North Korea is often called “The Hermit Kingdom” because of its isolation from the rest of the world, but is it really completely isolated? How much interaction does North Korea have with outsiders, and who does it interact with? What forms does this interaction take, and what does it accomplish? Can we see clearly enough into the country to assess the impact of this diverse spectrum of creative engagement? Join us as we chat with our guest Daniel Wertz, of the National Institute on North Korea (NCNK), about the realities of engaging North Korea.
“They know a lot more about the world than the world knows about them.”
-Daniel Wertz, Program Officer for the National Committee on North Korea
Engagement on Its Own Terms
However oppressive and paranoid, North Korea is not hermetically sealed from the outside world. The country has diplomatic ties with 164 countries and hosts 25 embassies. It exports coal to China, garments to South Korea and Russia, weapons to the Middle East and Africa, and has economic presence in Southeast Asia, India, and many other countries. In the outskirts of Pyongyang, the country even has a privately-funded university, the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, whose instructors are Westerners teaching in English.
In 2013, Pyongyang demonstrated renewed interests in attracting foreign investment by setting forth a visible economic experiment: the establishment of a dozen Special Economic Zones (SEZs) all over the country with foreign-friendly regulations. Furthermore, Orascom Telecom, a plucky Egyptian company, has built up two cellphone networks in the country: one for foreigners and one for locals, with consumers barred from communicating between the two.
Facilitating Inside Transformation
A number of Nonprofit organizations from the U.S. and Europe have been offering programs to build capacity in medical care and agriculture, sponsoring projects on water and sanitation, and providing education programs in English and Economics inside North Korea. While the country still struggles with dire food shortages, the food situation has improved since the 1990s famine. Many North Koreans benefit from these NGOs’ quiet and arduous work. However, due to a lack of data, it is unclear to what extent this work is transforming North Korea on a macro level.
Chance for Border Changes
The catastrophic famine in the 1990s shapes a whole generation of North Korea. The younger generations who grew up in the post-famine era have learned to rely on themselves and to be entrepreneurial rather than wait for the government to provide social welfare as the pre-famine generations do. Grassroot markets have blossomed after the famine, with the state no longer able to crack down.
In light of this, the international community should consider how to leverage humanitarian aid to open the door for broader changes. Although Pyongyang views any outside criticism of its human rights record as a US-led plot to overthrow its social system, it is still possible to explore cooperative programs on human rights issues that are in the interests of the North Korean government, ordinary people, and the international community. Consequently, principled engagement with the “Hermit Kingdom” needs to continue and deepen.
Check out the following additional articles and resources:
- The National Committee on North Korea (NCNK)
- Daniel Wertz, “A Chance for Progress on North Korean Human Rights,” The Diplomat, November 11, 2014.
- The ABC’s of North Korea’s SEZ’s
- The Pyongyang Project
- Uri Tours [“We” Tours], the only US-based travel agency facilitating tours to North Korea