Dr. Jeremi Suri calls up his colleague Dr. David Fields, a scholar and expert on North Korea to take an even-handed look at the state of the country and how the rest of the world can understand a society that seems so very different from our lives in America, Europe and elsewhere. How do we understand this society and its leadership? What can Americans do to improve relations with North Korea? What role should ideas of democracy play?
But before that, Zachary reads his poem, “North Korean Lullabies.”
Dr. David P. Fields is the associate director of the Center for East Asian Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He is the author of Foreign Friends: Syngman Rhee, American Exceptionalism, and the Division of Korea and editor of The Diary of Syngman Rhee. He has published in the North Korea Review, Journal of American-East Asian Relations, SinoNK.com, and in the Working Papers Series of the Cold War International History Project.
- David Fields Associate Director of the Center for East Asian Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison
- Jeremi SuriProfessor of History at the University of Texas at Austin
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Jeremi Suri: Welcome to our new episode of This Is Democracy. Today we have with us one of the foremost experts on North Korea, Dr. David Fields. He’s been all over the news recently. I hope you’ve had a chance to hear him in various places talk about North Korea. He’s the Associate Director of the Center for East Asian Studies at the University of Wisconsin. He’s written extensively on South and North Korean politics and leadership, particularly the history of South Korea and its relationship with the United States, as well as contemporary issues regarding Korean security and the continued conflict on the Korean peninsula. And David also is a Ph.D. student and now Ph.D. graduate from the University of Wisconsin, formerly a student of mine in fact. David, wonderful to have you on today.
David Fields: Thank you so much for having me, Jeremi.
Jeremi Suri: Before we turn to North Korea and David’s wisdom, we have a wise poem from Zachary. Zachary what’s your poem titled today?
Zachary Suri: North Korean Lullabies.
Jeremi Suri: Let’s hear it.
Zachary Suri: North Korean lullabies have sung me to sleep for innumerable years. Have threatened my city from television screens and I have grown up with a thousand fat rocket men with bombs that could fall from the sky, and every time the news plays those loving harmonies I turn it off and try not to remember. And I don’t know how we used to live with bombs at every border, and silence in every song, but I get scared at night just thinking about the one that could be pointed at my direction. And every time I hear a strange plane go by overhead there’s still a small part of me that wonders if it’s the rockets come to blow me away. I just cannot imagine what it would be like not to eat, not to think, not to sing freely, and maybe that’s why I hate those North Korean lullabies.
Maybe I just don’t want to imagine that sort of empty claustrophobia. And when I think of the deathly, deathly silence I can see the walls close closing on me, and the light begins to see an eerie foreshadowing. Korea makes Kias and Samsung phones but what is really north of that line? That foreboding forever line that nobody crosses. What is beyond where the lights are and every satellite image? Is it just darkness beyond or am I missing something? Something that doesn’t want to blow me up from some metallic bowels miles upon miles away?
Jeremi Suri: That’s really thoughtful, Zachary. What is your poem about?
Zachary Suri: My poem was really about how we live with a nuclear threat and how it plays such an important role in our view of North Korea and Korea in general. And it really asks is there something we’re missing there. Is there something that we forget about North Korea, about North Korean society, about the North Korean people because we’re so focused on this nuclear threat?
Jeremi Suri: Right. Almost obsessed with is sometimes, right? So David that seems like the perfect place to bring your expertise into the discussion. Are there elements and things about North Korea that Americans have missed? What do we not understand that we need to understand about this society?
David Fields: Absolutely, and thank you so much for having me on, Jeremi. One of the things I like about a podcast format is I can answer questions a little bit more at length.
Jeremi Suri: Yes.
David Fields: You don’t always get the chance to do on radio and television, and one of the points that I had really wanted to make in some of my interviews this weekend, which I didn’t always get to make, but it’s that North Korea is not a communist country. Despite what you will hear, and I’ve heard it repeatedly this week. People reporting on the summit constantly refer to North Korea as a communist country, and that’s not only not true but I think it’s dangerous to think of them that way. And the reason is we think that we understand communist, I think especially in the United States.
Jeremi Suri: Right.
