This website is no longer actively maintained
Some material and features may be unavailable
September 11th, 2003
A State of Mind
Interview: Prof. Charles Armstrong

Prof. Charles Armstrong of Columbia University discusses North Korea with host Jamie Rubin.

JAMIE RUBIN: Professor Armstrong, thank you for joining us.

CHARLES ARMSTRONG: Nice to be here.

JAMIE RUBIN: We saw one reality in the film, the reality of two families living in Pyongyang. But there’s a different, perhaps less attractive reality outside of Pyongyang. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

CHARLES ARMSTRONG: Well, this is one small slice of reality in North Korea. This is a privileged class of people. Just the fact that they live in Pyongyang means they’re privileged. Only a small percentage of the population is allowed to live in Pyongyang. Most of those are people who are members of the party and have good jobs. And people in Pyongyang are well fed, relatively speaking. They have decent housing and access to good education and so forth. Most of the rest of the country is not like that. Most of the rest of the citizens of North Korea are living pretty Spartan if not quite grim lives of inadequate services and food and so forth.

JAMIE RUBIN: In prison camps and slave labor? Is that real?

CHARLES ARMSTRONG: There are probably prison camps in North Korea. After all, North Korea based its system on the Soviet Union very consciously and from what we know of that system, prison camps were quite widespread. No one knows exactly how many prisoners there are, how many camps there are. One estimate is that there are perhaps 100 to 150 thousand political prisoners in camps in North Korea. We certainly have heard a lot of defectors’ testimony in recent years that paints a very grim and even horrifying picture of life in those camps. So that is another part of the reality of North Korea.

JAMIE RUBIN: The families in the film, they seem to really show devotion to Kim Jong Il, the leader of North Korea. How real is that devotion?

CHARLES ARMSTRONG: I think for those people it is very real. And in fact, for many people in North Korea, devotion, even worship, if you want to put it that way, of the great leader and his son, the current leader of North Korea, is genuine. This is a kind of attitude that’s instilled into people almost literally from the day they are born. From a few months old they are taken away from their families for most of the week. And from the beginning of school at the age of five one of the first things they learn, one of the first sentences school children in North Korea are taught is, “Thanks to the great leader, Comrade Kim Il Sung.

JAMIE RUBIN: So it’s almost a god-like worship there.

CHARLES ARMSTRONG: Yes, it is. And that makes it unique. Of course, other societies, Soviet Union under Stalin and China under Mao tried to impress upon its citizens a similar kind of veneration of their leader. But none of them did it so consistently, so extremely, and for such a long period of time as the North Korean leadership. And when you have no alternative, when you have no other source of news, no information that tells you otherwise, people would simply have to believe it. Or certainly they could not say publicly that they didn’t believe it.

JAMIE RUBIN: They don’t have anything to compare it to.

CHARLES ARMSTRONG: That’s exactly right.

And when they talk to the camera and they talk about America and they talk about their views of their daily life, are they free to criticize? Is it conceivable that they could complain about their country or their status or their livelihood?

CHARLES ARMSTRONG: Well, it’s certainly not conceivable that anyone would say this publicly in front of a camera for foreign journalists. I have heard stories from others who have gone to North Korea, and I myself have come across in my visits to North Korea private conversations with people who very quietly say something that might be obliquely critical of their situation about their leadership. But no one would say that publicly. They would be in big trouble.

JAMIE RUBIN: We talked a little bit about their isolation. Maybe we could compare that to Eastern Europe — the East Germans and the Czechoslovaks, they were able to watch West German TV. How does that compare to what North Koreans see? Do they know any other world than the world that they see on Korean television?

Most do not. There are some people who probably get broadcasts from radio across the border in China or in South Korea. But if they’re ever caught doing that, they would be punished and probably go off to jail or prison camp.

JAMIE RUBIN: And that’s just a tiny percentage.

CHARLES ARMSTRONG: And that is just a tiny percentage. The radios and televisions are fixed on the state-run channels. It’s a crime to adjust your set to show anything else.

JAMIE RUBIN: So it’s like George Orwell. They have to watch.

