James Church on North Korean Politics, Past and Present

Peter Hayes, director of think tank the Nautilus Institute, wrote in the group’s newsletter in 2007 that James Church’s A CORPSE IN THE KORYO, the first of his Inspector O novels, is

the “best unclassified account of how North Korea works and why it has

survived all these years when the rest of the communist world

capitulated to the global market a decade ago.” I don’t have Hayes’ credentials, nor am I well-acquainted with American foreign policy or geopolitics, but Church – a pseudonym for a Western intelligence officer in his 60s who lives in the Northeast and was just profiled in the LA Times – certainly convinced me that KORYO and its two subsequent followups, HIDDEN MOON and BAMBOO AND BLOOD, ring true. What appeals to me most about Church’s work is his portrayal of the inner workings of North Korea’s government, where bureaucratic agencies actively discourage other agencies (and especially Inspector O) from investigating and doing their jobs effectively, even if it might be of benefit for everyone to work together.

In other words, secrecy is not just a byproduct of the system, it appears to be the system. Erik Cornell, who spent three years as head of the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang after it opened in 1975, describes the “Kafkaesque” round of negotiations needed to allow the Swedish Foreign Minister to visit the country in his 2002 book NORTH KOREA UNDER COMMUNISM:

For the North Koreans, a visit by a
Western Foreign Minister was naturally extremely welcome. But it soon
became quite clear that they were still guided by an all-embracing
negative attitude to anything that could be interpreted as meaning that
Pyongyang was prepared to shift ground on the Korean question and allow
some form of foreign intervention.  In the end, it turned out that not
only was it totally unthinkable to allow someone to arrive via the
proposed route but also to receive a Foreign Minister in Pyongyang if
he had already visited Seoul on the same journey.  It was evidently
thought that such a combination could not avoid being interpreted by
the outside world as interference in the Korean question…..The North
Koreans thereby showed that they had decided to ward off the visit but
in such a way that it was the Swedes who made the decision to cancel
it.  The negotiations thus started with a request for elucidation,
discussion about flight connections and time schedules, and, not least,
postponed or canceled meetings to gain time.  In negotiations of this
type, little attention should be paid to the content of what was said
and the form in which it was presented.  Instead, it was important to
concentrate one's efforts upon trying to gather the intention behind
the words.  When this gradually became clearer, I set my mind on not
allowing the Swedish side to be provoked in shouldering the blame for a
canceled visit.  The continually postponed meetings and the vague or
barely decipherable arguments from the North Korean side could only
serve the purpose of making us feel that we were being treated in a
degrading manner so that we should break off our discussion.

Cornell’s take is all the more relevant in light of the ongoing detainment of Current TV investigative journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling. On March 17, Lee and Ling attempted to cross the border into North Korea. They were arrested

on Chinese soil and have been detained ever since, with a trial scheduled on June 4. News trickles

out every so often but because the United States has no diplomatic

relations with North Korea, not

much is known about their current treatment. But I figured Church would have a good sense of what might be going on, and he graciously obliged by email with one caveat: Having just completed a draft of the fourth Inspector O novel, his responses were very much “in dialogue mode.”

**Based on your experience, what incentive

does North Korea have for detaining Ms. Lee and Ms. Ling as long as

they have and for carrying out a trial?**

In these sorts of situations, some of what goes on is the result of decisions. Some of it is process. And the rest is happenstance. It is pretty safe to assume that the original action at the border was the result of a local decision. The guards saw unusual activity at an odd hour. Did they have a chance to consult someone very far up the chain of command? Or did the unit commander say to himself: If these people take one more step, I have myself a medal.

Once they have the two women (and who knows what the guards thought they saw from a distance–Korean? Chinese? US passport holders? Two Asian females who worked for a network owned by Al Gore?), process kicks in. Messages go up the line. Something eventually gets to border guard headquarters, which has to decide what to do next. Go through the manual. Where are the f***king pages that say how to handle two Chinese-Americans claiming to be journalists? Who gets alerted first? These are foreigners, Americans possibly—get hold of the Foreign Ministry. No, wait, they weren’t just innocently wading in the water—call the State Security people. Where is the political officer, the guy always full of advice for everyone else, when you need him? He’s where? Doing what? Get him on the phone, NOW!

Maybe someone higher up is sent from Pyongyang to question the two. Or is the decision made in Pyongyang rather quickly? We have two Americans. Get them out of the hands of those idiots on the border and bring them to the capital. Someone has to report this development to the leadership. But how far up the line should it go? To the very top? But he’s not feeling well. Let’s handle it without telling him. No, let’s not take that chance; send up a report with a recommendation to carry out a more thorough investigation. No one ever got in trouble for conducting a more thorough investigation…did they?

In the next day or so, the whole mess gets into the policy loop. Fix this, says one circle. Throw them back across the border. We have enough problems with this missile launch coming up in a few weeks. And while you’re at it, call the Swedish ambassador to tell him he can have consular access. The last thing we need is stories of mistreatment springing up.