David Fields: And communist has its own sort of road map that we expect it to follow, and so if North Korea is a communist country we think either it’s going to have to reform or it’s going to collapse, because that’s what communist countries do. It’s either going to go the way the of the Soviet Union and it’s going to disintegrate or it’s going to go the way of China and Vietnam and it’s going to have to make at least market reforms and maybe some minor political reforms, still authoritarianism, but more liberal than it was, and that’s what we’ve been expecting of North Korea for so long. Well what we’ve missed is that North Korea went through the same transition that China, that Soviet Union, that Vietnam did in the early 1990s and they did neither one.
They neither reformed or liberalized, but what they did is they rebuilt their state on a different foundation and that foundation is xenophobia and a racial ideology in which they tell their people that they are a pure homogeneous Korean race that is in a struggle for survival with the rest of the world, particularly the United States which wants to destroy them at every single opportunity, and it is only the visionary leadership of the Kim regime who seems to know how to manage this foreign threat and who has managed to develop nuclear weapons against all odds that has been able to keep North Korea intact.
The Kims do not tell their people that they have legitimacy because they live better now than they did 20 or 30 years ago. Well, I should say 30 or 40 years ago because that’s not true, because they actually live worse now than they did in the 1960s and ‘70s. They live marginally better than they did in the 1990s. But the regime primarily draws legitimacy by saying, “We are protecting you from this external threat to our country and our race.”
Jeremi Suri: So that’s the puzzle I think for many of us who observe North Korea without the insights you have, David. Why is it that the North Korean people continue to believe what sounds like a somewhat ridiculous myth from the outside?
David Fields: Well, we should say from the outside that clearly not all North Koreans believe this, you know, because if they all believed this there would be no defectors.
Jeremi Suri: Right.
David Fields: And people do defect every year, but it’s actually an astonishingly small number. I just checked the numbers last weekend, I want to say it was less than 30,000 over the last 10 years.
Jeremi Suri: Wow.
David Fields: That is not a large number of defectors, and many of these defectors actually end up going back to North Korea. And this is very, very hard for us to understand, but the reason that they do is because in North Korea life is about something. And many of these people come to the South, and they try to integrate into a liberal capitalist society and the South Korean government does what they can to help them. But the truth is they find life there very alienating, and they find life in China very alienating because as twisted as the narrative is that the regime tells them, it actually gives purpose to their struggle and it really gives meaning to their life.
Their life is a daily struggle for survival for the Korean race, and this is something that gives them means and gives them purpose and they have hard time reorienting their life in another way. And it’s important to not too that this is what they’re taught, and certainly even if they don’t believe it it’s hard for them to know what to believe because there’s no counter-narrative to this information in North Korea. No consistent counter-narrative coming in.
Jeremi Suri: Why do they believe that Kim Jong-un is this great leader protecting them, as you describe,when he didn’t have any experience in this role when he’s the grandson of the founder? How does he maintain that role and not have a general or someone else oust him and replace him?
David Fields: Well this is another reason why it’s so important to understand that they’re not communist. Actually in 2009, they rewrote their constitution dropping all references to communism and holding up the ‘military first’ policy or ‘Songun.’ And this is important because I think they understood that their leadership structure, and really their whole society right now, is not justifiable by any communist doctrine whatsoever, right? They have a caste system, they essentially have a hereditary monarchy, and they have a whole other set of systems that is not just justifiable by any version of communism.
So they understand that they needed to change this and they begin drilling into their people, really all the way back to Kim Il-sung, that is was a very, very dangerous world, but there was this Kim family, this Kim dynasty, who somehow this skill and this ability is passed down from father to son and they know how to handle this. They know how to handle foreigners. Now, I will say that I don’t believe that Kim Jon-un actually has anywhere near the legitimacy that Kim Il-sung had, and I don’t believe that Kim Jong-il did either, but you have this very precarious position where they have managed to, at least on an official level, concentrate all legitimacy on the Kim family.
So anyone who was to try from the inside to try to oust his family would be in a very precarious position as far as legitimacy goes and you can imagine a rival stepping up and saying, “No, I’m going to return the Kims to power although with me as the power behind the throne,” and this seems to be a very risky proposition for anyone inside North Korea that wants to see change.