CHARLES ARMSTRONG: It’s a bit like that. One would assume, and one hears from people who have come out, that there are people who doubt what they see, who will say that this doesn’t jibe with what I know of reality around me. But they are not allowed to get outside information and news to really compare that. So it’s not at all like Eastern Europe in the 1970’s or 1980’s.

JAMIE RUBIN: Let’s talk about that for a moment. Some outside analysts and some even in the Bush administration have suggested that we can provoke the collapse of North Korea, that if we give them a little outside access, if we put the squeeze on the regime, if we sanction them, that somehow we can provoke a collapse. How likely do you think that is?

CHARLES ARMSTRONG: I think that’s very unlikely to work at this point in time because of the very closed nature of the regime and the degree of, I think, genuine support that the people have for their leadership. How much would it take to get people to [rebel] against the regime? Well, look, in the late 1980’s we had a famine in North Korea. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps two or three million people, ten percent of the population died of starvation. And the regime is still there. What would it take to get the regime to fall? And could we take the responsibility upon ourselves to evoke anything that catastrophic?

JAMIE RUBIN: So you can’t envisage that a quarantine or a real sanctions policy will cause the collapse of the regime.

CHARLES ARMSTRONG: No, not in the near term. In a future North Korea that was more open, in which people did have outside information and were able to question and criticize, then maybe that could happen as it happened in places like Romania and Albania after the fall of other Eastern European Communist states. But to impose that kind of sanction regime now, given the nature of North Korean society and the regime that’s in place currently and expect any near-term dramatic change or collapse I think would simply not work.

JAMIE RUBIN: So that’s unrealistic.

CHARLES ARMSTRONG: I do believe that’s unrealistic.

JAMIE RUBIN: Some people have suggested if the Chinese would agree with the United States to put a real sanctioning policy on North Korea to cut off the supplies they provide to North Korea, that would provoke change in the policies of the North Korean leader. Do you agree with that?

CHARLES ARMSTRONG: It’s theoretically possible. It is also possible that if China opened up its borders and allowed any North Korean who wanted to flee to come into China, that that would also provoke a rapid change or collapse of the regime. The problem is that the Chinese are very unlikely to do that. Because the last thing they want to see is a flood of North Korean refugees coming across the border into their country in a collapse of North Korea and what that might mean for their security.

JAMIE RUBIN: The Bush administration has put great stock in having the Chinese work with us in these negotiations, in fact, to host the negotiations, on the assumption that it’s China that has this important leverage. Do you think China will use leverage against North Korea, including cutting off assistance?

CHARLES ARMSTRONG: I think China will and has used some leverage over North Korea. And this has helped bring North Korea to these talks. But I do not think it’s the case that China feels itself on the side of the U.S. against North Korea. They want to maintain reasonably amicable relations with North Korea. And it seems to me they see their role as being a kind of honest broker between the U.S. and North Korea.

JAMIE RUBIN: Do you think the Chinese would work with us in any sanctions policy that had as the objective to provoke the collapse of the Kim Jong Il regime?

CHARLES ARMSTRONG: I have difficulty foreseeing the Chinese agreeing to such an action. I think that certainly there are things that the Chinese don’t like about North Korea’s current policies. And they certainly don’t want to see a nuclear-armed North Korea with a large arsenal that would be a destabilizing force in the region. But as I said, I think what really concerns them even more than that is the unforeseeable effects of a North Korean collapse. I think they would agree to pressure to get North Korea to change its behavior, to be more open, to enter into a negotiated settlement with the U.S. But not to lead to a collapse.

JAMIE RUBIN: So if China has to choose between living with a nuclear-armed North Korea or provoking the collapse of North Korea, they’re going to choose the nuclear-armed North Korea?

CHARLES ARMSTRONG: I suspect that would be their choice as would be the choice of South Korea today.

JAMIE RUBIN: So in your view the United States, the South Koreans and the Chinese don’t really have joint objectives in these negotiations, or joint willingness to take it as far.

CHARLES ARMSTRONG: There are different degrees of willingness, to what extreme they will go. There are three very different perspectives in the issue and how it should be resolved, yes.

JAMIE RUBIN: Let’s talk a little about the prospect of war. Many people have suggested that the United States and North Korea may move towards actual military conflict in the not too distant future. What is your assessment about the willingness of North Koreans, average North Koreans in the military, in the civilian population, to fight the United States on behalf of their leader? Will they support Kim Jong Il to the end?

