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Sorting fact from fiction about North Korea

Dotard. Rocket man. Fire and fury. With two unconventional leaders hurling threats and insults amid talk of the unthinkable, we untangle myth from reality.
U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un are locked in a war of words, raising tensions as the Winter Olympics in South Korea approach. (Getty Images)

"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.

This undated picture released from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on June 23, 2016 shows a test launch of the surface-to-surface medium long-range strategic ballistic missile Hwasong-10 at an undisclosed location in North Korea. (KCNA/AFP/Getty Images)
Donald Trump has threatened to unleash "fire and fury like the world has never known" and to "totally destroy" North Korea. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has called Trump a "mentally-deranged dotard," and threatens to shoot down American war planes in international space and test a hydrogen bomb in the Pacific Ocean.

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 in studio with Michael Enright (Pauline Holdsworth/CBC)
Ms. Park is co-founder and executive director of the Canadian Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, based at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, and an expert on North Korea. 

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."

This picture, released from North Korea's official news agency on Sept. 24, 2017, shows a meeting of the presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly, cabinet, ministries and national institutions at the People's Palace of Culture in Pyongyang. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)
Park can't envision any circumstance where Kim Jong-un would opt for the nuclear option.

"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.

UN Security Council meeting on non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction on September 21, 2017 at the United Nations in New York. (DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images)
North Korea has found creative ways to evade sanctions, she said. "They're selling weapons to their allies in the Middle East, not just countries like Iran and Syria but non-state actors like Hezbollah and Hamas, and none of that could be really stopped."

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.

A propaganda troupe perform a flag-waving routine outside the central railway station in Pyongyang on September 27, 2017. (ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images)
While Pyongyang is often depicted in the West as a city with "glorious Soviet style architecture, a metro system, very clean roads, people who are well dressed and children in uniform," she said, "that's only for one million people who live in North Korea."

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."

A child stands on a roadside in Pyongyang on September 27, 2017. (ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images)
Park added that "the mechanisms for brainwashing are massive and very systematic, and this is how the regime has managed to stay the way it is until today."

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.

A loudspeaker is seen at a military base near the border between South Korea and North Korea on January 8, 2016 in Yeoncheon, South Korea. (Korea Pool-Donga Daily via Getty Images)
Park suggests that this cultural infiltration is a real threat to the North Korean regime.

"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.

A South Korean soldier operates the loudspeakers at a studio near the border between South Korea and North Korea on January 8, 2016 in Yeoncheon, South Korea. (Korea Pool-Donga Daily via Getty Images)
"That's because cultural influences like that have a potential to really open up how North Koreans think about their neighbors."

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.

Workers remove a poster-banner for "The Interview" from a billboard in Hollywood, California, December 18, 2014, a day after Sony announced it was cancelling the movie's release due to a terrorist threat. The movie had angered North Korea and triggered a massive cyber-attack. (Michael THURSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
"There's a unit in North Korea called Unit 180, which is for spying and hacking," she told Michael Enright. "It's very difficult to detect how many people are actually in it, but according to defectors who used to work there, we're looking at about 6,000 highly-trained and highly-capable hackers who are infiltrating into Western banks and various other government accounts and making millions of dollars in the process."

"Because they operate outside of North Korea," she added, "it's very difficult to trace where they're coming from."


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