Expert on North Korea Weighs In on Saber Rattling, Foreign Policy Crisis

Melanie Kirkpatrick says Pressure from China may be the Key to Resolution

HARTFORD, CT, April 18, 2013 – Wednesday’s speech by Melanie Kirkpatrick at The Hartford Club, an appearance sponsored by the investment firm of Bradley, Foster & Sargent, Inc.; the University of Connecticut School of Business; and Trinity College, couldn’t have been more timely. The title: “Can North Korea Change?”

Melanie Kirkpatrick, left, with James F. Jones, Jr., President and Trinity College Professor in the Humanities. 
Photo by Tom Hurlbut. 

If anyone is qualified to answer that question it’s Kirkpatrick, the author of Escape from North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia’s Underground Railroad, and a journalist who lived in Asia for 10 years as a member of The Wall Street Journal’s staff.

Although there’s no simple answer to the question that she posed, Kirkpatrick agreed that there’s hardly been a more opportune moment to ask, given the recent saber rattling and militaristic moves made by Kim Jong Un, the supreme leader of North Korea.

In recent weeks, Kim Jong Un, who ascended to power upon the death of his father in December 2011, has ratcheted up tensions, positioning missiles on North Korea’s eastern shore, amassing artillery in the demilitarized zone, threatening to launch nuclear missiles, openly testing new weapons, and declaring the Korean War armistice that effectively ended the war on the Korean Peninsula 60 years ago, void.

Kirkpatrick acknowledged that, “tensions are the highest since the end of the Korean War.” However, she didn’t paint as glum a picture as many other experts, suggesting that tensions could be eased and the situation mitigated if certain things happen. Among them, and perhaps the most important, would be a toughening of China’s policy toward North Korea, two countries that share a border.

“There are indications that China is rethinking its policy toward North Korea,” said Kirkpatrick, adding that China would like stability along its border and would greatly benefit, especially economically, from a unified Korean peninsula. In addition, if South Korea and Japan were to obtain nuclear arms to counteract North Korea, it would pose a grave threat to China.

Kirkpatrick readily admitted that the situation in North Korea is unnerving and dangerous, largely due to the leadership of Kim Jong Un, a leader who is an enigma to other countries and foreign policy experts. “Possibly he’ll back down or possibly he won’t,” she said. “We know very little.”

But even if this immediate crisis passes without incident, Kirkpatrick said, it’s clear that the United States and its allies will have to deal with a North Korea that has nuclear weapons with the capacity to reach the west coast of the U.S. and might some day be able to reach the eastern seaboard. In addition, North Korea poses a threat to South Korea and an attack could have “a horrific impact” on the capital of Seoul. Speculation abounds that North Korea has chemical and cyber weapons. 

In North Korea, Kim Jong Un has ruled with an iron glove. Indeed, Kirkpatrick called his government “the most brutal regime” and “most repressive state” in the world. In terms of the rapid economic growth of other Asian nations, North Korea is an outlier. Two-thirds of the North Korean people don’t know where their next meal is coming from. And the country is so lacking in basics such as electricity that most of the lights are turned off at night. “People go to bed when the sun goes down,” she noted.

North Korea stands in stark contract to its neighbor to the south, which has the 13th largest economy in the world.

Kim Jong Un controls every aspect of peoples’ lives, Kirkpatrick explained, banning religion, incarcerating dissidents at will, prohibiting people from listening to and watching foreign radio and TV broadcasts, and forbidding people to use the Internet and social media, including email, Facebook and Twitter. 

Despite that, North Koreans manage to get information from the outside world – mostly from Chinese couriers who carry verbal messages, and balloons filled with information that are launched across the border. Also, DVDs, flash drives and Bibles are secretly finding their way into North Korea. 

Noting that the North Korean population is increasingly skeptical of the brutal regime, people are beginning to stir. “Oppression has not dulled their appetite for freedom,” she said.

Options for ratcheting up pressure for regime change include: cutting off North Korea from world markets; persuading China to pressure North Korea to tone down its rhetoric and weapons program; and providing more support for North Koreans living in exile. 

“There is no organized dissent in North Korea today,” Kirkpatrick said, adding, “But that could change.”

A senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington D.C., Kirkpatrick worked for The Wall Street Journal in Asia and New York for 29 years, ultimately serving as the deputy editor of its editorial page. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Kirkpatrick received a B.A. from Princeton University and a master’s degree in English from the University of Toronto. She is a Trustee of Princeton in Asia, an internship program in Asia for young graduates of U.S. universities.