North Korea – Beyond the Headlines

North Korea, a small country of 22 million people, is now on the top of the global superpowers’ agenda.  Threats are flying across the Pacific Ocean, menacing missile tests are conducted, and the risks are rising not only of a military escalation.  The past policy of containment has failed. North Korea is now sitting on a respectable pile of nuclear warheads it had developed while it was engaged in the international Six Party negotiations that were supposed to have prevented exactly that.

But how much do we really know about this country?

North Korea is possibly the most isolated country on the planet. It has been ruled by a family dynasty under brutal dictatorship for over 60 years. The wide-spread human rights abuses consistently reported by its defectors are heartbreaking. Yet on the economic front some progress is also evident.

The US has hardened its line against the North Korean regime. President Trump has declared that past policies of engagement, sanction and non-credible threats by the West and China have failed. It is hard to argue with this assessment. The US President has been publicly pressing China to reign in on its ally, shows increasing signs of impatience.

In this setting, a  tiny poor country of 22 million souls finds itself in the epicentre of geopolitical tensions.

Supported by LSE’s Institute for Global Affairs (IGA), a student-led conference at LSE on March 18 aimed to go, as its title promised, Beyond the Headlines to have a deeper look at North Korea. The event brought together leading scholars, policy makers and students from across the United Kingdom and beyond.  The key themes are summarised below, and e-book is will be published with the conference’s proceedings by August 2017.


  • North Korea has become the top geopolitical focus of major superpowers.
  • Yet there is serious confusion about the right strategic approach to the country, with an overall very gloomy outlook that includes incidental war.
  • The current geopolitical context is defined by the new US administration’s stance that “strategic patience is over.”  It is unclear if this will lead to open confrontation or re-starting some kind of dialogue under stricter conditions that before.
  • The China’s relationship with North Korea is the key. China’s role is dominant in all importance areas: geopolitical, security, ideological, and economic.
  • China appears to be North Korea’s only ally, sustaining it despite occasionally hardly masked irritations at its protégé’s worryingly erratic behaviour.  China considers the risks from instability in North Korea high, and seems determined to keep the North Korean regime alive. North Korea seems for China to represent – literally – a red line over which it may be prepared to could go to war.
  • A North Korean collapse scenario is neither likely or desirable because of  too much risk, some politicians opined at the conference. Would a China – Taiwan (Hong Kong)  model work for gradual and peaceful coexistence?


  • Some very limited economic transformation has taken place, characterised by allowing for limited functioning of retail markets (satellite pictures show these). But its objective has been economic adjustment and not opening up and model change. There is no serious institution building. Central planning with a closed economy model remains dominant.
  • Younger generation is more for market reforms.
  •  A small new economic elite is emerging.
  • Special economic zones/free trade zones with China are playing fermenting roles.
  • The Supreme Leader has promised economic welfare improvement, which maybe his “legitimacy” argument. This is a shared objective of the society and the leader, which maybe better leveraged for engagement.
  • If real reforms were to be commenced, what would be the best suited model: the gradual move to market socialism a la China or Vietnam, or the German unification-guided and East European rapid market reform with opening up? Some of the lessons from these models for an eventual transformation in North Korea were explored at the conference.
  • Little information is available about the role of the military in the economy, but one could assume that it is quite significant.

Human rights

  • Reports from defectors continue to be devastating, yet some asked if human rights should be a priority concern when diffusing the geopolitical tensions should get priority.  Some argued that while the human rights record continues to be very bad, perhaps it is not as horrific as before.
  • How about women’s rights? Researchers highlighted the fact that 80% of defectors are now women. Does this reflect that the reasons for defecting are changing or the fact that in the wake of limited economic reforms women can move more freely than before?

Engagement strategies

Several participants asserted that a new “Sunshine policy” was unlikely after five nuclear tests by North Korea. If it were still allowed to play a role, what could be a more effective more engagement strategy?

  • Some suggested to use more aggressively incentives: “Buy him off” with a “Grand Bargain.”
  • Use the “3 Es”: Education, Entrepreneurship, and Empowerment.
  • NGOs, civil society, and media can play a cautiously positive role.


  • The question was asked if Is the 3 phase model – reconciliation/cooperation; Korean Commonwealth; unification – was still relevant.
  • Unification can be viewed as a “process not a destination” of a unitary state.
  • Peace to be prioritised, the conference heard from some of the South Korean participants.
  • Could there be a “virtual unification,” i.e., rapprochement without legal codification?
  • Or should the unification idea be given up altogether, in the interest of piece and the growing divergence between North and South?
  • Is there a chance for a peaceful convergence over time?