Jeremi Suri: I see. So it’s a combination of a totalitarian indoctrination and terror.
David Fields: Exactly. And I don’t know if you saw this week, but there’s been a North Korean provisional government in exile founded, and it’s founded with none other than the son of Kim Jong-nam at the head of it. So even North Koreans outside of Korea who are wanting to see change in Korea recognize the Kim family has incredible legitimacy, whether they believe it’s warranted or not, they understand that if you don’t have a Kim at the head of your organization, you’re not going to be relevant at all to North Korea.
Jeremi Suri: Gotcha, gotcha. And it’s interesting how important Kim Il-sung, the founding father, is in these discussions of the myth and the status of the regime. Maybe to take one step back, David, how did this regime get formed? Why does the North Korean regime look so different from South Korea that Zachary was referring to, a country that makes Kias and Samsungs? Why does North Korea look so different?
David Fields: I think it looks so different, one, because I mean they were founded with the help of two diametrically opposed societies. Kim Il-sung was largely set up and put in place by the Soviet Union and they were trying to institute a real communist system. One where there’d be collectivized land ownership where, ideally, there would be equality, and this is what North Korea was founded on. Now, over the first 30 years of Kim Il-sung’s rule, he started moving in a different direction and in the 1990s when the Soviet subsidies and the Chinese subsidies of North Korea were withdrawn, they had to go in another direction very quickly because that hybrid was no longer in place.
South Korea, on the other hand, was founded with the aid of the United States and it’s, you’ll often see that Syngman Rhee was installed by the United States. I happen to disagree with that view that actually, the United States chose to work with Syngman Rhee when they could not find anyone else who they thought would be more pliable.
Jeremi Suri: And just to explain, Syngman Rhee is the first leader of South Korea after World War II.
David Fields: Yes. Exactly. He is the first president of the Republic of Korea. Kim Il-sung is the first leader of North Korea. But South Korea was actually founded on a liberal, democratic constitutional structure. Now, I like to say in my research that figures like Syngman Rhee and Park Chung-hee did everything they could to bend that structure towards totalitarianism, and for many years, actually South Korea really did not look in much better shape politically than North Korea did, but while they bent that structure to the maximum, they were never able to break it. They were never able to fundamentally change the South Korean constitution nor South Korean expectations for what their government should be. And so eventually in the late 1980s, you have a democracy movement come to fruition in South Korea and really end its flirtation with authoritarianism. So while for many years they looked very similar, they are founded on really, really opposite structures.
Jeremi Suri: And how is it that this Northern Regime which is founded on less capitalist structures has been able to compete militarily?
David Fields: They’ve been able to meet military by putting all of their resources into basically one thing, and that is the military and that’s specifically nuclear weapons, and this is the key distinction between I think, North Korea, and every other country that we looked through as communist. Okay? So, communism, I mean, it does not have a good record in the twentieth century. But philosophically, it is a developmental theory, right? How you can uplift people, how you can make them equal. In practice, it seems like it never worked out that way, but that was the theory behind it.
Well, the theory behind North Korea since 1990s has been just the opposite. It’s been to purposefully under develop their people. So for 75% percent of North Koreans, according to Go Myong-Hyun at the Ansan Policy Institute, live according to a life of subsistence agriculture, right? They have to provide food for the state, which is confiscated and then which is not returned to them, and then in their spare times, they have to go and what they can through all sorts of means, through secret gardens and through gathering to try to just survive.
So, what the regime has done is basically taken 75% of its people and say “We don’t care what happens to you, you’re on your own, we’re going to provide for the 25% that is absolutely essential to the running of the state, and we’re going to put just an inordinate amount of resources into nuclear weapons.” Now, this was something that none of the other communist states were willing to do, and when they realize that they could not bring development to their people, and when their people realized this, they had to make changes and what they did was they said, “We’ll continue being authoritarian, but we’re going to liberalize for the sake of development.” North Korea just went in the opposite direction.
Jeremi Suri: It sounds a lot like Stalinist Russia in many ways.
