What a difference a few months can make, even to the decades-old conflict on the Korean peninsula.
A signed agreement has now emerged from a luxurious Singapore hotel. Two mercurial, unpredictable men who could not be seen to lose face in front of the other have clasped hands and produced an agreement: United States military forces will suspend joint military exercises with South Korea. In return there will be ‘comprehensive denuclearisation’ by North Korea.
The wording of the document, however, seems vague. While the incentives for Donald Trump—seeking re-election and vaunted as a Nobel Peace Prize winner—are obvious, those of his counterpart Kim Jong-un are less so.
Behind the scenes
Those foreigners granted visas to enter North Korea are invariably assigned ‘minders’ or ‘guides’ who will chaperone them at all times, ensuring they see a highly sanitised version of the country.
On my own visits there it has been little different: my itinerary tended to focus on the showcase capital city of Pyongyang with emphasis on how Kim’s grandfather Kim Il-sung constructed an Earthly paradise, a regimented and garrisoned island of plenty in a sea of want. Given the reality of economic isolation, sanctions and famine, this seems tragic and grotesque but the regime has very successfully choked the inflow of information about the outside world since the Korean War ended in 1953.
I remember travelling on a train from Pyongyang to the Chinese border in late 2003 when I shared a carriage with a Canadian businessman and an Egyptian diplomat. Nine years later I made the same trip in the opposite direction. This time the carriage was packed with North Koreans. They looked rather shabby and threadbare compared to the Chinese citizens I’d seen the previous week. But many were bent over mobile phones, something unthinkable in 2003, their index fingers dancing over illuminated screens. Only later did I discover that the regime only allowed the communications company manufacturing the devices to operate in North Korea because the mobiles were specially wired to receive state-sanctioned signals and nothing else.
Most houses up to the Chinese border looked dilapidated, broken down
The notion that Kim may want to buttress his power at home by gaining clout on the international stage is sparked by my memories of the North Korean countryside. In early 2012, just after Kim had assumed power on the death of his father, heavy snow rendered the nation’s trains inoperable. Our minders conceded that we had to travel by private van along secondary countryside roads to get anywhere.
I noticed how most agriculture was done with carts and oxen. Most houses up to the Chinese border looked dilapidated, broken down. We passed through three military checkpoints where even the soldiers looked weary. And yet on hillsides and in little villages, banners and engraved obelisks told locals they were uniquely blessed.
It is easy to imagine ordinary North Koreans’ fury if and when the extent of the regime’s misinformation comes home. If North Korea remains an impoverished pariah, that day must come, sooner or later.
During 2017, North Korea conducted at least 16 missile tests and detonated its most powerful ever underground nuclear test in September at the Punggye-ri test site.
Some experts have suggested that the Punggye-ri site was rendered inoperable by the September blast, hence the recent announcement by Kim of its decommissioning. Kim is unlikely to have a nuclear capable intercontinental ballistic missile at his disposal until the 2020s. But then again, he doesn’t hit age 40 until the 2020s either.
He is undoubtedly playing the long game: his father ruled for 17 years and his grandfather reigned for nearly half a century. Moreover, Kim took power mere months after Libya’s Colonel Khadaffi—who had likewise agreed to forgo a nuclear program—met an excruciating death at the hands of a lynch mob in the town of Sirte. He recently watched bombs rain on non-nuclear Syria. He is all too aware of the risks inherent in abandoning his regime’s main insurance policy.
On each of my visits to Pyongyang, I particularly recall the mornings. I would gaze out of my high rise hotel across great reefs of concrete blocks laced with morning mist and somnolent, mostly traffic free streets.
Any North Korean over 70 will have childhood memories of air raids, underground schools, starvation and incinerated corpses
Pyongyang was smashed flat by US B-29 bombers in the early 1950s and the wider countryside turned to ashes. Any North Korean over 70 will have childhood memories of air raids, underground schools, starvation and incinerated corpses. And no western child’s education about the Blitz will match the bitterness that permeates what North Korean children are told about the Korean War, or the outside world, generally.
North Koreans today can point out that America twice contemplated using atomic weapons in Korea during the 1950-3 war and it was Washington, not Pyongyang that first nuclearised the peninsula. In 1958, the terms of the Korean War Armistice were abrogated to allow the deployment of tactical nukes in South Korea. George HW Bush removed them in 1991 but every administration since has flown nuclear capable bombers in South Korean airspace and just one of America’s Ohio-class submarines could decimate the North in a few hours.
In 2003 Pyongyang struck me as the most subdued capital I had ever visited. A decade later my minders were apologising for traffic jams. But it was still a city bedevilled by power cuts where most of the vigorous construction work went towards new monuments extolling the ruling dynasty’s glory. The kind of god-king devotion that surrounded his father and grandfather did not swirl around the smiling features of Kim Jong-un—at least at that stage. I saw very few pictures of the youthful leader. With this international coup, perhaps, that may change. Whatever comes of the new agreement in Singapore, Kim’s motivation is pragmatism not pacifism.
Tom Farrell is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in The Guardian, Daily Telegraph and New Statesman. He has made several trips to both Koreas.
Image: Typical street scene in Pyongyang, by Tom Farrell