Following the well-received April 25th publication of a column by Professor Bathelemy Courmont, Daily NK seized the opportunity to meet the man himself at Hallym University in Chuncheon, where he lectures in Political Science. Courmont is known as the editor of a journal dealing with Chinese issues, ‘Le Monde Chinois: Nouvelle Asie’; nevertheless, he chooses to reside in South Korea because in his vision of regional politics in North East Asia, “Korea has an important role to play.” It is, he points out, “the best place to try to have new ideas about the North Korean situation.”
Asked why he has chosen Chuncheon over Seoul as the base for this undertaking, he explains, “I am interested in the concept of ‘What is the real Korea?’ For me it’s not Seoul, certainly not these people [he points north toward the DMZ], it’s the people I meet here.” He believes that this amorphous concept of ‘Central Korea’, still in the South but far from Seoul, is a place that could one day act as a bridge between North and South.
Looking closer at his vision of North Korea, Courmont again claims that, as he noted in his column for the Daily NK ‘International Scholars Series’, the North Korean nuclear arsenal “amounts to a ‘virtual deterrence’ policy” whereby “whether they do have atomic bombs or not does not make a difference, as long as the other side believes it.” It is something which he believes is setting a dangerous precedent for other rogue regimes.
Thus, he says it would be much better to see economic engagement with North Korea first and denuclearization later, rather than further sanctions of questionable merit. “If we keep the sanctions, we can be doing it for another twenty years,” he points out. “Kim Jong Eun will be much older, but he will still be the leader, and people will still be starving in his country.”
Courmont is hopeful that the upcoming South Korean presidential election might offer a chance to transform the dialogue in a more favorable direction for this kind of approach. It’s a great opportunity, he believes, not least since it will allow the “demonization of predecessors”.
“Lee Myung Bak won’t be here anymore, and on the North Korean side you can say everything is because of Kim Jong Il; you have new leaders,” he explains.
▲ “Why did you choose South Korea as your current place of residence? You lived in Taiwan, and being a chief editor of the journal Le Monde Chinois: Nouvelle Asie, it seems to be more logical for you to be based in China.”
I love traveling in China, discovering it, but I cannot see myself living there for very personal reasons: it’s too polluted, too crowded, too difficult. Taiwan is a very interesting place but the problem is everything related to politics is obsessed by the cross-strait issue; everything is related to China. My approach to politics in North East Asia is more regional. I believe in the necessity for North East Asia to integrate on economic and more political aspects. Being in Taiwan will not help me. That leaves three countries: North Korea, which is out of question, South Korea and Japan. Why am I so interested in South Korea? It’s because of two different factors: First, it is the best place to try to have new ideas about North Korean situation, I love talking about it with my students, I like asking them what they think about it, and it is something extremely different and interesting. The second reason is I believe that Korea has an important role to play. Japan is, I am afraid, in decline. I love Japan as well, but their approach to regional politics is totally out-dated. The Japanese reluctance to engage in a comprehensive dialogue with China is not going to be a good one, and in that sense Koreans do have a more pragmatic approach. For that reason I believe that this is a better place to be. South Korea will become, I hope, the key to the regional dialogue more than China, Japan and obviously more than North Korea. The other reason, more personal, was that South Korea was the country in the region I knew the least. I know China very well, I know Taiwan very well, I know Japan very well, but I didn’t know South Korea, the Korean culture, so it was also a very personal decision to come here.
▲ “With the Korean educational system being so Seoul-centered, why did you choose to come to a regional university?”
The thing I appreciate at Hallym is that you don’t feel any big pressure. I was based one year in Canada, I spent all my time on the campus working with the students and doing some activities for the university. Here, the political science department is smaller; my duties are also smaller, which leaves me much more time to focus on research. The second reason is that while Seoul is a very exciting city, here I live five minutes’ walk from my office; I can enjoy a different stress in life. I had my dose of big cities when I was in Paris or Montreal; I am fine here. And the third reason is, we talk here about North and South Korea, but I am very interested in the concept of “Central Korea”. I think South Korea is symbolized by Seoul, the modernity, the cosmopolitism of Seoul and of course the political institutions. North Korea is what is in the north of the peninsula, but here is [designating Chuncheon] Korea. It’s not the North, obviously, it’s not exactly South Korea either, you know, the “eternal” Korea. I am interested in the concept of “What is the real Korea?” For me, it’s not South Korea, certainly not these people [points toward the North], it’s the people I meet here and they have a different vision. Indeed, this Central Korea might be the way to engage in North-South dialogue. When I talk to my students about North Korea, one of the first things that comes to their minds is that reunification will be extremely costly so they do not exactly want that but at the same time they do not have a particularly bad vision of the North Korean population and I find it interesting. We always have to make a distinction between the political authorities and the population itself and I believe the key is also in this kind of a dialogue and this is not something that will be dealt with by the authorities on both sides, the population has to push for that.