David Fields: Yes! And in fact, as you probably know, it was the Soviet leaders and Mao Zedong. They were really putting pressure on Kim Il-sung when they say where other countries were jettisoning their cult of personality, he was ramping his up. And they thought this was completely unacceptable and through very shrewd maneuvers of his own, he began to play both sides against each other, and relieve pressure on him to “de-Stalinize” in a sense, and so rather than stopping. It actually continued over his entire regime.
Jeremi Suri: So David, you’ve given us really provactive and insightful account of what’s happening within North Korea. We know have a student question from Samantha Chen about why the United States should care. Let’s hear Samantha’s question.
Samantha Chen: Hi! My name is Samantha and I am a first-year student here at UT. My question is, why is the Korean peninsula of such significance to the United States?
David Fields: You know, this is a very good question, and I just wrote a book on how it got to be significant in the first place, although I’m not going into that now. The book is called “Foreign Friends.” You should look it up from the University Press of Kentucky. But…
Jeremi Suri: (laughs) We’ll link it on the website. Don’t worry.
David Fields: Okay. Wonderful. The truth is how we got there is a very interesting and complicated question, but the truth is, it matters to us now, because were they’re now, and there’s 28,000 U.S. Forces on the Korean Peninsula, and we have an alliance with South Korea, and that alliance says that we’re going to defend South Korea from any enemies that try to attack them, really aimed at the North. And this is important to us for a number of reasons.
One, it keeps peace on the Korean peninsula, but this is really one of the major things that we have in place to keep the peace of Northeast Asia. If you know the history of Northeast Asia, you know that the Koreans do not like the Japanese, that the Chinese do not like the Japanese, and there’s all sorts of trust issues in place there. In matter of fact, when you hear the rhetoric of South Korea about the Japanese sometime it just boggles the mind how much they despise them for their colonial rule in Korea for forty years.
But what American troops in Korea and what American troops in Japan does is it helps these countries trust each other. It helps the South Koreans to be able to blow off steam about the Japanese. But never be afraid that the Japanese are ever going to do anything as long as the Americans are there.
If we were to withdraw from South Korea, one, you could have all of these tensions, all these historical tensions boiling up, but also, it would be an invitation for the North Koreans to get even more belligerent in their attempts to unify the Korean peninsula by force, now, it’s an open question as to whether we should have gone to Korean in the first place, but the truth is we’re there. We’ve been there since 1949 now, and I think this relationship has served us quite well.
Jeremi Suri: What interests of the United States are served by this relationship?
David Fields: The interest that are served, is that by keeping Northeast Asia stable, we keep one of the most vibrant trade relationships the world has ever known going. The trade between North America and Northeast Asia is vital to the United States and it’s one of the reasons Americans have been able to live such materially rich lives for the last thirty or forty years, now one of the terrible, terrible mistakes that I think our entire political class has made— and that is not just the Republicans, I’m talking about, it’s the Democrats too, is that this trade relationship is not perfect by any means. People like Hillary Clinton understood that. They wrote a wonderful trade deal called the TPP, the Trans-Pacific Partnership that was going to try to take care of some of these imbalances, it was going to try to protect American intellectual property but then we started having this populous moment and instead of Hillary Clinton standing up and explaining to the American people why this relationship was valuable and how it helped Americans lead more material and rich lives, she jumped on the bandwagon along with Donald Trump and so many others in an attempt to try to get elected. And I fear that they have done long term harm to the American interest and really to the quality of life we have in the United States by pretending this trade relationship is a problem rather than really a source of wealth that just needs a little bit of tweaking here and there.
Jeremi Suri: Right. Right. Well, it’s very well said David. Many would argue, though, that the American true presence is now beyond its purpose. What would happen if the United States withdrew its 28,000 forces from South Korea? Donald Trump has talked about this. The President has brought this up as a possibility.