CHARLES ARMSTRONG: The one group in North Korean society that Kim Jong Il has been very careful to cultivate the support of and that he has made sure are well supplied with food and so forth is the army. You know, in a certain sense North Korea is a military regime, the military along with Kim Jong Il effectively runs the country. There is, I think, a great deal of support for Kim Jong Il within the military. Certainly front line soldiers are not in the best of shape. There’s perhaps a certain amount of discontent among the soldiers who see their families suffering and who might not get enough food themselves. But within the officer corps, within the elite of the military, I think the support is quite strong. The system of command that controls North Korea in my view is still quite effective. And the army would fight if provoked by the United States.

JAMIE RUBIN: So if you compared North Korea and Iraq, for example, where much of the Iraqi army and the regular army and the police just faded away during the last Gulf War. How different would that be in your view to a real military conflict between North Korea and the United States?

CHARLES ARMSTRONG: North Korea is not Iraq. And I think it would be a grave mistake to assume that it is. North Korea, first of all, is a country that has in effect been fighting a war against the United States for 50 years. The entire population is inculcated with the belief that the U.S. is the enemy. They must be prepared to fight the U.S. at any time. And it is a country under siege, under continuous war mobilization. And an army that from what we’ve seen in the Korean War and their maneuvers could actually fight quite well. There are problems of surprise and so forth. I’m not saying that they would prevail over the U.S. But they would put up a much tougher fight than the Iraq army.

JAMIE RUBIN: So this would be an ugly, nasty war?

CHARLES ARMSTRONG: This would be an ugly war that could result in hundreds of thousands if not millions of casualties.

JAMIE RUBIN: We saw anti-Americanism in the film where the families are even blaming the United States for the lights going out. Now why is that? Why do they think that Washington turned out their lights?

CHARLES ARMSTRONG: Well, the U.S. is a convenient enemy. Certainly for the regime it reflects criticism that might come against them from the population to say, well, it’s really not our fault. We’re fighting this struggle for life and death against the United States, and they’re out to get us. And any problem we have is because the U.S. is so hostile to us. There might be some people who have doubts about that. But that’s all they’ve ever been taught. And that’s probably what most of them believe.

JAMIE RUBIN: So they really believe that America is their enemy? Even the average North Korean who knows very little about us?

CHARLES ARMSTRONG: Certainly every North Korean I’ve ever met has expressed that belief. There is a separation, however, between what they see as the hostility of the U.S. government and ordinary Americans. And there’s a great receptivity of American NGO’s and individuals who come to help the North Koreans. And I’ve seen that firsthand with groups I’ve assisted when I’ve traveled through North Korea. But they feel that the U.S. government is indeed the enemy, particularly they see a greater hostility with this current administration. But it’s been quite consistent.

JAMIE RUBIN: When you see them believing the United States is the enemy, why are they learning English in schools?

CHARLES ARMSTRONG: Well, the U.S. is the enemy, but English is the international language. So they’re getting kind of contradictory messages from the leadership. They have to be prepared to fight the U.S. But they also have to learn business. And this is something quite new and recent that indicates there’s a certain change of mentality about economic issues in North Korea if not these political and geo-political issues.

JAMIE RUBIN: You talk about a willingness to change economically. But clearly North Korea is not behaving the way China has or Vietnam has in maintaining their Communist government, but changing their business mentality and their economics to so-called free market economics. Why haven’t they followed the Chinese or Vietnamese?

CHARLES ARMSTRONG: Well, mainly it’s because of the security situation they find themselves in, that would be too threatening to the leadership to have a serious opening up because of all these sorts of currents that would come into the country that might turn people against the regime.

JAMIE RUBIN: So it’s the security of the regime. So they’re worried about their survival.

CHARLES ARMSTRONG: Exactly. I mean the bottom line for Kim Jong Il and the North Korean leadership is the survival of their regime and of their personal power. And so if they saw economic change as assisting that then they might push more for economic change. And in fact, we have seen some strong indications I think that North Korea was beginning to take steps toward economic reform and opening —

JAMIE RUBIN: A couple of years ago.

CHARLES ARMSTRONG: Yeah. And particularly last year there were some economic changes that seemed to show that they were really serious about gradually but in reality opening the door economically.

