North Korea's Surprising Sense of Vulnerability and Hopes for Change

Last June we met with North Korea's powerful Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs. We were in Pyongyang as part of a small delegation that had the primary aim of learning about the country, especially its arts and culture. While other groups had previously been granted visas there, we were being hosted for three days by a government think tank. As soon as we landed and handed over our cell phones and passports, we were whisked to our meeting. It was perhaps among the last substantial, non-classified contact between Westerners and high-level North Korean officials of the regime of the now deceased Kim Jong Il.

We were surprised by what transpired.

What came across very clearly in the meeting was not a North Korea trying to sound strong, as the propaganda films of military parades suggest, but one that felt vulnerable. This vulnerability seemed to be at the heart of their nuclear agenda. They painted their situation as a David-and-Goliath struggle. In the minister's words, "We are a small country. If we take the first step and give up nuclear weapons, we will be at the mercy of more powerful countries." This claim must certainly be seen against the backdrop of North Korea positioning itself for future negotiations as well as their failure to live up to past promises. But what was even more surprising than the content of what was said, was our hosts' eagerness to say it.

The fact was that we had planned not to discuss political issues. We even specifically reminded our counterparts during the meeting that we were a cultural delegation, not a political one. But they needed to talk about politics. It was as if a person with tape on their mouth had been waiting for that tape to be ripped off so that they could finally speak. While our group was interested in policy, and our hosts knew we had connections with Washington, their insistence on talking about the nuclear issue in great detail left a deep impression on us. While we knew they were politically isolated, this isolation had made them much more desperate for dialogue than we had imagined.

Later in the conversation the minister made this point more explicitly. He remarked that he and his colleagues could not get visas to visit the U.S. and so could not share their views. The U.S. certainly has excellent reasons for denying such visits, and we are not questioning that policy or suggesting renewed talks. We are only reporting what we observed, that North Korea's desire for dialogue seemed far stronger than we had anticipated, and appeared to come from the top. During this meeting we also asked for, and were granted, permission to travel on a full day trip into the countryside outside of Pyongyang to visit ancient tombs not seen by outsiders for decades. This allowed us an exceptionally rare glimpse into life outside the capital. We witnessed the harsh conditions of forced collective living; of farmers placed in government-provided housing in the fields, and their crops taken by the Party to be distributed to the larger population. And, we could not escape the constant propaganda, most notably the large billboards of the "Dear Leader" in messianic poses on top of volcanoes or in wheat fields. But among these harsh conditions there was also much humanity. We saw women smiling as we passed them on the street, and mothers buying ice cream for their children. And, in several conversations with our government minders, there was a clear fascination with the economic growth China had been able to achieve as a Communist country and what seemed like a clear desire for the same in North Korea.

As a new regime comes in to power, North Korea's sense of vulnerability might be a threat to peace. But perhaps the desire for dialogue, which seemed surprisingly desperate to us in this last contact with the old regime, might provide the seeds of change in a brutal political system. And, if this is not the case, if North Korea persists in defying the international community, may the ordinary yearnings of the people and the hope of economic development they expressed to us prove to be the cultural roots of eventual political change, as hard won as this change will have to be. This article was co-authored by Asia Society President and CEO, Vishakha Desai, and Justin Muzinich, a businessman in New York. Both were part of an Asia Society delegation to North Korea this year.