Known as one of most closed societies on the planet, North Korea has taken limited steps in the new year toward what we might define as normality.
The state’s long-standing ban on cellphone use by foreigners was lifted in Pyongyang late last week. Kim Jong-un, the country’s young leader, is urging North Koreans to study foreign languages and get fluent with computer technology. And Google’s chairman, Eric Schmidt, recently visited North Korea and delivered a clear message about the need for connectivity.
Unfortunately, these positive signs have not been matched with liberal steps elsewhere. American citizen Kenneth Bae, a resident of Lynnwood, has been held in North Korea since early November for unspecified crimes, and he was not released, as had been hoped, when the Google delegation traveled to Pyongyang.
In the past, North Korea has sentenced American citizens to long prison sentences – Laura Ling to 12 years in 2009 and Puget Sound resident Evan Hunziker to life in 1996 – but all have been given clemency after the intervention of a high-level delegation. The recent failure to release Bae indicates that North Korea sees the 44-year-old tour guide as a bargaining chip for resetting negotiations with the Obama administration over the North Korean nuclear program.
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North Korea, then, appears to be liberalizing in limited ways even as it plays hardball with the United States and holds an American citizen more or less as a hostage.
What should our response be? Do we close down our venues with North Korea completely? We believe that ongoing engagement with North Korea, like that done by Google’s Schimdt, is more likely to result in moves in a positive direction.
The Google visit to North Korea might indeed be the ultimate metaphor for a country that seems to be locked in Plato’s cave. The North Koreans who met the delegation were relatively low-level and young. They were likely baffled that one person could amass such wealth from the free flow of information or that he would take time out of his life to inquire after Bae, a nonblood relative. (Imperialists and capitalists are supposed to be heartless and only care about money, according to North Korean portrayals of Americans.)
Each North Korean who dealt with the group is likely to implement policy one day. How those individuals resolve the cognitive dissonance arising from discovering the foreign devil wears not Prada, but jeans, will impact policy in years and for years.
That North Korea, a global leader in information restriction, was willing to meet with a delegation from Google indicates that the leader of the nuclear-tipped theater state at least wants to give the appearance of change. And the whole unlikely sequence playing out has strong ties to the community right here.
Adam Cathcart is assistant professor of history at Pacific Lutheran University. Roger Cavazos is an associate at the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability in Berkeley, Calif.