supports this vision of stratification. One thing that scholars have been working on recently is measuring the strength of pixels of light coming out of North Korea with the assumption that the more light, the more resources an area has, and it certainly appears that the tighter sanctions are visited upon North Korea, the more they concentrate their wealth and resources in very specific areas that are suggestive of the political and military elite. And they're really channeling resources away from the people that are the most vulnerable in society.

 

Dr. Mitch Lerner 

Right. And so this is great. I mean, it's a whole nother conversation but the question of whether or not sanctions work, right? And North Korea is heavily sanctioned all the time. And, and there may be some who think that's good policy, I don't necessarily think so. And largely it's because the Kim family has never shown any reluctance to let pretty much 90% of the population starve to death. And as long as that elite is happy, and they have enough going on, black market trade and nuclear weapons and opium trade and everything else, counterfeiting, that they're bringing enough money to keep that elite population stable. So the sanctions that go up are hitting the outskirts of the nation in a way that's really not going to affect to the political situation.

 

Dr. Youngbae Hwang 

Yes, and generally in terms of historical sanctions you see comparative effectiveness, economic sanctions, especially against the totalitarian regime. I mean, the North Korea is probably the most organized dictatorship in the world. And when you have that kind of high level of a totalitarian control, economic sanctions usually backfire. When you have economic sanctions, it actually helps those top leadership and marginalizes most of the people. So it's actually, if you have a sanction against a relatively more democratic regime, you can mobilize more mass public opinion against their government, so you can expect the better outcome from that sanction. But if you have a sanctions in a heavily controlled totalitarian regime against North Korea, it always benefits the leadership. Mitch mentioned about 20 years ago, the North Korea had a great famine and some estimate that they lost about 300,000 people because of famine and starvation and malnutrition. The outcome? Well, they have a successful power transfer from father Kim Jong-il to current leader Kim Jong-un, virtually no opposition. I mean, people directly support those transfers of power after massive Western sanctions. So sanctions always works for the leadership, especially against the totalitarian regime.

 

Dr. Deborah Solomon 

Right. And I think that this fuels this idea of the more isolated North Korea can remain, the more effectively they can really control the population.

 

Jessica Blissit  

So does that help explain a seeming stasis in the economic situation in North Korea, whereas most other communist countries, their economies have evolved dramatically over the years?

 

Dr. Deborah Solomon 

Well certainly one mode that we've seen with communist countries, definitely with China and with Vietnam, is real move towards capitalist economic policies by the government, a really conscious move in that direction. And we haven't seen anything like that in North Korea. but there's a lot of evidence that markets and things like that are beginning to grow in North Korea more than they had been before. And there are more kind of imported goods from China. For example, I had a professor that brought back pictures from China relatively recently that had images of, like, knockoff Disney backpacks, you know, on the backs of school kids on their way to school and he also had some images of pawn shops in Pyongyang, which is really new and stuff like that. So I think that there are certainly cracks but there really isn't this kind of governmental move towards capitalizing the economy.

 

