Aidan Foster-Carter on North Korea: Shouvik Datta reports from the recent LSE talk

Aidan Foster-Carter is an Honorary Research Fellow at Leeds University in Sociology and Social Policy, writes about Korea for the Economist Intelligence Unit and Oxford Analytica and contributed to ‘Exploring North Korean Arts’ (published 2011). I was therefore very interested when he came down from the major university in the North of England, to talk at the London School of Economics about North Korea’s new leader Kim Jong-un.

Mr Foster-Carter quickly established a rapport with his LSE audience with a joke to laughter about ‘Gangnam Style’ the video by South Korean rapper Psy, which has received millions of hits on YouTube. He emphasized his traditional, English-speaking approach to study: “You should never have a prioris. You should have to look for everything empirically,” adding that had no intention of using Powerpoint during the talk. In this approach he begged to differ from his host, Professor Arne Westad who runs the East Asia Affairs programme at the LSE.

Predictions about the regime’s early demise were wishful thinking, he said. North Korea had lasted for 67 years and was one of the longest-serving ‘socialist’ regimes in the world. “You don’t want to call something Orwellian; it is such a cliché. But here it is true. North Korea is incredibly good at staging performances and North Korean public life is largely a performance,” he stated.

Mr Foster-Carter emphasized during the 90-minute discussion that there was relatively little knowledge in the West about North Korea, pointing out that the CIA had not known until very recently that Kim Jong-il had had not one, but three sons. In terms of what was known about North Korea, Mr Foster-Carter said that the party (North Korean Workers Party), the army and the ruling politburo were separate structures, with their own competing interests and rivalries.

About the neighbouring great powers and the issue of nuclear weapons, Mr Foster-Carter said: “China took a strategic decision that it was going to grit its teeth and prop up North Korea. The US and Japan don’t want it to collapse either.” On Russia, he said: “China will not have it all its own way, because Russia is back in the game,” pointing out that Russia had forgiven North Korea $10 billion of debt owed.

Professor Westad questioned whether China had really much influence over North Korea on issues such as nuclear weapons and relations with South Korea. Mr Foster Carter stated in response that Beijing did not want a pro-West country such as Lee Myung–bak’s South Korea on its own border, any more than North Korea did.

About South Korea, Mr Foster-Carter criticized President Lee Myung-bak for tearing up joint management agreements such as the Kaesong Industrial Park, which had been reached by his predecessor Kim Dae Jung with North Korea as part of his Sunshine Policy. However, Mr Foster-Carter also said that the Sunshine Policy itself had made it difficult to criticize North Korea on issues such as human rights and its chemical and biological weapons programme.

“I feel sorry for South Korea. It’s like the prodigal son. It does everything right but then it gets ignored.” On China-South Korea relations he said however, “We should not forget that the China-South Korea relationship is incredibly important to both countries, and China plays the long game in foreign policy.”

Mr Foster-Carter said that the new leader had recognized the need for economic reform and the introduction of market forces. However, the heavy industrialization of North Korea, as well as UN sanctions had made the introduction of market forces difficult.

There were many questions from the audience after the main talk, about economic and political reform, and also nuclear weapons. I look forward to more discussions on North Korea by both Aidan Foster-Carter and other writers.

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