JAMIE RUBIN: And what stopped those reforms?

CHARLES ARMSTRONG: Well, essentially it was the conflict that emerged with Japan. In September Kim Jong Il met Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi and seemed to think that this would lead to a big breakthrough diplomatically with Japan which would lead to a big influx of cash from Japan which was his real goal. That actually backfired. And in fact the negotiations toward diplomacy between Japan and North Korea have stalled. But the real problem then was the conflict with the United States. So those moves toward opening are on hold essentially until a resolution to this current crisis is reached.

JAMIE RUBIN: Well, let’s talk about the nuclear crisis. North Korea is obviously a very poor country. And yet they seem to be spending much of their scarce resources on building a nuclear weapon. Why do they want a nuclear weapon? Why is that so crucial to the regime?

CHARLES ARMSTRONG: Well, what’s crucial to the regime is their self-defense and what they see as a very hostile environment, particularly vis-a-vis the United States. And over the last ten years or so they seem to have become convinced that a very good way to defend your country without utilizing a lot of scarce resources is nuclear weapons.

JAMIE RUBIN: So it’s defense on the cheap, nuclear weapons.

CHARLES ARMSTRONG: Exactly. It’s a deterrent as they see it.

JAMIE RUBIN: When they put forward their nuclear program as a bargaining chip, if you do this we will stop developing nuclear weapons, that suggests that they are prepared to give it up. Do you think North Korea will ever give up their nuclear weapons capability?

CHARLES ARMSTRONG: I think that they will give it up for the right price as it were. I think that they will always want to have some reserve potential to develop a nuclear deterrent if necessary. But in the meantime, I think they would be willing to freeze or even dismantle their current program or most of it in exchange for some kind of security insurance that they would not be threatened in the same way as they see they are now by the outside and by the U.S. in particular.

JAMIE RUBIN: They signed the non-proliferation treaty that said thou shalt not develop nuclear weapons. And yet they did. Why shouldn’t the United States see their development of a nuclear weapon as blackmail?

CHARLES ARMSTRONG: Well, it is so far not actually the development of a nuclear weapon but as it were, the threat to develop a nuclear weapon. And it seems to me that there are probably two different schools of thought within the North Korean leadership. One is that we need this nuclear deterrent at any cost because we’ll never be able to trust any agreement with the United States. And the other is that the nuclear program is most useful as a bargaining chip. And I think that there is not complete consensus, I suspect, within the North Korean leadership about how to use that. But the trend now, much more than in 1994 —

JAMIE RUBIN: That was the last time the U.S. and the North Koreans negotiated an agreement.

CHARLES ARMSTRONG: With the last agreement over North Korea’s nuclear program is that the North Koreans seem to be farther along and more serious about developing a nuclear arsenal.

JAMIE RUBIN: Now they’re more serious.

CHARLES ARMSTRONG: Now they’re more serious. And in the meantime they’ve seen India and Pakistan go nuclear without any serious repercussions so they probably feel that they should be able to get away with it, too.

JAMIE RUBIN: Well, let’s talk about trust. They don’t trust the United States. But many people believe if we were to get an agreement with North Korea to stop developing nuclear weapons, it would require extensive inspections. Any time, anywhere U.N. inspectors could run around North Korea to test whether they have weapons. Can you envisage this police state allowing inspectors the run of the place to prove they don’t have nuclear weapons?

CHARLES ARMSTRONG: Well, that would be a very difficult thing to pull off. I do think that the North Koreans would open their country up considerably, perhaps not as much as outsiders would like, but much more than they have been in the past to inspections of nuclear facilities. Again, within the framework of an agreement that gave them a greater sense of security and of economic connections. It would be very difficult to reach this agreement. It would take some time. But I think it could be done.

JAMIE RUBIN: Tell us a little bit about this phenomenon of the mass games where they put incredible effort into this pageantry. Is this something unique to Kim Jong Il’s North Korea? Or is it a tradition there?