Dr. Mitch Lerner 

Deborah is absolutely right in terms of official policy and overt policy, the DPRK government, Kim government, is still a validly anti-free market, anti-capitalist. So in 1994, as Youngbae said, there was this huge economic famine and that undermined the national distribution system. That was a lifeline for North Korean people, the government sent them essentially food and supplies every month. Well, that broke down in 1994, in the wake of this horrible economic catastrophe. And what started to grow since then, and what has really taken off over the last, I don't know,  five, eight years has been these private markets. They call them the Jangmadang. And it's, I think it's slowly really creating a sense of market consciousness within the society. And there's all sorts of anecdotal evidence, there's these, as you said, there's these pawn shops, so there used to be these tiny little like outdoor markets in villages where people would kind of secretly sell goods. Now they're, they're like established centers. It's like a big warehouse where you go, and even though the government doesn't acknowledge it, officially, it actually plays a role in regulating it. So state officials will sell you like a vendor pass that you need. It's really bribes, but you have to bribe them to get a vendor pass to go in and sell things. It's also undermining the extent to which this younger generation sort of looks up to the government as their great provider and protector. And so there's all sorts of stories about this younger generation. There's many of them who have defected have written in the New York Times and books and the Washington Post about how their heroes are no longer the Kim family, there, there are people who are bringing money to society. And then the way that the government kind of gets tied into all of this is that in order to start one of these private businesses, you need currency, you need hard currency. And you get that from someone who has connections, which usually means someone who's part of the government. So we're getting the emergence of this kind of middle class money-lending element that has ties to the government, in some cases is the government because they're the only ones with money, and then of course, they have a vested interest in being paid back, which means they have a vested interest in making sure these private markets survive. So even though on the surface North Korea remains this sort of, you know, Stalinist backwards, semi-communist dictatorship. There's a lot of signs underneath that, that the market is emerging and may have some influence.

 

Dr. Deborah Solomon 

Right and I think definitely the famines really accelerated that process. And I think we can really see the 19-, mid-1990s as a turning point in that phenomenon.

 

Brenna Miller 

So what have US North Korean relations been like, since the Korean War in general, if we can sort of offer a summary if any?

 

Dr. Mitch Lerner 

You know, I can spend a couple hours on this, or I can do it in a sentence which and say, "North Korean US relations have always really been awful." You probably want more than that, but to the extent that there is historical consistency in in any international relationship, that's it. And I mean, there's times when it's better, and it's worse. In the late 60s, we have what we sometimes call the Second Korean War, where there were some real hostilities between the two sides. In 1994, in a case that most Americans don't know, we almost went to war with them again. The Clinton administration was literally hours from approving a military strike on the Yongbyon nuclear plant. Like I said earlier, the more things change, the more they stay the same. It's been a relationship that has been marked by hostility and rivalry and war in one case and lots of close-to-wars in the other and I don't see any sign that things are changing in the immediate future. And without, again, going into too much detail about sort of internal motivation inside the North, I think I would simply argue that the Kim family wants it that way, almost needs it to be that way. And it's the classic sort of communist dictator strategy, which is to dismiss your own shortcomings by pointing a finger of blame at the capitalist West. So, no matter how bad things are inside North Korea, the Kim family has always said, A) "It's because of the United States" and B) "We need to prepare for that next invasion, just like they did in 1950. So you know, I'm sorry that we don't have consumer goods. And I'm sorry that your son has to go fight in the army. But we are always preparing for the next war with the United States." So it serves a utilitarian function for them. And so it means that to some extent, I think almost no matter what the United States does, until there is significant change inside North Korea, there's not really anything that's going to affect that relationship in a positive direction.

 

Dr. Deborah Solomon 

And that's really reflected. I think, if you look at images of North Korean propaganda over time. One of the things that that stays really consistent is the ways in which the American military and the Japanese military are portrayed within these images. It really clearly and explicitly harkens back to the Japanese soldiers of WWII or the American soldiers of the Korean War. So they're clearly continually referencing the colonial period. They're continually referencing the Korean War as these moments of victimization that they have to prepare to really be ready to resist not repeating in the future.

 

Dr. Youngbae Hwang 

I believe one thing is very clear in terms of US foreign policy against North Korea. North Korea's policy against United States has been very consistent. They want diplomatic normalization, and they want some kind of guarantee of United States, South Korea, Japan, any allies, the US' allies, not to invade into North Korea. So their top concern is always their security, a Bible with religion. So they want a non-aggression pact with the United States, the security guarantee. So that has been consistent from North Korea seven years strong. The problem of the United States is United States never ever has a consistent message towards North Korea. The administration after the recession, especially the United States, all those kinds of democratic elections and we have different types of administration. And we have all kinds of different voices against North Korea. But North Korea always has a single, one, very coordinated voice, which is, "their strengths, and our failure."