David Fields: He has brought it up, and I can’t tell you, right here, right now, what would happen, but I can tell you that a number of scenarios that we have been trying to avoid for the last fifty years would all of a sudden seem more likely. And what I mean, is I mean is a North Korean attack on the South. I mean the rearmament of Japan, fearing what might happen if North Korea was able to conquer the South. We’re talking about a mass rearmament program in South Korea. They worry not just about the North Koreans but about the Japanese and we also think about the Chinese, maybe trying to reassert a sphere of influence on the Korean peninsula that they have not had since you know, the eighteenth century. They’ve had it halfway with North Korea for a few years, but all of the Korean peninsula used to be a sovereignty of China.
Jeremi Suri: Right.
David Fields: And Chiang Kai-shek was interested in reestablishing that. I think there’s no doubt that Mao Zedong was interested in establishing that and I think Deng Xiaoping would have definitely started moving in that direction if American forces were withdrawn, but these things that I’m talking about. These are long term developments if the United States would leave tomorrow, I think that you wouldn’t see anything terribly drastic happen overnight, but also whole new set of undesirable scenarios that we’ve been trying to avoid for a long time would all of sudden start becoming possible again, and even likely.
Jeremi Suri: Right. It sounds like it’s a case where the historical contributions of the United States for good and for ill are significant for understanding how the region is developed to the moment it’s come to. And that taking the United States out would certainly undermine the pillars of stability that we’ve become committed to in many ways.
David Fields: Exactly. These societies and these relationships between these countries have developed with the assumption that the United States is going to be there.
Jeremi Suri: Right.
David Fields: And I can’t stress enough that this is not a dead cost to us. We benefit from this relationship directly. In terms of trade we benefit from it in terms of support in terms of alliances and that fact that it’s cheaper to keep troops in South Korea than it is in the United States, so by bringing these troops home you don’t save money, and you probably don’t save a commitment unless we are radically changing our approach to East Asia.
Jeremi Suri: Right.
David Fields: Because if we would withdraw from Korea, then North Koreans would attack or get too rambunctious. I don’t think there’s anyone that thinks we wouldn’t go back in. At least if it happened in the first decade or so, right?
Jeremi Suri: Right.
Zachary Suri: Do you see a path forward for democracy in North Korea, or do you think that’s very far-fetched?
David Fields: You know… and Zach, I was very impressed by your poem. I actually thought that maybe you had been to North Korea–
David Fields: with some of the thing you had been written. I hate to be pessimistic but I don’t see a path towards democracy in North Korea right now. I think that the regime has done its work too well. They have brainwashed the people they can brainwash. They have left the other people in such a dire struggle for their own subsistence and security where they really don’t have much else to think about. I mean it’s hard for them to imagine change when all they’re thinking about is how I’m going to get through, you know, this next winter, how am I going to get through this next drought?
So I don’t really -I don’t really see hope for democracy in North Korea in the near future. I don’t really see much hope in North Korea until the Kim Regime is gone. And even if the Kim Regime does go, that doesn’t mean necessarily that North Korea is going to be in the direction that we want. I mean we talk all the time bout the economic cost of the reunification of the Korean peninsula, but really the cost, the ideological and the human costs, are going to be staggering. There’s 20 million people there who believe nothing but lies about the rest of the world, about their own country, and about their own leadership. It takes generations to deal with something like that. So.
Jeremi Suri: So we have another student question following along Zachary’s question. Really interrogating how we can think about peace. If we can’t think about democracy, how should we think about peace? This is a question from Aneesh Namburi.
Aneesh Namburi: What do you think it would take in order to achieve relative peace in North Korea? Would there have to be a change in leadership or a change in political ideology? Or do you think our country’s foreign diplomacy can succeed?
David Fields: This is a very important question and this is one of the reasons why I was actually optimistic when I saw that Donald Trump had walked away from the summit without a deal and what I hope Donald Trump is going to do now, which I somewhat doubt but I hope he is going to give up on the idea of bilateral diplomacy with North Korea. And the reason I hope that, is because there is no obvious solution to this problem right now. None whatsoever and when there’s no obvious solution…
I feel like the most important thing that you do that we can do with North Korea is make sure us and our allies in the entire international community stay on the same page about this problem, right? Because North Korean nuclear weapons are not only an American problem, they’re not even primarily an American problem. This is North Korea really thwarting the wishes of its neighbors of the entire international community. They had signed a non-proliferation treaty and then developed weapons while there were signatories to it. And so the international community needs to come together and deal with this problem and that’s what we had been doing until Donald Trump, and Donald Trump decided to tear up that playbook and go in a different direction, and I’m worried has done damage by opening gaps between us and our allies.
