Universiteit Leiden

nl en

Remco Breuker on North Korea: ‘We have actually run out of time’

Since it was announced that North Korean President Kim Jong-un is ready to launch an intercontinental nuclear missile, fear of a nuclear war is growing by the day. Professor and North Korea expert Remco Breuker talks about the increased international tensions and their consequences for his work.

If you follow the news, it looks as if a nuclear war is about to break out between the US and North Korea. Is that true?

‘Pretty true, unfortunately; things are not going well. I’m convinced that right now some people in North Korea and the US are just busy calculating probabilities: “What are the odds that the US will attack us?”, “What are the odds that North Korea will really attack, and what should we do if that happens?” We’re back to square one with the Cold War.’

Is this all bluff, or do you think nuclear weapons will actually be used?

‘Chances are high that most people involved don’t want a war. But if North Korea believes that America is planning a preventive attack, as they’ve done before in Iraq, then it’s certainly possible North Korea will attack American bases in East Asia. If the US decides to strike back, they know North Korean nuclear missiles will cost them a few cities. The only way for North Korea to survive is if this is a strong enough reason for the US to refrain from retaliating.’

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un during a test launch for a long-range missile

Why would North Korea risk putting itself in such a dangerous situation?

‘That’s a good question, and opinions diverge as to the answer. I think North Korea wants to use nuclear weapons to put the US under pressure. For the past forty years North Korean propaganda has been full of the “final victory”, i.e. a reunification of North and South Korea. I suspect we should take this propaganda quite literally. Nuclear weapons are North Korea’s way of pressuring the US to recall the 30,000 American soldiers stationed in South Korea so as to have a free hand in reuniting South and North Korea.’

Is there anything we can do to prevent war?

‘We’re actually too late to prevent it. By now North Korea has a fully developed nuclear programme, and a preventive attack is no longer an option. All we can do is to strike if North Korea is on the verge of using its weapons, but the odds are high that this will end up in bloodshed.’

That’s a very depressing perspective.

‘It’s also a very serious situation. I believe there are solutions, but they cost time and money.’

What are the solutions?

‘This has to be resolved from the bottom up. Give the North Korean people the tools to end the regime themselves. The greatest victims of North Korea’s regime are its own inhabitants. The country is ravaged by hunger and concentration camps. Let human rights organisations inform North Koreans of how their elites live the good life while their children are starving. Give the thousands of North Koreans who cross the Chinese border daily to smuggle in goods micro-credits so they can regain control over their own lives. This is the only way to create a lasting solution.’

Isn’t the population already too brainwashed for that?

‘They’re certainly brainwashed, but it would be a great mistake to dismiss them as one-dimensional. They are simply people who are afraid, as anyone would be living under a dictatorial regime with an active concentration camp policy. The average North Korean is not stupid; he just doesn’t have access to information. That’s why it’s essential to inform the population.’

Breuker on the media: 'I'm systematically introduced as a prophet of doom'

You often appear in the media to talk about this. Is it a difficult topic to discuss?

‘Very much so, especially since there are so many prejudices about North Korea. I’m now systematically introduced as a prophet of doom, a reputation I won’t be able to shake off easily. Actually, people have taken far too long to treat this issue seriously. I just tell them what’s going on; things have been spiralling out of control for many years.’

What responses do you get to your media appearances?

‘Strong responses. Every day I get negative responses via e-mail and Twitter. From colleagues telling me I’m too negative about the situation, or people accusing me of working for the CIA or the South Korean intelligence services. People often react very politically, which I find  painful. I’ve got nothing against a good debate; it’s part of academic practice. But to get threatening messages from people who’d like to see me in a penal camp is hard, to say the least. These days I turn off my mobile phone at night, to let things settle down a little.’

Does it ever make you consider stopping your media appearances?

‘No. I keep doing it for two reasons. First of all, this is an important problem that concerns us all, and I believe it’s my duty as a scholar to provide interpretations. Secondly, the North Korean concentration camps are full. Thousands have perished already. This is something that deserves to get our attention, and there’s simply no better way to do so than via the media. Every time I appear on Pauw’s programme, I get phone calls the next day from MPs. There’s no way I could generate that kind of attention with an academic article.’

How do you make sure your message gets across clearly in the media?

‘You shouldn’t be afraid to say what you think. I’ve come to realise that the media are not interested in a highly nuanced narrative.’

How do you make sure that the nuance is still there?

‘The funny thing is, it happens automatically. The more you appear in the media, the higher the odds you’ll get a chance to tell a longer story. And be open to debate: if you can’t nuance your story in a TV programme debate, others will do it for you. But as a scholar, I believe it’s my duty at least to open the debate on these distressing matters.’

(Julia Nolet)