 

Dr. Deborah Solomon 

And I also think about sort of the way that we report on North Korean foreign policy, for example, is that you get these waves of new reporters that are assigned to North Korea, and they see all of these extreme tactics and all of this different stuff. And they sort of initially report with this level of shock and this level of real sensationalism. And then usually, by the time they've sort of acclimated to the various cycles of different types of North Korean modes of international engagement, they get replaced with another wave of reporters and media experts. So it's really, everybody, and that happens, again, with administration's as well, every new administration has a moment of reckoning with North Korea, but then, you know, they, they have made really different decisions about how to proceed. And so I do think that it's really important to see how, even the state of crisis that we're always hearing about is actually a really consistent one. And it's really the change and how it's being communicated that maintains it.

 

Jessica Blissit  

So it looks like erratic behavior is actually, from their perspective, it's erratic behavior on our part.

 

Dr. Deborah Solomon 

This is really speculatory, but I don't know if North Korea would argue that the US's behavior is erratic. I think that the North Korean regime is really skilled at finding pressure points. And that's how they've been able to garner the level of attention and the level of aid that they have.

 

Dr. Mitch Lerner 

Yeah, I think you're right, though in in looking at it from the other perspective, which is that that America is quick to fall into this sort of, this trap of erratic behavior. Right. And we think of Kim as crazy, and I mean, there's all the jokes there's, there's a famous Onion headline that that I use sometimes, use in class, and it says, "Kim Jong-un Worried That He's Not Crazy Enough to Run the Country the Way His Father and Grandfather Did." And it's just it's this really simplistic, sort of, you know, we in the West, and you can see from policymakers all the time, "the regime is crazy, the regime, you know, who can understand them?" And the reality is their message has been pretty consistent. And it's it's just the United States has a tendency to look at these dramatic shows, you the kind of things that Deborah's may be referring to. You know, you take this really cursory, superficial look, and it can be unusual and unexpected, and the rhetoric is, you know, "see a fire and we're going to attack and destroy" and, and the whole work. And you have to kind of go beneath that. And you see that there's actually some rationality to it, but you've got to move beyond the surface to make that connection.

 

Dr. Youngbae Hwang 

I think the ultimate question is, change something is coming in North Korea, but always the question is when? Is something like, any kind of prediction of North Korea is very risky. North Korea has been very consistent against the world. Our problem is, we do not have any kind of coordinated approach against North Korea, from United States from Japan, Korea, China, we all have divided approach against North Korea. But we all must agree we've got to change North Korea. And that's what's missing. The stronger we are, actually, we have more diverse approach, and they have very consistent response.

 

Jessica Blissit  

We will wrap it up on that note. Thank you so much to our three panelists, Deborah Solomon, an assistant professor of history and political science at Otterbein University.

 

Dr. Deborah Solomon 

Thank you so much for having me.

 

Jessica Blissit  

Mitchell Lerner, associate professor at Ohio State University.

 

Dr. Mitch Lerner 

Thanks.

 

Jessica Blissit  

And Youngbae Hwang, a lecturer at Ohio State University in the International Studies Department and a faculty member in Korean studies.

 

Dr. Youngbae Hwang 

Great pleasure.

 

Brenna Miller 

Thanks, everyone. This episode of History Talk podcast was brought to you by Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective, an online publication of the Public History Initiative of the Goldberg Center and the History Department at The Ohio State University in Columbus and Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Our main editors are Steve Conn and Nicholas Breyfogle. Our executive producer is David Staley. Our audio and technical advisor is Paul Kotheimer. Our audio producers and hosts are Brenna Miller and Jessica Blissit. Song and band information can be found on our website. You can find our podcast and more on our website at origins.osu.edu, on iTunes and on Soundcloud. And as always, you can find us on Twitter and Facebook. Thanks for listening.

 

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