Daily NK recently sat down for a
no-holds-barred conversation with Kathy Moon on nuclear politics and
provocations, strategic culture and marketization, international response and
the importance of using history to steer policy. Interview highlights include a
nuanced suggestion for sanctions, the dangerous arrogance of the Kim Jong Un
regime, and a look at how women’s roles might be changing in North Korea. Kathy
Moon is the SK-Korea Foundation Chair in Korea Studies and senior fellow at the
Brookings Center for East Asia Policy Studies and a professor of political
science at Wellesley College.
Image: The Brookings Institution
Daily NK [DNK]: Does Kim Jong Un lack the strategic
sense of his predecessors? What are the ramifications of that in terms of NK’s
willingness to provoke its neighbors and how the U.S. and allies should
Dr. Moon [DM]: We see these patterns of nuclear tests,
launches, provocations. We don’t have a lot of tools in the toolbox for our
response. And we shouldn’t lump them together. We need to ask ourselves what
each individual provocation means in comparison with what happened during the
1994 crisis with his father (Kim Jong Il) and further back with his
grandfather’s intentions for nuclear capability. It is better analysis to ask,
‘Are the intentions the same? Are the motivations the same? Are the
ramifications the same?’ To some extent the answer is no. For Kim Jong Il’s
regime, nuclear weapons helped rocket North Korea into the nuclear club by
leapfrogging other forms of technological, military, and economic development.
I don’t think Kim Jong Un’s regime is acting out with the sole goal of getting
the U.S.’s attention. They’ve already done that.
Kim Jong Un is less interested in using the
nuclear program as a bargaining chip to get other goodies, whereas under his
father’s rule, the nuclear program was negotiable, especially during the Bill
Clinton era. We almost got denuclearization toward the end of Clinton’s
presidency. I don’t think this regime is willing to negotiate the program away.
The best the U.S. can expect is some sort of cessation of tests and enrichment
for the near future and then serious disarmament talks. But one problem is that
disarmament talks are reserved for nuclear states. We’re in a dilemma, because
we don’t acknowledge North Korea as a nuclear state, but it is a de facto
nuclear state. At the same time, Pyongyang is not interested in
denuclearization. Not only has North Korea invested a lot of money and prestige
into its nuclear program, this has become the regime’s raison d’etre. The
leaders don’t want to throw it away. It’s called the sunk cost fallacy in
[DNK] B.R. Myers responded to your recent
article in the Atlantic. He tries to point out a substantive difference between
your points of view about the Kim regime’s motivation for pursuing nuclear
weapons. He thinks that the nuclear arsenal is about preparing to complete Kim
Il Sung’s mission of unification by force. How do you feel about that?
Strategically, why does North Korea continue to pursue, develop, and
demonstrate nuclear weapons?
[DM]: I think in terms of domestic legitimacy and
maintaining power, of course, that’s a given. But what size nuclear arsenal do
they have to develop to buy domestic legitimacy and support for the regime?
North Korea does not have a full nuclear arsenal, but in a society that can’t
independently assess the government’s capabilities, you don’t need an excessive
amount of warheads to demonstrate power to your people. You just need to have
the myth of success and achievement so that the domestic audience believes that
the regime is powerful. The current amount is sufficient for that purpose. So I
don’t get why they are in “roll out mode,” with the alleged H-bomb test and the
missile launch and more in the works. Does Kim Jong Un really need all that to
beat his chest at the Party Congress in May?
There are other things at play. Both North
Korea and South Korea have their rhetoric about unification. The regime may
want to believe that provocations will lead to a unification more along their
lines, as a bargaining chip or something. If you talk to common North Koreans
in Pyongyang, many can give you a whole speech about how glorious the country
is, but over time, they are the first ones who will fess up, “We know that the
South has wealth, highly developed technology, capital, etc. We know we are
very poor and underdeveloped.” The North Koreans who have some access to outside
information and can engage in comparative thinking are not clueless.
Which means the regime is not clueless. As reckless as they act, they
know the facts on the ground. They know how powerful the South Korean economy
is. So unification to absorb the South that accords with the North’s vision is
a pipe dream. I don’t think North Korean elites are that silly.
[DNK]: You spoke about using sanctions or other
means to target the donju (new rich class) as a way to destabilize the regime.
There are some who argue that the donju’s growing power reflects the
government’s weakened grasp on the economy. If the aim is to target and
destabilize the regime, do we want a strong or weak donju class?
