Sorting fact from fiction about North Korea
"How does a puffed-up, vainglorious narcissist, whose every other word may well be a lie — and that applies to both Trump and Kim Jong-un — come not only to hold the peace of the world in his hands, but perhaps the future of the planet?"
That's a quote from the eminent American historian, Bruce Cumings. It's a question that, in one way or another, we have all been asking ourselves.
Experts say North Korea's recent missile tests show it may soon be able to launch a nuclear warhead that could reach the city of Chicago.
And there is already a war of words.
But despite the enormous room North Korea takes up in public debates, and in private nightmares, our knowledge of the country is sorely limited.
What little we do know about North Korea in the west is distorted by persistent myths.
Those myths — as well as flawed ideas about how to stop North Korea — stand in the way of crafting an appropriate response to the recent missile tests.
Tina Park spoke to Michael Enright to help us set the record straight.
Tina Park's comments have been edited and condensed. To hear the full interview, click 'listen' above.
Kim Jong-un not a 'madman'
The actions of Kim Jong-un, like those of his father and grandfather before him, have been driven by rational decisions based on regime survival, Park told Michael Enright.
"It's one thing to realize that the regime is ruthless, and perhaps paranoid and desperate for survival," she said, "but quite another to just label [Kim Jong-un] as crazy, because then it blocks us from finding real solutions for the long term that would really lead to peace and stability."
"To negotiate with your adversary, you have to understand that the other side is willing to listen and abide by a certain set of rules."
"If we assume that North Korea is interested in the survival of their own regime and the system, then any form of military provocation towards South Korea or the United States would lead to mutual destruction," she said.
Sanctions not effective
"Since 2006, the U.N. Security Council has been imposing various forms of comprehensive and widely endorsed sanctions on North Korea," Park said in the interview.
But these sanctions, she said, haven't been effective in stopping North Korea's nuclear ambitions.
"We're dealing with a totalitarian regime that is intent on defying sanctions," she told Michael Enright.
Limits to China's leverage
Park told Michael Enright that, despite Donald Trump's claims, China doesn't have the power to stop North Korea's nuclear ambitions.
Although the two countries share a political connection dating back many decades and remain important trading partners, there are limits to China's leverage and influence, she said.
"We're seeing growing signs of discontent and disagreements between Pyongyang and Beijing about North Korea's nuclear programs."
"China, on the one hand, wants to be the great power, leading the world in dealing with North Korea," she added, "But they're also finding that [the] North Korean regime is not really willing to listen to what they're saying."
We also shouldn't assume that China is a monolithic entity, Park said. "There are very different opinions between the foreign ministry, the businesses, and the politicians."
Life inside North Korea
North Korea has one of the largest standing militaries in the world.
"Over one quarter of spending goes straight into military developments, and the country as a whole lives under dire poverty," Park said in the interview.
The other 24 million people in the country, she added, live in rural areas where 97 percent of roads are still unpaved.
The "crumbling economy" has not evolved since the 1970s, she said, adding that "massive numbers of people are living under poverty and in fact 18 million people are at risk of dying from malnutrition."
The country, meanwhile, remains one of the most isolated in the world.
"An average North Korean," Park said, "is prevented from traveling abroad or accessing internet. There's only one newspaper in the entire country. And, there is a massive surveillance structure so that there is no freedom of opinion."
At the same time, North Korea has a literacy rate of 100 percent, Park pointed out. And the country is extremely advanced in sciences and technology.
Cultural influences the biggest threat
Park argues that with the smuggling in of new information through USB sticks and cell phones, North Koreans are gradually "realizing that the system they've been believing in may not be quite what they thought it was."
South Korean cultural products — like soap operas and K-Pop — are immensely popular with the North Korean people, she said.
"They don't really worry about across the 38th parallel, but you might remember when South Korea started blasting loudspeakers with K-Pop music, North Korea freaked out," she said.
Threats beyond nuclear weapons
While much of the discussion on North Korea is focused on the bomb, Park believes there are additional threats that are often overlooked.
"North Korea is a leading exporter of chemical and biological weapons," she said.
She added that the country's cyber warfare capability should also be cause for concern.
"Because they operate outside of North Korea," she added, "it's very difficult to trace where they're coming from."