Interview: Dong Jin Kim

Conducted by Lyle Enright
May 6, 2022

The first thing I noticed about Dong Jin Kim was his smile. It’s a generous smile, and quiet, that says he’s honored to be part of just about everything going on around him. He reminds me of a chef who could cook you the greatest meal you’ve had in your life, and then bow to you when you thanked him for it. He doesn’t look like a person formed by one of the most dangerous places on earth.

A South Korean native, Jin holds a PhD in North Korean studies, and he is a visiting scholar in the Peace Studies department at Trinity College in Dublin. His research lays out a method for Korean and Irish scholars to empower each other’s efforts and track their learning together as they work towards reconciling their respective homelands.

Though fighting ended in 1953, North and South Korea are technically still at war. South Korea deploys many young men to the border as part of their mandatory military service. Jin’s story begins there, as a chaplain newly ordained in the Presbyterian church. His colleagues scrutinized his theological training: “You seem to know about things that happened 2000 years ago,” they said, “but what do you know about the last 70 years?”

Jin realized he knew very little about his own history. National security laws forbade him from crossing the border, but by cooperating with humanitarian missions, Jin spent time with neighbors whom the world insisted were his enemies. “40% of the North Korean population are suffering from food insecurity,” he says, and the situation has only grown worse with the spread of COVID-19. “If you see the people inside the country, you want to create space to engage them. Human engagement would be the best thing for North Korea.”

Standing in the way of human engagement is a deep-seated rivalry hiding within a global security crisis. Since 2008, strict political conditions on aid to North Korea have reinforced that the world sees the regime as an enemy, and North Korea has responded by doubling down on its military power and the propaganda of self-sufficiency. Jin has lost access to people he loves; people who need food and medicine, and who have nothing to do with the regime’s posturing.

Through a new article published in International Affairs, Jin hopes to confront leading researchers with the stakes of national rivalries in a world after COVID. We had the privilege of sitting down with him as he summarized his groundbreaking argument: we ‌can rethink our rivalries and redefine national interests in light of a global community clamoring for justice.

We have edited this interview for length and clarity.

Jin, what do most people not understand about the situation in North Korea? Where is rivalry at work?

“Koreans see their war as a surrogate or proxy war, the actual war being the Cold War—the rivalry between East and West, between a communist system and a capitalist system. This extreme rivalry manifested in the Korean context.

To some extent it’s propaganda, but to some extent it’s reality. Since the end of the Cold War, North Korea has lost their commercial partners. Their traditional allies, like China and Russia, normalized diplomatic relations with South Korea. They felt betrayed. They still have diplomatic relationships with more than a hundred countries, but they feel they’re being vilified and cut off from the rest of the world, particularly by the US and South Korea. 

Authoritarian regimes work at their best when there is an external threat. It’s easier to use that as fodder to convince people they need to follow you: “Yes, it’s difficult, but you need to sacrifice yourself, etc., etc.” So as long as that rivalry exists, it’s going to be extremely difficult to see improvements in human, civil, and political rights in North Korea. They have their own propaganda, and they will dismiss talks with US NGOs and South Korean NGOs as psychological warfare.”

Why would they do that? Why be suspicious of the aid they need?

“Aid itself is a danger for North Korea, because it could discredit their narrative. Humanitarian aid and peacebuilding work are more of a threat to North Korea than military intervention. But North Korea needs it. They need interaction with the outside world. They need economic cooperation. I would say human engagement would be the best thing for them because it could neutralize the narrative. And when you neutralize the narrative, saying “We are not an enemy to you,” you can get out of that hostile rivalry.”

What prevents the world from approaching North Korea with interaction and cooperation?

“We need a peace agreement or a peace treaty before unification. That is a key difference from somewhere like Northern Ireland or Germany. And North Korea wants it, because their situation is horrible. They know they need to change. But if change is too abrupt, the regime collapses. So many proposed a phased approach, meaning humanitarian or economic cooperation and a “soft landing” for North Korea instead of just enforcing a peace process now.

However, other people want North Korea to change now. They say, “You have to have human rights first, or we will not talk to you,” or, “we won’t have anything to do with you unless you denuclearize.” Even North Korea will say they want denuclearization. But they want denuclearization of the entire Korean peninsula!”

It’s not just about Kim Jong-un. They are not crazy people. They are trapped in the most dangerous, hostile rivalry–I think–on earth.

And the West wants to keep their nuclear presence in Korea, yes?

