Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Paul French in Bucharest: No one wants the North Korean regime to collapse

Paul French, who has written two books about North Korea, spoke tonight to the Frontline Club, which holds its meetings at the Czech Institute, close to where I live. I was asked in London about the Frontline Club and had to admit ignorance. it sounds a fascinating club of journalists, political analysts and adventurers, something from an Edwardian thriller.

Mr. French was paying his first visit to Bucharest but said he had a tremendous sense of déjà vu, because the Bucharest architecture of the 1980s closely resembles buildings he knows well in Pyongyang. The House of the People, in particular, is very similar to a
building there. A reminder, of course, that North Korea, 'The State of Paranoia' as he called it in one of his books, is a curiosity now but was one of a number of similar regimes before 1989, including Romania.

Mr. French admitted, and it was no surprise, that no foreigner knows what is going on inside North Korea. The few foreign correspondents know nothing. When Mr. French met the members of the Chinese news agency who have lived in Pyongyang for many years he imagined they would know everything but they know nothing. Our one source of information are the defectors, but their accounts, though very interesting should be read knowing that each is written with an agenda.

At the end questions were invited. I quoted Richard Vinen, who has described the revolutions in Eastern Europe as 'management buyouts' by senior nomenklatura, who came to realise that the end of Communism need not be the end for them, but a chance to increase their wealth and power. Could the same thing happen in North Korea? 

No was the reply. When change comes the South Koreans will take over what there is of the North Korean economy. A coup could happen this evening or the regime could last for decades. When it does fall it will probably fall as a result of a military putsch, perhaps arranged with Beijing's connivance.

Only China has any leverage over North Korea and clearly they do not have much, judging by Pyongyang's recent threat to drop a nuclear bomb on China. Mr. French recounted that China sent a trainful of food aid to North Korea not long ago and were surprised that the driver was flown back. 
What about our train? Oh, we thought that was part of the aid.
A thriving scrap metal trade goes on along the Chinese-korean border and the Chinese authorities were not amused to find their train returning to China in pieces of scrap.

Last year North Korea came extremely close to starvation. This year there will be half as much food aid, as North Korea's threats of nuclear attack deter aid donors. People will probably starve to death this winter.

He said something I already knew, that Korea’s 'dirty little secret' is that no-one wants her to be reunited. The North Korean regime, of course, does not, nor China, which fears a democracy on her borders  but nor does South Korea, which cannot afford the costs involved, nor the USA or Japan for the same reason. He doubts that North Koreans are impatient to have parliamentary elections either or reunification. A lot of nation-building has taken place since 1950.

In particular, South Korea and China both dread 22 million North Korean immigrants. If the regime collapses as a result of a military coup South Korea intends to shut the frontier and keep North Koreans locked out of the South while they reconstruct it.

We live at the start of an age of huge migrations. They will be at least as important as the World Wars and more important than the Cold War. North Koreans are Koreans as much as the Southerners. By what right will they be kept out? And what a contrast to the EU, that does not have the manliness to keep out illegal immigrants from Asia and Africa.

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