CHARLES ARMSTRONG: Well, this is something that North Korea has practiced for a long time, going back to the late ’40’s when the regime was founded. They borrowed some techniques from actually holdovers from the Japanese colonial period — a kind of these sort of fascist pageantries. And they learned a lot from the Soviet Union in putting on these public spectacles. And North Korea also followed China — under Mao, which had similar things. But North Korea carried this to an extreme — that no other country in the world has done. Everything is perfectly choreographed. Everything is on a monumental scale. And this is characteristic of North Korea. I mean everything needs to be in its place. Everything needs to be lavished to show the outside world that everything is very tightly controlled.

JAMIE RUBIN: Do North Koreans or Koreans in that part of the world have any tradition of understanding the outside world? Tell us a little bit about the history of this peninsula.

CHARLES ARMSTRONG: Well, you have to keep in mind that Koreans in North Korea have never experienced anything but authoritarian rule. And that’s unique. Even other Communist states in East Asia had some exposure to Western countries, to democracy and so forth. North Korea never had that. They went straight from a very isolated and very authoritarian Confucian kingdom in traditional times which was quite resistant to outside pressure and influences to a monarchy. But which was called the Hermit Kingdom by the Westerners because it was so isolated even compared to other East Asian countries, which were also isolated. It went straight from that to colonization by Japan from 1910 to 1945, which was very harsh, very militaristic, and also very isolated, certainly had no elements of democracy at all. And then from there to Stalinism, to control by the Soviet Union, essentially a kind of adaptation of a Stalinist system to the North Korean environment. That’s all the Koreans in North Korea have ever known. And there has never been any exposure to liberalism, to democratic systems.

JAMIE RUBIN: Let’s talk a little bit about the nuclear challenge the Bush administration faces. You say that you think North Korea is prepared to give up its nuclear program for the right price. What do you think their bottom line is? What does the United States have to do to eliminate this nuclear threat?

CHARLES ARMSTRONG: Well, I would put it this way. What does North Korea want at this time? And I think what they want, what they’ve said they want, and I think it is probably what they really do want is two things. Some kind of security assurance that makes them feel that the U.S. is no longer the kind of hostile power that it has been, whether it’s a peace treaty or other sort of guarantee from the U.S. Of non-aggression. I think that is a genuine desire and would go a long way toward alleviating their concerns. And the other is, as they put it, the U.S. not hindering their economic development. In other words, North Korea is on the verge, I think, of serious steps toward economic reform. It has a long way to go. But it’s prepared to begin on that road.

JAMIE RUBIN: So a lifting of economic sanctions.

CHARLES ARMSTRONG: And so they want the lifting of sanctions, assistance in joining international financial organizations, economic aid and trade and so forth. I think that is what they want. And I would say that if they reach an agreement with the U.S. and other countries, that gives them the opportunity to get those things in a very concrete way then they would be prepared to dismantle their nuclear program.

JAMIE RUBIN: But paradoxically you’ve suggested that if we open up to North Korea, if we lift sanctions, if we penetrate their society, that’s the most likely way in which the regime will change.

CHARLES ARMSTRONG: Exactly. And they seem to be willing to take that risk. So it’s a risk on both sides. Are we willing to give them that opening which will help the regime in the short run in order to have serious and positive changes in the long run, which might not take very long given a regime that has been so isolated and may be so brittle, it might not take much of an opening to really get things to happen very quickly there.

JAMIE RUBIN: So you think North Korea’s regime can collapse but not by containment, not by sanctions, but by opening up to the West?

CHARLES ARMSTRONG: It might not collapse immediately. But it could certainly change in what most people would see as a positive direction much more likely through opening than through pressure.

JAMIE RUBIN: Let’s say we can’t come to an agreement and North Korea goes forward with its threat to test nuclear weapons. By the way, do you think they will test nuclear weapons?

CHARLES ARMSTRONG: They’ve been threatening to. And they may do that.

JAMIE RUBIN: Well, let’s say they were to do that. And the United States were to follow through on its declaration that this is intolerable. That would mean a military strike. Do you foresee that possibility?

CHARLES ARMSTRONG: It certainly is a possibility. And the North Koreans in a way have been preparing for that contingency for 50 years. They are a country prepared and constantly talking about it, thinking about what it would mean to fight a war with the United States. It’s not like Iraq. It would be a much bloodier and much more destructive conflict.

