Hazel Smith, professor and director of the International Institute of Korean Studies at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN), and the author of a series of important books on North Korea, such as the influential: ‘North Korea Markets and Military Rule’, points out that such ‘Brave New World’ descriptions of the country are really no more than stereotypes. In fact, according to professor Smith, the country is coming out of the dire financial straights it found itself in after external funding was cut off when the Soviet Union imploded, and developing its own industry, infrastructure and even market economy. To survive; to get food, the population has had no choice than to firstly engage in barter trade and then the first stages of a market economy. Members of the government, who are not paid an official salary, take part in such trade and a middle class is materialising. A duality as in communist and yet heavily materialist China could develop, a variant that would be uniquely Korean. Behind the austere military parades in Pyongyang are a people who have already moved on, and in many cases – a long time ago – from Cold War stereotypes. It is we outsiders who need to catch up in our understanding of North Korea.
Perhaps now is the time to understand that the military power that rules North Korea cannot actually control the population in the way that we think they do. It is time to study the country as it actually is. Instead of isolating North Korea, we should in fact be working on our foreign policies to understand and accommodate the country through economic and political engagement, rather than by constantly considering and threatening the one option that we creative westerners can come up with — a military solution.