One of the standard phrases used when speaking of the DPRK (North Korea) is ‘hermit kingdom’. It is meant to portray a country entirely closed off from the world. You can neither enter nor leave, so the assumption goes, and no country or individual in their right mind would want to engage with the DPRK.

I am not quite sure of the source of this idea. To be sure, hostile countries find it impossible to spy on the DPRK, which is not a bad thing. But as for getting in and out of the country, this is quite easy to do. Any number of tour operators can get you there, and you can go to study, teach for a while, and so on.

International relations? Let’s take a sample of some of the latest activities:

In a report on congratulations to Xi Jinping’s election for a second term as president of China, who should be first on the list? Kim Jong Un. Others of course appear, all of them specifically important Asian partners – including Shinzo Abe from Japan.

The Pyongyang Times reports from Mongolia one of the many events – a photo exhibition – celebrating 70 years of diplomatic relations between Mongolia and the DPRK.

Then there is the ongoing relationship with Nepal, as also with Cuba, Syria, Iran, Mozambique, Nigeria, India, Egypt, Cambodia, Bulgaria, The Netherlands, Singapore, New Zealand  … Russia particularly has regular interaction with the DPRK, with a Russian delegation recently visiting. Of course, we find regular participation in international sporting events, such as football, wrestling, acrobatics and the Olympics.

But the connections with Sweden are perhaps the closest for any country that counts itself as part of Western Europe and the North Atlantic. Diplomatic relations began in 1973, with embassies opened in 1975. They have been close ever since, with the DPRK foreign minister heading for Sweden a couple of days ago to ‘exchange views on bilateral relations and issues of mutual concern’, as Rodong Sinmun puts it.

A ‘hermit kingdom’? Hardly.

 

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Hedlund has provided an invaluable link to an article in the Asia-Pacific Journal on the myth of the ‘North Korean collapse’. Well worth a careful read, and it backs up my anecdotal impressions when I visited a couple of years ago. Keen to get back and spend more time there.

Here’s an interesting little fact: the DPRK’s economy grew by 3.9% last year. Officially, it trades with China, Russia, Thailand, Philippines, Pakistan, India and even … South Korea. Unofficially, it trades in small arms manufacture and a range of other goods sought the world over. In fact, the DPRK’s economy has been steadily improving for the last decade, with a couple of small dips.

How can this happen, when sanctions are supposed to hurt them? They are well-organised, quite used to sanctions, and developing their own version of the ‘reform and opening up’ policy China began four decades ago. As for China, the number one trading partner, it is keen to see the lives of DPRK citizens improve, since this leads to stability on the peninsula.

 

Since the DPRK (North Korea) is in the corporate news, and full of the usual misrepresentation, I thought I would reprise a section of an article I wrote a couple of years ago on Korean reunification – from the perspective of the north.

Reunification been a consistent policy of the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea since its earliest days. But on what terms? A northern takeover of the south? Not at all. The policy is that reunification would be undertaken without outside interference, peacefully and in terms of a federal system, socialist in the north and capitalist in the south. This position was made explicit in the Communiqué of 1972, after the leaders of both countries had secretly met. In 1973 and again in 1980, Kim Il-sung reiterated this position, proposing a Democratic Confederal Republic of Koryo.

However, the most significant movement happened after the June 15th North–South Joint Declaration of 2000, between Kim Jong-il of the north and Kim Dae-jung of the south. Given that reunification has been a core northern policy, the change was obviously in the south. Here more progressive governments became open to the idea and agreed to the declaration. The change began with Kim Dae-jung’s ‘Sunshine’ policy of 1998. The result was the opening of borders, family reunions, a series of meetings between leaders of north and south, sports, cultural and economic exchange, and even the two Olympic teams marching together at the opening ceremonies in 2000, 2004 and 2006.

But as is the way with the vagaries and uncertainties of bourgeois democracies, the south changed its tune in 2008 with the new president, Lee Myung-bak. His right-wing policies led to a hard-line approach more in tune with United States foreign policy. Cooperation ended and tensions once again escalated – the situation in which we find ourselves now. Perhaps an opening up from the south may be possible once again if Moon Jae-in wins the elections this year. Who knows.

But the north Koreans I have met continue to hope ardently for an eventual reunification along federated lines.

Some photographs, taken by me and Aina Skoland (who was in our group). As you can see, people like to dress well and go about their daily lives as one might expect.

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Yes, indeed. This is from the train that took me last year from Pyongyang to Beijing. A preparation for a series of photographs on the DPRK (North Korea) – which I have at last finished processing:

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It reads: xian ren zhibu, which would be better translated as ‘no loitering’.

Among the many intriguing delights of Pyongyang is the Juche friendship wall:

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Plaques from nearly every country in the world represent the various Juche study groups and DPRK friendship groups. I even managed to find one from Australia:

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Many of the plaques date from the 1970s and 1980s, but a few from more recent times. However, since the Australian one comes from 1976, I thought it was time to update the representation. I gathered the Australians in our group for a photograph:

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