[DM]: I don’t seek instability in North Korea. We
don’t want to have mass chaos on the peninsula. We’ve tried focusing sanctions
on the hyper-elite, the very few who surround the Kim family and form the main
pillars of their power. We’ve tried going after luxury goods. But they’re not
going to complain about not being able to buy the Rolex they want because a)
their heads could roll and b) they’re a constituent part of the regime. They
won’t rock the boat. Besides, how many Rolex watches and Mercedes cars can one
But the new rich class is not part of the
establishment in the same way. They benefit in many ways from the regime but
they also use the regime. In my view, that very small group of newly rich
people in Pyongyang choose to endure political oppression because they have
access to a better lifestyle. I call them “lifestyle elites.” So if we
make it harder for them to pursue this lifestyle, they have to question the
direction of the country. The Kim Jong Un regime is very cautious with this
group. He gives them room to make money but also keeps them politically at bay.
But if they were to realize how vulnerable they are to sanctions and the long
term maintenance of their new social position, perhaps they could start
signaling to the hyper-elite that real economic development is contingent upon
political reforms. In terms of not hurting commoners, I don’t support sanctions
that hurt those who are eking out a living and that is what I am afraid might
happen. If we squeeze the hyper elite, they’ll respond by grabbing more from
the ordinary people. Even during the great famine in the 1990s, the regime
initially refused international aid. We don’t want to create a situation in
which we prompt the regime to create even more hardship for ordinary people.
[DNK]: Prospects for the announcement of
economic reforms at the 7th Party Congress in May?
There are some commentators who argue that
North Korea’s use of the nuclear arsenal is meant to keep domestic society at
bay, conserve funds for economic development, and serve as military deterrence
to compensate for the dilapidated nature of their military equipment. There’s a
chance that the regime is doing that. The problem is that even if they are
trying to save on military spending by developing and demonstrating their
nuclear capability every once in awhile, the reality is that they still lack
the capacity, human resources, facilities, and infrastructure that allow for
economic development to take off. North Korea is not in a position to do that
on its own. And they can’t do it only with China’s help either. In order for
the North Korean economy to really be viable in the way that Kim Jong Un talks
about “Prosperity for North Korea,” they’ll need to be connected to the outside
world, get skills and technology training, foreign investment, and access to
international funding sources such as the World Bank, IMF, etc. This can’t be
delivered solely by China or by Russia and it cannot be home-grown in North
This is another danger point that
distinguishes Kim Jong Un from Kim Jong Il. Kim Jong Il had an understanding
that North Korea is an underdog. But Kim Jong Un has expressed arrogance that
extends beyond the usual pride over the nuclear push and economic growth that
the country has been able to achieve in the past few years. That makes me
particularly nervous. Because just a few piecemeal changes don’t amount to the
kind of fundamental changes that they need in order to prosper. At this point,
who’s going to help? They’ve alienated even those who are traditional engagers.
[DNK]: How do you think China will respond to
North Korea’s provocations in the long term?
[DM]: China needs to come up with a nuanced way
of using the leverage they have. They should not cut off oil, fuel, and food in
one day. But they can play with it to signal to Pyongyang, “You’re really lucky
that we’ve been putting up with you,” by reducing fuel by 10%, 20% for a
limited time, on and off, etc. A nuanced and graduated policy is better. They
don’t have to do anything dramatic. We don’t want drama on the peninsula. But
it’s no longer possible for China to just sit tight. There has to be a clear
concerted signal sent by all neighboring countries, “Here are the limits.”
China’s red line is whatever hurts Chinese interests. The people on the border
have become concerned about radiation contamination. They’ve seen cracks in school
buildings from the alleged H-Bomb test. The residents have to communicate to
their government that the situation is causing anxiety and putting the people’s
security at risk every time the North tests nuclear devices near the border.
[DNK]: How will South Korea’s policies towards
the North change as a result latest provocations? Will the national assembly to
pass the North Korean Human Rights Act? How should we interpret the closing of
the Kaesong Industrial Complex?
[DM]: You never know with South Korean politics.
Relative to the prelaunch period, they’ve run out of ways to deal with North
Korea. Closing Kaesong is a significant symbolic move. It represents a huge sea
change given the importance of Kaesong for South Korea’s policy towards the
North. It was a lynchpin. By closing Kaesong, the government is admitting that
no carrots have worked. Kaesong was the biggest carrot so far. Given that,
you’re left with sticks. So the Human Rights Act legislation would be a stick.