▲ “In your article, you allude to the North Korea virtual deterrence policy.”
I believe that that’s where Kim Jong Il was an extremely smart leader, probably I would say even smarter than his father, he managed to use the nuclear threat and the perception of the North Korean arsenal. So, I believe like most experts that the North Korean nuclear arsenal is a weapon of negotiation; and second, this is where I do differ with the American scholars, is that whether they do have atomic bombs or not does not make a difference as long as the other side believes it. This is a new kind of deterrence policy. What used to be based on the fact that you make a nuclear test, you show the rest of the world what you are capable of, you implement a certain dose of transparency and your deterrence policy is based on some realities, in the North Korean case it is based on complete blur.
If we had some evidence that they do not have a proper arsenal we would have to focus on their conventional forces and they are extremely limited, so yes, there is no security issue concerning North Korea, it is not a problem anymore. It became the situation where you have a rogue regime in a region, but rogue equals weak in this case. But as long as you can make the others believe that you have a totally disproportional means of appraisal then it’s more than that, it remains a problem and you have to engage in dialogue. So as a result, and this is the point of my book, North Korea is giving a lesson to the rogue countries; I think it’s more difficult to be a leader of a weak rogue state than the US president because your margin is far more limited, you cannot make any mistake. As was the case with Qaddafi or Saddam Hussein, one mistake can be crucial – and this is where I am very concerned. As long as North Korea can make the others believe they have disproportionate capacities and they can force the U.S. to accept what they want, through all the negotiations we can see that the U.S. had to accept all Pyongyang’s requests and that was a failure of both the Bush and Obama administrations, I am afraid that some of the other countries might be tempted to imitate this kind of experience.
▲ “What policy prospects would you suggest in order to deal with this issue?”
We already started what I do believe is the best way given the nature of the regime, it’s the Sunshine Policy. I was impressed by Madeleine Albright’s visit to Pyongyang and by the way she described Kim Jong Il. She said he was not the crazy, sick, unpredictable leader she believed he was, but he was funny smart and quite nice and the results were indeed pretty good, North Korea accepted negotiations and also gave some elements in order to prove its desire to be accepted. In the long term, the Sunshine Policy of course implies a strong initiative from South Korea and strong support from the U.S. And that’s exactly what happened in the year 2000, but it didn’t work because the Americans failed in this dialogue, not the North Koreans. The Bush administration is responsible.
I am not saying that the North Koreans were totally opened to the dialogue, they kept the nuclear option alive in case something didn’t work, but again, this is a rogue state and in my theory the rogue regime has more rights than the powerful states. But by emphasizing in the “Axis of evil” speech that North Korea was not only a rogue state, a nasty authoritarian regime, but also a mafia regime, that the Kim dynasty was rogue in itself, a criminal, totally deteriorated any potential for dialogue. So the U.S. is responsible for the situation that is unfortunately still going on, and I am afraid that the Obama administration has not managed to restore confidence. At some point the U.S. went too far by criticizing the people in charge, so now on the North Korean side it is very unlikely that they will trust them again in the short run. I don’t think North Korea should engage with the government first and then discuss potential re-integration into the international system. I do believe that we should work the other way around and try to re-engage them and then try to persuade them that their weapons are useless. I also questioned the relevancy of the North Korean nuclear arsenal. I am not convinced that the nuclear potential of North Korea is enough to justify a deterrence policy and the existence of the arsenal and all the things that make North Korea a nuclear power.