No way, says another group. Don’t let them go, not yet. We have to draw a firm the line with these outsiders thinking we are chopped liver. There are already too many people moving in and out with cameras, filming clandestinely. It’s one thing for our own citizens to slip OUT across the river into China. Goodbye, good luck. But it will be a disaster if we can’t better control who comes IN.

All of you butt out_, says State Security. This is our business. These people were taking pictures. Of what? For what? For what enemy intelligence organ? They are not innocent tourists, that’s clear. The head of SSD—up for appointment to the powerful National Defense Commission in April—is not about to go easy unless someone powerful (and there not too many people more powerful than him) gives the order. You don’t get to be head of SSD by showing too much leniency.

What are we going to charge them with? Let’s say they were committing hostile acts.

How about “illegal entry”? That’s not terrible. I’d say espionage, of course comrades, but then how do we explain it if we end up letting them go?

Good, “illegal entry,” I like it. Release an announcement tomorrow (March 21) on KCNA for international audiences. But no domestic news reporting—no radio, no TV. That way we won’t have to justify giving letting these women back if/as/when that decision is made. If we need to, we can let our own people know about it later. For now, let’s leave ourselves a lot of room to maneuver.

Guess what! The Iranians have seized an American reporter, and they have charged her with being a spy.

Wonderful. Let the Iranians take all the heat.

Also, the Chinese are grumbling; the incident took place on their border, too, and they’re saying it makes them look bad.

Screw them.

Taking this case all the way to a trial is unusual. If US-DPRK relations were in better shape, expelling the women after an investigation, a “confession,” and an “apology” would have been the best and most likely scenario. Things could still follow the recent Iranian example—a quick trial, sentencing, and then a suspension of sentence. In any case, once the two women were seized, it was inevitable that the internal security machinery was going to have to grind on for a while.

If the North Koreans decide that they are willing to put up with a long-term irritant in relations with the US by putting the two women in jail for any length of time, it will reflect a pretty negative swing in DPRK foreign policy—and perhaps also in leadership dynamics.

Would you say that Erik Cornell’s statement remains relevant, even (or especially) today?

I’d point out that with the North Koreans different negotiations have different dynamics. Issues, participants, and strategic considerations—all influence the direction, the tone, and the outcome of talks. The North Koreans sometimes follow the path that Connell describes, but they follow others as well.

Presumably, the Swedish foreign ministry wanted its foreign minister to travel directly between Seoul and Pyongyang, across the DMZ. For decades, the North opposed anyone doing that. As far as they were concerned, the symbolism was wrong, the precedent was bad.

When the Swedes asked, the North Korean Foreign Ministry already knew what the answer would have to be. If they pressed behind the scenes to get a different decision, it would have been a feckless exercise. “Look, these are the Swedes, it would do us a lot of good to bend on this, make them happy.” ****Phone call to the party central committee department in charge of policy toward South Korea. Short answer: Hell, no. Now what?

_Try the army. The DMZ is their business; maybe they want a box of Swedish movies. Do you think they’d like The Seventh Seal? Laughter down the corridor. Ring ring. Korean People’s Army speaking, may I help you? Who is this? The Foreign Ministry? You again. What do you want? HA HA HA. Across the DMZ! You guys kill me. SLAM.

So, comrade, how do we tell the Swedes? If we say no flat out, it won’t be very good; they will be unhappy with us and give us those morose looks across the table.

Why don’t we let them come to the conclusion by themselves? We’ll just string out the talks. Maybe they’ll get tired. Maybe they’ll even get the message: Not Now.

Do you really think so? Are Scandinavians very good with nuance?

Comrade, are you kidding? All they ever see is gray! Read one of their detective stories.

Once in a while, if overall bilateral relations are goo, negotiations are going well, and the marching orders are to keep things as buoyant as possible in the talks, a lower level North Korean participant will sometimes pull a counterpart aside and say: You might want to let this drop. It will save us all a lot of time.

**What would be the one thing Americans and the West should understand

about North Korean human behavior that hasn’t necessarily been

transmitted in the press?**

Not to mince words, Western media treatment of North Korea has generally been pathetic. “Lazy” and “intellectually bankrupt” also come to mind. Too many reporters and editors love to fall back on “it was a dark and stormy night” journalism when it comes to writing about the country. If one cannot figure out what to say, spill some ink talking about how the North is a mysterious place, a black hole of absurd behavior, a Stalinist Disneyland.

North Korea is a bureaucracy, it is Asian, and it is a totalitarian state inhabited by human beings. None of those attributes are beyond our understanding or experience. In other words, North Korea is not an unknowable enigma, yet we insist on seeing it as the equivalent of the planet Pluto—dark, cold, and distant. Why are we stuck in this rut? It’s a very American problem. Perhaps we don’t understand other peoples as well as we might because, as a nation, we sometimes fool ourselves about ourselves.