Of course, you’re going to have some progressives criticizing and opposing it.
But even if the Human Rights Act passes,* I don’t foresee any substantive change
in South Korea’s policy towards the human rights of North Koreans. I don’t
think there will be much flesh to the skeletal change. In terms of the general
population’s support for these kinds of activities, I don’t think that the
recent test and launch has changed the cautiousness of South Koreans. They
don’t want to invite significant change that would have negative consequences
for South Korea. I think that general cautiousness will continue – Don’t rock
the boat too much, but don’t make it easy for the regime either.
[DNK]: Do you see women’s increased
participation in the markets and bringing in the family income causing larger
changes in the direction of gender equality?
[DM]: Because of the difficulty of doing field
research, it is really hard to know. We don’t know how the money that’s earned
is actually used at home. How much goes to food? How much goes to women’s
healthcare versus the drinking habits of their husband? This happens in
developing countries as well, even those with micro credit access. If the money
is spent in an unproductive way, that’s not useful. I don’t see North Korean
gender roles as being significantly different from those in other hardship
settings. I think if we look deeply and study women’s roles in other hardship
settings and then compare with the North, we’ll see that it’s variations on a
theme, rather than a totally different theme.
The real power issue is that when women
start making money, they hope that they will play a larger role in the
decisions making and have more access to other resources. The general tendency
is for the men, especially the husbands and the fathers, to crack down on it,
to resist it, because their power is being challenged. So it’s possible that
women’s increased economic status could lead to increased incidents of domestic
violence. That’s very possible. If gender roles and expectations don’t change
generationally, there can be frustration. I visited North Korea three years ago
and met a young woman, about 25 years old, who graduated from a university and
was working at a highly desirable job. She was from an elite family in
Pyongyang. She told me that she wants to marry her boyfriend but unenthusiastic
about having to live with in-laws and be a “servant” in their home of her
husband’s parents, a prospect that did not sound appealing to her at all. On
this issue, I thought how easily North Korean and South Korean women would be
able to understand each other. I told her it’s the same in the South.
[DNK]: Is there something that we should be
paying attention to in North Korea but aren’t?
[DM]: In the media, academia, and policy circles,
I think we all have to will ourselves to be more curious about North Korea as a
place with history and culture. I don’t mean Communist, Kim Il Sung,
revolutionary history, I mean hundreds of years of history. We don’t have
knowledge about what culture is in North Korea. My mom is writing a memoir
about being born in the North pre-division, and I am helping her out with that.
The people who came out of North Korea before or during the war to settle in
the South were very different from the Southerners they encountered. These are
strong-willed, tough people, and they pushed and pushed to develop South Korea.
The stories of northern Korea that I grew up with—memories of my mother’s
childhood in Kanggye were healthy and wholesome.
They focused on nature, the mountains, the special foods they ate, the games
When I talk about history and culture, the
point is to humanize the place. It is very difficult for foreigners to
understand the current situation when we regard them as a history-less,
culture-less people. We too often see it as a rootless place. [She points to a
movie poster of the controversial film ‘The Interview’ that is hung up in her
office as a humorous jibe at the American tendency to caricature North Korea]
This is what we think. We only see them as a people with an overbearing state,
and a history that the state made up. But North Korea is more than that. I’d
like to see scholars and journalists try to dig out the real history, not the
one that the Kim family manufactured. We need to find that history again so
that the Northerners can reclaim it. We can’t have a successful, healthy
unified Korea in the future if half of its population doesn’t have access to
their own history. It’s necessary for political reasons as well.
[DNK]: So the strategic culture isn’t just an
offshoot of the Cold War context?
[DM]: No, why would it be? Why wouldn’t northern
Korea’s long threads of history come to bear on the DPRK’s economic culture,
strategic culture, and their psychological culture? It wasn’t just created in a
vacuum by Kim Il Sung and it’s not a matter of brainwashing. If we look at
North Korea as a culture-less place, that’s a mistake. We can’t understand
North Korea without looking deeper. Kim Jong Un may seem obnoxiously tough and
brazen from the point of view of a foreigner, but it fits into northern Korea’s
culture of endurance and resilience. If we think that sanctions will bring them
to their knees, we’re mistaken.