JAMIE RUBIN: The logic of attacking North Korea’s nuclear capabilities envisages an air strike on one of these facilities, and then North Korea not responding because they would fear a war which would end their regime. Can you envisage North Korea not responding to an American air strike?

CHARLES ARMSTRONG: No. I cannot imagine that North Korea would accept an American air strike and not retaliate. Exactly how they would retaliate we don’t know. Most likely they would send artillery against the South. They would try to hit American bases, possibly even in Japan. But they would certainly strike back. I can’t imagine a scenario in which they would not.

JAMIE RUBIN: And if the war got worse could you envisage North Korea using nuclear weapons if they have them?

CHARLES ARMSTRONG: In the circumstances where they felt that that was the only alternative to destruction, then they might very well use nuclear weapons against local targets, that is against American facilities somewhere in East Asia. But they would certainly hold that possibility in reserve.

JAMIE RUBIN: President Bush has spoken very strongly about his views about Kim Jong Il. He said, “I loathe Kim Jong Il.” Some of his officials have followed that up with very, very direct attacks on the leader. What impact do you think this kind of personal attack on the leader has on their willingness to negotiate an end to this crisis?

CHARLES ARMSTRONG: Well, it certainly doesn’t help matters. The North Koreans respond usually immediately with nasty words about the U.S. and sometimes about the president and other top leaders. But in a way, perhaps the North Koreans see this as the U.S. finally being honest about the way it —

JAMIE RUBIN: So it’s true what they’re saying, these officials, largely?

CHARLES ARMSTRONG: And that it doesn’t matter. In other words, that the North Koreans — the way they deal with things follows the logic that what you say is one thing. You can’t not help but make disparaging remarks about the other party because that’s the relationship you have. But you can still enter into an agreement that would be mutually satisfactory.

JAMIE RUBIN: The North Korean broadcasts about America — aren’t they vitriolic and spewing out the most nasty kind of language?

CHARLES ARMSTRONG: Exactly. So they feel that we do that, and now we see the Americans doing the same thing to us. But that doesn’t mean we can’t negotiate and agree on resolving these issues diplomatically.

JAMIE RUBIN: In the film we see an almost unreal description of the Korean War. Do North Koreans understand that North Korea started the war? And why do they think the war is still going on?

CHARLES ARMSTRONG: What North Koreans have been taught since the war began, what they said in fact immediately after the war started, is that the U.S. started the war. The U.S. and South Korea attacked across the 38th parallel. It’s almost exactly the reverse of what —

JAMIE RUBIN: Of what really happened, right.

CHARLES ARMSTRONG: But since that’s the only thing they’ve ever been taught and most of the people who were involved in the war are now gone, that’s probably what most people believe. So they think the U.S. started the war and that the U.S. could be ready at any time to attack them again.

JAMIE RUBIN: But through none of their lifetimes has there been any military conflict. So why do they really think the war is still on?

CHARLES ARMSTRONG: Well, fundamentally it’s because Korea is divided. They see that their country, which they think should be one country, is divided into two. The American military is in the South. North Koreans are taught that South Korea is basically a puppet state of the U.S., run by the U.S. military. And that that is the fundamental issue North Koreans are taught over and over again, that unification is the goal, and the Americans are the obstacle. And this is why the war is not yet over.

JAMIE RUBIN: We see a lot of hostility directed against the United States in the film. Is America the only country that gets this kind of treatment? Or are there others?

CHARLES ARMSTRONG: America is the main enemy. But I would say that deep down the people that the North Koreans dislike even more are the Japanese.

JAMIE RUBIN: Because of the occupation.

CHARLES ARMSTRONG: The occupation and — Kim Il Sung, the first leader of North Korea, came out of this as a guerrilla fighter against the Japanese. And this was their big struggle along with the Korean War, fighting Japanese colonialism. So the two big enemies are the United States now. But also North Koreans are taught to believe that the Japanese deep down are militaristic people who, if you gave them a chance, would also take hostilities against North Korea. So it’s really the Americans and the Japanese who are the enemy. The other Westerners, Europeans, they’re very far away. They don’t really have an impact on North Koreans’ thinking. So it’s really the U.S. and Japan.

JAMIE RUBIN: Professor Armstrong, thank you for joining us.


Produced by THIRTEEN    ©2021 WNET.ORG Properties LLC. All rights reserved.