And I really hope that we can come back together now and treat North Korea in a multilateral fashion because, while I think it’s going to be necessary over time to recognize the existence of North Korea and nuclear weapons—they’re already there— we do not have to recognize the legitimacy of them. Matter of fact I think we should never recognize legitimacy of them and the more the international community is united on this front, the more we have the ability to wait out the North Koreans on this issue. And when I say wait out, I’m not talking about years, I’m talking about decades.
Jeremi Suri: Right, it comes back to historical lessons from the Cold War, which is that a multilateral containment of dangerous regimes is probably the most effective long-term policy.
David Fields: Certainly, certainly and that’s going to be the case with North Korea. There’s just no obvious solution.
Jeremi Suri: So, David, we like to close on some optimistic notes about how democratic change is possible in the world today. What do you think are some of the positive opportunities for the United States and a multilateral coalition of countries in thinking about the future? Not in bringing democracy to North Korea, per se, but in improving the international circumstances. Just a couple of years ago, we were on the brink of war with North Korea. We don’t want to go back to that. So what are the positive steps and realistic steps moving forward?
David Fields: Yes, we don’t want to go to war with North Korea, there is no kinetic military option to deal with North Korea. The situation is too dangerous, they hold the entire city of Seoul hostage essentially to conventional weapons, not talking nuclear weapons. So I think the best thing that we can do is make sure that we come together, make sure that we keep sanctions on the regime, which are focused on the elites, as it was done in 2017 and just make sure that we stay all on the same page. And one thing that I think we can do as citizens, although I think it’s harder when none of our political class wants to do this, is to really study the relationship between the United States and East Asia. Look at the costs and look at the benefits of it. And I think that if you look at it in a fairly objective fashion, you’ll understand that we benefit tremendously from this relationship and they benefit from it, too.
This is not a zero sum game, this is a win-win relationship and we need to get back into the TTP, we need to get back into a position of leadership where we’re writing the rules of this relationship and we’re not ceding the initiative in this to the Chinese, and we really need to push our political class, not just to defend this relationship, but also for things like trade adjustment assistance, right? There are real people who have been hurt by these trade relationships, but it’s so much easier to enhance the social safety net, to offer things like retraining for new jobs, than it is to tear up these trade relationships, which not only raise prices in the U.S. but really have the danger of reshuffling a political order between the United States and East Asia in a way that is not going to be beneficial to us.
Jeremi Suri: Right. I think this comes back beautifully to Zachary’s poem. In a certain way, Zachary was saying we’ve become obsessed with the nuclear issue and of course the nuclear issue is crucially important, but we’ve lost sight, as you’re saying, David, of the broader web of relationships with Japan, South Korea, to some extent with China, relationships that have been the source of progress for the last half century or so.
David Fields: Exactly because North Korean nuclear weapons are a terrible thing, but we cannot do anything about them right now, it’s just an unfortunate truth. What we can do is we can strengthen the relationships that we need to be able to deal with this problem in the long-term and right now we have an administration that’s trying to do just the opposite. They’re trying to solve an unsolvable problem while they’re rapidly turning one of the great strengths of this nation into a weakness by pressuring these relationships, by adding an element of uncertainty into so many of these relationships at a time when we don’t need it.
Jeremi Suri: Right. Well, David, you’ve given us, really, such an insightful and full understanding of North Korean society, of its leadership, you’ve put this in the geopolitical context, you’ve given us a mini international economics lesson, and most of all I think you’ve inspired us to study this issue more deeply and avoid some of the easy answers that sound tough in the short run but actually undermine our own interests. Thank you for joining us this morning.
David Fields: Thank you so much for having me.
Jeremi Suri: And Zachary, thank you for your poem as always. We will continue to discuss North Korea and other parts of the world and try to get beyond the headlines to understand how the history of these regions affects our world today and opens opportunities for us. Thank you for joining us on “This is Democracy.”
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