Book on Korea Author: Michael Breen

Interview with Mr. Michael Breen
on his book

Who he is, What he wants, What to do about him

Question 1
:  Your new book is very topical with negotiations currently taking place with
North Korea and much interest being directed at nuclear proliferation in general based on reports of Pakistan’s activities.  In the preface of your book you note that “They (the U.S.) knew it (North Korea) had no connection to Islamic terrorism – certainly not enough to warrant “Axis of Evil” membership”.  Could you please elaborate on why the U.S.
Administration oversold this issue and what the true relationship is here?

Answer:  The Axis of Evil is figurative. Its members – Iran, North Korea and Saddam’s Iraq – are not bound by any real treaty. Membership seems to be defined by a particular US-centric notion of “evil” – which goes something like, “may be working on illicit WMD programs and which could supply such weapons to groups such as Al Qaeda.” North Korea kind of fits, but then so does Libya. I’m sure North Korea was included because it would have been politically incorrect to have only Islamic members.

To be fair to President Bush, when it comes to nuclear weapons, you do not need incontrovertible proof of a threat before defending yourself against it. If a country has the will, capability, technology and runs rings around inspectors, it’s reasonable to assume the worst. In many ways, we may compare North Korea and Pakistan. Both are dictatorships with illicit nuclear programs. Both want ties with the US. The problem is that the US can trust the Pakistani leadership, but can’t trust the North Korean leadership. 

On this theme of evil, though, if we broaden our definition of the word, North Korea becomes a shoe-in. It is thoroughly evil in that it literally devours its own people – thru an unsurpassed degree of suppression of thought and action, thru avoidable famine, and thru its extensive gulag.  
Question 2: In your book you talk about the concept of “Juche” or self-reliance as developed by Kim Il-sung and how it has effected North Korean actions and reactions.  Could you explain this concept and give some examples of how it has effected recent actions by North Korea?

Answer:  Juche is North Korea’s version of communism. Basically, it is Marxist-Leninism with an exaggerated overlay of animosity to anything foreign. This is not as weird as it sounds when you consider that Korean history has been a catalogue of bullying by and kowtowing to foreign powers. Kim Il-sung kind of said “Up Yours!” to the outside world. One example of how this works in practice is that North Koreans omit to tell their own people that they were saved from defeat by China during the Korean War. There is a Chinese war memorial in the country, but only Chinese tourists get to go and see it. A good example of the skill with which North Koreans execute Juche policy is in their aid-gathering techniques. They will, for example, try to gain aid from the US, South Korea and Japan by agreeing not to behave badly – i.e. giving up the nuclear program – and then tell their own people that their “enemies” are providing rice to atone for their crimes against North Korea. A lot of people in South Korea, who feel that their own country has progressed by “obeying” America, have a sneaking admiration for this type of aggressive panhandling.

Question 3: In your book you note that historically Confucian thought has had a tremendous influence on Korea, both North and South, and further note that the Confucian concept of five stratum’s of society – Yangban, Chung-in, Sang-in, Chonmin and Slaves is in some respects still active in North Korea (page 18), could you explain this concept and how it operates in North Korea today?

Answer:  For all its virtues in encouraging the contemplation of ethical matters over all else, Confucianism in practice encouraged social engineering in its worst form. As you’ve noted, the caste system of old Korea was one expression of this. It has its echoes in modern North Korea. Some years ago, the regime decided to classify the entire population into three broad categories of friendly, wavering and hostile, according to perceived loyalty to the regime. Having a grandfather who was a landlord who fled to South Korea was enough to make you a “hostile.” These categories were further sub-divided into more precise classifications. Your classification determines your future prospects, whether your children get to go to college, what level of punishment you receive if convicted of a crime, and so on. But let’s not be too harsh on Confucius. Such a mindless system derives from the typical communist ideologically-driven fear of the enemy within and right now explains why the regime has to cling to power – if it loosens its grip, those who have been put in the lower categories and who have suffered as a result will rise up in bloody vengeance.

Question 4: You note that North Korea has the World’s third-biggest army and spends over US $5 Billion yearly, nearly one third (over 31.3%) of its GDP, on Nation Defense (pg. 34-35), and you note later in the book that a war in Korea could kill a million people and take up to 100,000 US lives  but you also don’t seem to have much regard for the quality of the North Korean military forces vis-à-vis the South and the U.S., could you explain this further?

Answer:  The proportion of total resources spent on defense is remarkable. But the economy is so bad that the actual amount is not enough to put fuel in jets for training or to properly maintain the army. I wonder whether a repeat of the conventional invasion which started the Korean War in 1950 would not collapse at the first decent restaurant in South Korea. The danger – and the potential casualty figures you mention are Pentagon estimates – lies in the unconventional component – highly trained Special Forces, and chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. Unleashed, these would cause horrible damage.

Question 5: You discuss in Chapters six and seven many aspects of Kim Jong-il and his personality and come to a conclusion that the man is neither insane nor evil.  The popular belief is quite different I suspect.  Could you tell us briefly how you came to conclude this and do you feel this same belief is shared by the U.S. and South Korean governments?

Answer:  I loathe dictatorship and come down very hard on North Korea. It would seem logical, then, that I would try to argue that Kim Jong-il is evil or nuts. But I find such an automatic conclusion to be rather shallow. Life is more complex. The US view is that Kim is a “malignant narcissist.” In other words, he’s the worst kind of freak imaginable. My view is closer to the South Korean understanding. While I think Kim Jong-Il should take responsibility for the evil system he presides over –he should be fired immediately and put on trial – I do not think he is an evil man. He is not personally violent; he doesn’t pull the wings off butterflies. He is no Uday Hussein. If anything, he is a rather artistic character. He is shrewdly hand-on in some areas, and rather remote in others. But I do not believe that he is personally violent, nor that he delights in the misery of others. Such a man would be truly evil.