As I mention in general in my works, the regime remains weak, I believe that North Korea can collapse at any time and that’s why I keep telling my students constantly that South Koreans should be prepared. It will happen one day and the week after there will already be a dialogue for reunification. I am not saying it is going to happen soon, but it can happen at any time and thus Kim Jong Eun knows he has to be strong. When it comes to the support from China, Kim Jong Eun knows that there is a red line. I am pretty sure that in Beijing there is already a definition of this red line.
Obviously, a new military confrontation is one, but my question is how about the nuclear test? The Chinese position is very interesting, China wants a North Korea that remains isolated enough but also opened enough to dialogue, but not the new Sunshine Policy, it would probably benefit South Korea more than China. The new free economic zones are a perfect example of what China wants; to buy North Korea, to become an inevitable partner and Jang Sang Taek is the perfect link. If Kim Jong Eun is as clever as his father when it comes to relations with China, the “two North Korea policy” is likely to stay: support with a red line and on the other side the emphasis on Chinese economy and business. This in the long term is not a bad idea; my regret when it comes to engaging in a dialogue with North Korea is the tendency to link too much to the security aspect. We can criticize the authoritarian regime, we can isolate it politically speaking but only while keeping a proper dose of economic development, because the population suffers from the sanctions. I don’t think that it is the right attitude, I don’t believe in sanctions. They are necessary, but you have to be sure they work, and obviously this is not the case. The regime is still there, so in the longer turn the Chinese approach is more likely to produce significant results.
▲ “So is it still about North Korea? Or just about the China-U.S. struggle?”
“It is of course about North Korea because it is a Chinese neighbor. But it is also more generally about two vision of the international policy and how to engage rogue states. The U.S. theory lies within the Washington consensus saying that you can be integrated within the world’s system and within global vision if you respond to certain standards of governance. It is a great system, it is a system in which we have been living in for more than half a century but it has its limits. North Korea is one and not the only case. There’s Zimbabwe and others.
Beijing’s idea that is more and more referred to as the “Beijing consensus” is that you must establish a difference between economic development and political prospects. In the long term, they might converge and that might create problems and that’s another issue. When it comes to engagement of rogue powers, this is the only approach. You cannot expect Korea to change its governance in order to reach a certain level of democracy; they won’t accept that. On the other side, if you slowly manage to develop the North Korean economy and see what happens, then the possibilities of better dialogue are there, it is the only way to reach a result in the long term. And that’s where the global North Korean policy has been a failure since the end of the Cold War.
I blame the Americans, but I blame my country as well; the fact that France does not have diplomatic relations with Pyongyang is a mistake. I think we missed some opportunities especially during the Sunshine Policy because of the cohabitation (a president from the right, Chirac, along with a left wing government), they didn’t manage to agree on something highly symbolic. It is nowadays discussed in Paris, the possibility of implementing diplomatic relations. We are just waiting for a good opportunity; as soon as there is good news coming from the peninsula, Paris would move. If we cannot accept the North Korean regime, let’s accept the North Korean economy first like in the case of China. So that’s my personal approach and I know that is more and more advocated, especially by European experts.“
▲ “Would you see the upcoming South Korean and American presidential elections as an opportunity for a change?”
There are two different answers. I personally believe that Obama will be re-elected; I don’t think Romney stands a chance, but the final victor is going to win by small numbers and many things can happen before December. As a result, when it comes to the North Korean issue I don’t think there will be a significant change. As a matter of fact, even Obama’s election in 2009 did not completely change U.S. North Korea policy, the change came when Condoleezza Rice became secretary of state. She is the one who tried to restore confidence. When Obama came to power he tried to implement what he called the “smart policy”, he failed mostly because the overall u-turn was too dramatic, too big, the US appeared to be a bit schizophrenic to the North Koreans.
One of the qualities of the North Koreans is that they are stable; they know what they want and how to get it. On the other side the Americans have changed dramatically from designating Pyongyang as a member of the Axis of Evil and then suddenly trying to restore a comprehensive dialogue. So Obama knew that when he came to power, he couldn’t do much so he kept the line. So I don’t think there will be much more from Obama’s reelection. If Romney is elected, I don’t see any particular change either; at this point the Republicans and the Democrats agree on this topic: first of all, the worst thing would be a confrontation. Second a nuclear North Korea. So we don’t want to be too hard, but we don’t want to be too soft. And third, we don’t want China to be too strong or to gain too much. They have differences in method, but the objective is quite the same.
