Drip, drip, drip come little nuggets of good news out of the Korean peninsula. A few weeks ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived at the G7 summit fresh from Pyongyang and announced that the North might be willing to give up its missile program after all. Over the summer, an exchange of “ordinary citizens” from the two halves of the country also took place (click here for film of the occasion), with 100 aging Southerners allowed to visit their parents, children, and spouses in the North, and the same number of (rather more prominent) Northerners given permission to see their relatives in the South.
Last week, high-level talks in Pyongyang produced more good cheer. South Korean President Kim Dae Jung announced that his Northern counterpart, Kim Jong Il, has said he fully approves of the continued presence of American troops on the Korean peninsula, a fairly radical statement given that the continued presence of American troops on the Korean peninsula doesn’t get full approval from everyone in the South. The two sides also discussed opening a military hotline and opening a regular channel for dialogue; there is talk of breaking ground for a new railway line between the countries as early as next week. South Korea even agreed to release some of the spies it has captured over the years. “Waving and singing,” according to one report, 63 of them, ages 66 to 90, were sent home from Seoul last Saturday, some having spent many decades in jails in the South. They were greeted by hundreds of thousands of their countrymen on the streets of Pyongyang.
All very cheerful, as I say—but, alas, someone has to play the role of wet blanket at every party, and I am afraid that this time it will have to be me. To start with, I note that the “deal” reported by President Putin—North Korea would give up its missiles in exchange for being allowed to use Western satellites—vaporized as soon as Western diplomats tried to nail it down: One South Korean newspaper has quoted Kim Jong Il as saying it was “a joke.” I would also note that an exchange of 200 people seems hardly even to qualify as a symbolic olive branch, given that some 7.6 million South Koreans still have close relatives in the North, and 76,000 have registered with the Red Cross to find them. As for returning spies, I am afraid I also find this particular evidence of “thaw” a touch one-sided, given that hundreds of Southerners—war prisoners, fishermen, and the like—are still thought to be held in the North against their will. Nor did anyone much take note of the fact that the North was unable to return the gesture in a spy-for-spy exchange, because there aren’t any South Korean spies in North Korean jails: All were sent to firing squads a long time ago.
More to the point, while all of these diplomatic gestures—and there will be more of them in the coming weeks—are indeed uplifting, they mask the fact that nothing of substance has actually yet changed within Northern society. By way of proof, I would like to pass on (exclusively for the benefit of Slate’s readers) some stories told to me by a European diplomat who was very recently in Pyongyang. Upon arrival, he was deeply impressed by the city’s clean air, so unlike the smog of Seoul: He soon realized, it was because the North Korean regime has forbidden people from owning cars. While Slate’s greener readership might well approve of this measure, it has to be pointed out that it has been carried to an extreme: Not only is ownership forbidden, but the mere sight of a car, particularly a car that might carry foreigners, is enough to frighten North Korean citizens out of their wits. When my acquaintance and his entourage were escorted out of the city, for example, they found themselves virtually alone on empty highways. Occasionally, they would pass peasants working in the fields. On hearing the car approach, the peasants stood up, turned away from the road so as not to see anything, and stood at attention, still facing away, until the cavalcade had passed.
Fear of foreigners also afflicts North Korean pedestrians, who will not walk on the same side of the street as a foreign embassy. It even afflicts those who run the state-owned newspaper kiosks, who will not sell copies of even the official daily newspaper to the tiny cohort of foreign diplomats who live in Pyongyang. As a result, the latter are forced to rely on a special diplomatic bulletin in order to keep up with daily news. Needless to say, those visiting—my acquaintance included—are allowed to interact with only a tiny number of people. During a three-day visit, he met less than a dozen.
Nor is the cult of leadership anywhere near dying. My acquaintance, for example, was taken to visit the “tomb” of Kim Il Sung, the founder of the North Korean state and the father of current leader Kim Jong Il. Except that it wasn’t quite a tomb: Kim Il Sung, my European diplomat was politely told, isn’t just the former great leader of North Korea. He is still the great leader of North Korea, even in death. He will rule, it would seem, in perpetuity; his son (“the dear leader”) is merely carrying out various bits of administration on his behalf.
Those few North Koreans my acquaintance met were convinced of the same. Worse, asked about the prospects for reunification, they all smiled and told him how pleased they were that “at last, the South Koreans have acknowledged the superiority of our society and have come to the North to pay homage to the dear leader, son of the great leader,” or words to that effect. In any case, they seemed genuinely to believe that reunification was about to occur, under the aegis of the North. They might, of course, have had other, secret thoughts, but how can anyone tell?
I repeat all these stories with only one caveat: Until about 10 minutes before the Soviet Union collapsed, virtually no one predicted its disappearance either. It is also perfectly true—as the histories of Poland, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, and other countries demonstrate—that once totalitarian dictators lose their will to power, their totalitarian dictatorships tend to fall to pieces rather rapidly. What isn’t clear is whether Kim Jong Il has actually lost the will to power or whether he is hoping that contacts with the South will help feed his many starving countrymen and help bolster his own position (presumably he would quite like his dead father to stop running the country). South Korea’s new ambassador to the United States recently cautioned against overoptimistic predictions of a speedy collapse, explaining that the process must happen “one step at a time.” It could take decades, in other words. Keep that in mind when reading the news from East Asia in coming weeks.