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Politics & International Affairs magazine

Dr. James Hoare: We know very little of the inner dynamics of the North Korean regime

Koreas witnessed during last few days some important events – starting with the alleged successful missile test which launch a satellite to the orbit, followed by the first anniversary of Kim Jong Il's death and the presidential election in South Korea. We asked what all these mean for the future in Korean peninsula Dr. James Hoare.

Dr. James Hoare was the first head of mission of the United Kingdom to Pyongyang, North Korea in 2001–2002 and his work laid the foundation for the establishment of a full embassy of the UK in the North Korean capital. Previously, Dr. Hoare had been head of the Foreign Office’s North Asia and Pacific Research Group. He joined the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 1969 and was stationed in Seoul in 1981–1984 and in Beijing in 1988–1991. In 2006, Dr. Hoare was President of the British Association of Korean Studies (BAKS). He has written extensively about Korea and is currently a senior teaching fellow at SOAS.

Is there anything surprising happening now in North Korea, one year after the death of Kim Jong Il?

On the surface it all seems quiet but I would not be surprised if major discussions were going on behind the scenes. There are two developments that are worth noting. Kim Jong Un has a different style from his father, more open (at least it appears so), smiling and happy to mix with – very selected – people. He is much more like his grandfather in these respects. He has also made some small changes to make life easier for some people. Life is probably a little less tense than it was.

More importantly, he seems to be continuing the move away from over-dependence on the military that his father began in 2010. Senior generals have been dismissed and the regime seems to be favouring the party and the security services above the military. This is something worth watching since it is hardly likely that the military will allow itself to be pushed out of influential positions not just in the political world but from its lucrative economic position.

Is the recent North Korean missile test any kind of breakpoint for internal, regional or global politics?

I doubt it. The Chinese do not seem to be willing to see much by way of change – it is the Chinese who could put into effect controls on the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea]. Part of the problem is that there are apparently differences between a satellite launch and an ICBM [Intercontinental Ballistic Missile]. The US administration argues that there are not but many seem not so sure. I suspect there will be some form of UN statement but doubt it will go further than that.

Are we to expect another North Korean provocation-like move in the coming months?

Not sure I would use the term provocation. Outsiders tend to see everything done by the North Koreans as aimed at the US, South Korea or Japan. I am not sure that this is the correct perspective. The rocket was as much to do with internal DPRK politics as it was to do with the outside world. 2012 was a doubly special year (Kim Il Sung's 100th anniversary, Kim Jong Il's death) and the rocket had as much to do with these events as it did with the rest of the world. April's failure had to be redeemed. I am not saying that outside events such as the South Korean elections were not important only that they were not the only consideration and probably not the most important.

What will be the foreign policy towards North Korea of the new South Korean president and can she proceed with the declared improvement of relations with North Korea in the case that provocations from North Korea should continue?

It’s hard to tell at this early stage. She has been to the North and met Kim Jong Il but she comes from a conservative background and will need to take account of her conservative supporters. That said, her father began the engagement policy towards North Korea in 1971, so she appeals to that tradition as well. I expect some gestures to indicate a moving away from the confrontational approach of Lee Myung-bak. The North is likely to be wary and not very co-operative at first but this may change with time and with whatever she has to offer.

Can any change in direction of South Korea’s (or possibly any other country’s) foreign policy have any impact on North Korea’s internal state of affairs?

If the ROK [Republic of Korea] engages that begins to change attitudes in the North. If the US tried to get away from the confrontational and impossible demands approach, that might also help.

What are the options for the future of North Korea for the next 5–10 years and what is the likelihood of each?

Not sure I can answer this. The DPRK elite is not just going to give up – it would be far too dangerous for them to throw themselves on the mercy of the South. They will try to keep going, looking to the Chinese for assistance but making sure that they cannot easily be invaded or attacked.

Who or what is the power of change in North Korea and what are its biggest obstacles?

We know very little of the inner dynamics of the DPRK regime so it is hard to be precise. There is a core around the Kim family no doubt. But it is all pretty difficult to see exactly where power lies and who really matters.

Sorry not to be able to give more precise answers.

(Global Politics would like to thank Dr. James Hoare for kindly answering the questions for our magazine by email).

Richard Turcsanyi is a Ph.D. candidate at the Department of International Relations and European Studies, Masaryk University and the executive editor of Global Politics magazine.

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Richard Turcsányi
23rd February 2012