When it comes to the South Korean election, I hope that the new president will try to confirm some trends that we have noticed in the past two years, to have a more coherent approach with North Korea. The problem with the Lee administration is that it has kept a very hard line with North Korea but on the other side was reluctant to go too far. And the North Koreans used this paradox, so the next president should take a lesson from that. I don’t think you can reactivate immediately a new Sunshine Policy because the situation and context have changed, but it’s very important to use this election to try to transform the dialogue.
It’s a great opportunity, since you can demonize your predecessors. Lee Myung Bak won’t be here anymore and on the North Korean side you can say everything is because of Kim Jong Il, you have new leaders. I don’t see anything big happening before the election [from the North Korean side], since I believe they are smart and they will not make a nuclear test, now they are saying “we are a potential threat, but we will not cross the Rubicon, we will wait for you…
▲ “Could you develop more on the French vision of North Korea?”
First, to look at some interesting facts between our countries: when Francois Mitterrand was elected president in 1981, he was the first socialist president since the end of World War II. Before he was elected, he visited Pyongyang as a potential future president of France. And he was highly criticized back then; we were in 1981, so still during the Cold War, North Korea was not identified as a rogue state but was a member of the Eastern bloc. But his visit marked the beginning of a new approach in engaging with North Korea, and this very symbolic visit marked attempts to de-demonize the regime and Kim Il Sung. It was a very important date between our countries.
After the end of the Cold War, the French position was limited by the nuclear issue. And that was a mistake because there was an opportunity for a new type of engagement. At the same time, some experts and local leaders started to show interest in this regime and used their sometimes Maoist backgrounds, of course they all were members of very hard line communist parties, to develop deep sympathy for the regime and began criticizing the sanctions, the American attitude and advocating that France should adopt a completely different approach. They are more influential than we might think, they are party members, university professors like Mr Charvin; what is interesting in his approach is that you find pro-North Korean arguments coming from an expert in the Western world. I have never heard about any expert supporting the Kims in the way he does in the U.S. In France you do have the ‘Association d’amitie franco-coreenne’, you would be amazed by the types of arguments they have, they visit North Korea and are received by the authorities and they report that this country suffers too much from its isolation and that we should change that. They are not stupid in the sense that they would say that North Korea was a paradise of a country, but they believe that the reason why the situation is dramatic right now is not because of the North Korean authorities but because of the international community.
So you see the approach is very different, and they are influential not in the sense that France would support Pyongyang but they are influential in raising attention towards the population instead of the nuclear issue. A lot of books are translated into French and the books concerning North Korea that saw the biggest success were all ones dealing with the population.
When I first met my publisher, his reaction was: “Why do you want to publish something about politics in North Korea? I was expecting something more about the population.” And he requested that I put a lot of emphasis on this aspect, so the beginning of my book mostly deals with what we know about life in North Korea, which was not exactly what I intended, but I had to in order to be accepted by the French audience. I would say that the Kim dynasty is considered very kitsch, totally out-dated, ridiculous, but it’s not a problem. What is a problem is why do North Koreans starve to death? How about these 23 million people? This is really what French do care about.
I am really amazed by the American approach. On several occasions I was talking to US experts and when I raised the question of the humanitarian situation in North Korea, the consequences of the sanctions, I immediately faced responses such as: “Nonsense! They should change their regime and they would be fine.”
I am really interested in this topic, because I am personally concerned about the North Korean population, since they are the ones suffering. That’s why I think it is necessary to distinguish politics and the leaders from the economic development in North Korea. Sanctions do not work; we need to find a new approach. We all know that if we lift the sanctions, the regime will benefit from that, but we know they do benefit from it anyway. So let’s give them what they want at least for a certain time, at least the population will live better and in the longer term, there would be a possibility for change.
If you want the population to do something, they must be capable of thinking; this is nearly a theorem in revolutions. The French revolution took place at the time the king was more open to reform than ever before and that’s the same for most countries; changes can happen only if the population can afford it. I believe that sanctions are necessary to stop some particular criminal activity, since we cannot totally accept the attitude of Pyongyang, but we must bear in mind the situation in the country itself. If we keep the sanctions, we can be doing it for another twenty years, Kim Jong Eun will be much older, but he will still be the leader and people will still be starving in his country.
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