Question 6: In your book (page 255 and elsewhere), you note that South Korea and most probably the U.S. and Japan are not interested in a collapse of North Korea similar to what happened in Germany.  The South Korea and the U.S. have seemed to call out for such a result in the past.  Has this now changed and if so could you explain why?

Answer:  No one wants North Korea to collapse. In particular, the South Korean government and populace appears to be so terrified of the economic and social consequences of collapse that people are unwilling to even talk about it, as if openly discussing it might cause it to happen. What South Korea wants is for the North Korean regime to reform in the Chinese manner and develop the country’s economy. The inevitable re-unification can then happen at some safe time in the future. I do not believe that the US government has really thought this thru. The US position is to avoid war.

Question 7:  In Chapter 11, you talk of the number of projects that have been tabled in North Korea to develop industrial zones, free trade zones, etc. but on Page 164 you note “In contrast to China, whose investment in infrastructure has given confidence to foreign investors, the most North Korea is doing is providing land.  South Korea is paying for the infrastructure.  For now, that is the extent of change in North Korea.  Until there’s more change, it’s difficult to imagine any of these projects really taking off.”  Could you explain this observation and give examples of some of the projects that have been proposed and their current situation?
Answer:  North Korea is very mindful that foreign investment is a virus – once you let it in, it will infect everything. However, it is desperate enough for foreign currency to have tried experimenting with investment zones. So far, none has been successful. The first effort in the 90s was a free zone in the remote northeast of the country, where no one really wanted to go. More recent attempts near the South Korean border – a tourism zone in the Keumgang Mountain region and a planned industrial zone in Kaesong – will depend totally on South Korean companies’ appetite for risk. The hope for North Korea is that it will attract the lower-end South Korean businesses that are currently manufacturing in China. But, in order to do that, the regime has to become business-friendly. If the South Koreans can’t make profit, they won’t come. And if they don’t, no one else will.
Question 8: In Chapter 12 you discuss the activities of “Division 39” which I believe was also reported on by the Asian Wall Street Journal in mid- 2003.  Could you explain what this division is, what it does and why it is important to the continuation in power of Kim-Jong-Il?

Answer:  This division is the personal conglomerate of Kim Jong-il. It is the means by which he sustains his lifestyle and power. It operates within the (communist) party like a capitalist business group with international operations. Some of its operations are legitimate, such as the sale of mushrooms to Japan. Others, like counterfeiting and drug running, contravene international law.

Question 9:  Also in respect to “Division 39”, you seem to argue that America and the World need to target more creatively ways in which to stop the activities of “Division 39” and to deny Kim Jong-Il the stream of dollars that this generates for his regime.  Why hasn’t this been done more forcefully in your view by the U.S. and others who would seem to have an interest in doing so both as a way of controlling North Korea and also would seem to have reason to do so as it counters Anti-Drug and other programs exposed by the U.S. government?

Answer:  I’m not sure why this has not occurred to the US before, except that perhaps it is a rather aggressive move and one which would destabilize the regime and thereby possibly the region. It would be interesting to know just what the US knows about Division 39 and what is actually being done to stop its illegal activities and – in good capitalist style – undermine its legitimate businesses.

Question 10:  In the final chapter of your book you layout your ideas on resolving the current standoff in North Korea.  One of the points you advance is the idea that the U.S. needs to more aggressively embrace the broader issues.  Can you develop this more fully and note what these broader issues are and how you feel they should be addressed in the interest of a settlement on the Korean Peninsula?                 

Answer:  The underlying issue regarding North Korea is how to bring it out of the communist cold and into the northeast Asian development revolution. Standing in the way is a rather strong-minded regime, led by this odd fellow Kim Jong-il, desperately trying to avoid facing the awful reality of its failure. For as long as he is in power, we have to deal with him. As he wants to engage, we might as well do so, knowing that while such engagement may be frustrating, it is ultimately contributing to the end of the regime. Instead, the United States seems only interested in weapons of mass destruction. This singular fixation is divisive in that it makes the US appear unpleasantly hawkish to the Asian allies. On the other side, it gives North Korea a negotiating edge because it knows the US will not risk war. If the US were to take a more comprehensive approach to North Korea, the WMD issue would be solved as a matter of course. Such a comprehensive approach could include human rights issues, introduced in the form of a regional commitment to certain standards. Although delicate, this would be worth attempting for its civilizing potential on the region

Author: Michael Breen About the Author or the book:

Michael Breen first went to South Korea in 1982 as a journalist.  He covered both North and South Korea for several newspapers before giving up journalism to pursue a fascination with North Korea.  He became a management consultant advising companies on dealing with the communist state.  He lives in Seoul with his wife, Jennifer.

About the Interviewer: 

Christopher W. Runckel, a former senior US diplomat who served in many counties in Asia, is a graduate of the University of Oregon and Lewis and Clark Law School. He served as Deputy General Counsel of President Gerald Ford’s Presidential Clemency Board. Mr. Runckel is the principal and founder of Runckel & Associates, a Portland, Oregon based consulting company that assists businesses expand business opportunities in Asia. (

Until April of 1999, Mr. Runckel was Minister-Counselor of the US Embassy in Beijing, China. Mr. Runckel lived and worked in Thailand for over six years. He was the first permanently assigned U.S. diplomat to return to Vietnam after the Vietnam War. In 1997, he was awarded the U.S. Department of States highest award for service, the Distinguished Honor Award, for his contribution to improving U.S.-Vietnam relations. Mr. Runckel is one of only two non-Ambassadors to receive this award in the 200-year history of the U.S. diplomatic service.

Copyright, 2007 © Runckel & Associates
Terms of use

Search our Website by Topics