“The US has a strategic interest in containing China. It justifies the US military base in South Korea and their military alliance. People benefit from the conflict structure. In the name of national security, the military industry flourishes. At the state level, most of the geopolitical players would not want peace on the Korean peninsula because of their national self-interest. So they say, “No, no, no–North Korea will never change.” It’s a fatalism that makes us complicit in the regime, because we believe the regime will never change. By not negotiating with North Korea, we’re actually letting North Korea have nuclear weapons.”

You say this happens “at the state level”. In your article for International Affairs, you stress the importance of civil society in changing the narrative around these issues. You also appeal to the “moral norms of the international community”. Why do these matter?

“Nation states have shaped the world by pursuing their own national security. They acted as they did because we were in crisis. But COVID-19 really showed us we are more interdependent than ever. We saw the injustice created by fierce competition and the neoliberal approach. That whole international structure became known to the people, and it actually formed global public opinion. People realized we are all in this together. It’s not just about goods, it’s about people. Care for human rights has become the global norm. This concept of the international community is about the idea of global justice.

My argument is that we are so interdependent, what one nation does affects all of us. You can act in your national interests–producing 1 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines while poor countries have none–but you will know it’s not right; you feel pressure from the global norm. How could the US be a moral country when it blatantly disregards or dismisses other countries’ vulnerabilities? Yet global cooperation really is in your national interest, because of recurrent outbreaks and variants that need to be curbed. Vaccine diplomacy would be the best thing. The moral norm calls for active participation in that kind of multilateral collaboration.”

Yet nationalistic interests continue to co-opt that kind of aid, yes? We’re back to North Korea’s distrust of humanitarian organizations.

“Governments think at the level of nation states, meaning the state is the only duty-bearer, not the individual. Because they think like that, they see all these things happening inside North Korea as entirely the fault of the North Korean regime. It’s nothing to do with me; it’s not our responsibility. But North Korea is not a single entity or person. It’s not just about Kim Jong-un. They are not crazy people. They are trapped in the most dangerous, hostile rivalry–I think–on earth. The global norm has a broader sense of the responsibility to protect people and address injustice.”

So you’re arguing that self-interested nations can cooperate with the moral norms of interdependence, global justice, and human rights, not just supersede them?

“I present the Soviet Union and the US as a precedent. They cooperated to eradicate smallpox during the Cold War. Even though they saw each other as enemies, they saw that just because someone was poor didn’t mean they shouldn’t have access to a vaccine. Even criminals can have healthcare in US prisons, you know what I mean? So, as part of the international community, from the perspective of global justice, they created that kind of space.

Humanitarian aid is about addressing injustice at the global level. It’s not just about the responsibility, e.g., of the North Korean regime. But it’s also in the enlightened national interest of donor countries. It will prevent another health crisis. You can call North Korea a hermit kingdom, but if it collapses, people would flee through the Chinese border, the South Korean sea border and the US military base. How could you really contain those?

This doesn’t mean we take military action to conquer the regime and protect human rights. That would exacerbate our sense that people deserve to die because they’ve lost, because they’re bad people. It’s really quite dangerous, because we are part of that rivalry. We need to do something peaceful, to create a niche space for interaction and neutralize the narrative of rivalry. I believe that is the only way to survive. I think it’s critical for the US, and internationally.”

How does your work help create that space? What obstacles do you face?

“South Korea’s political security (and that of the US to some extent) depends on seeing North Korea as an enemy. If you are trying to make peace with your enemy, that creates anxiety within your own community. If peace comes, and our relationship with North Korea changes, then we don’t know who we are. That hostile rivalry is part of our identity. It’s based on experience, education, everything. It’s how we know what’s going to happen tomorrow. I am a South Korean person because of North Korea; what if there’s no North Korea?

Within my community, we sometimes vilify people trying to build peace with North Korea, calling them traitors. There are people who aren’t ready to reconcile. It’s the same in the US: if you are trying to do something helpful for North Korea, you are not a good American citizen. Your priority should be America, and therefore South Korea, not North Korea. 

But even from our own perspectives, diplomacy is the best strategy. You can’t really achieve your maximum potential — happiness, peace, success — in this kind of rivalrous life. Immersed in your own context, you can’t actually see. But when you are outside of your situation or see a similar situation — if a Korean goes to Northern Ireland, for instance — it becomes a mirror. That’s how we learn to feel we’re all in this together.”