In 1987 Michael Harrold was hired fresh out of university to be the English language adviser to North Korea’s then great leader Kim Il-sung.
He became the first Briton to be employed by Pyongyang and one of the few westerners to have access to the country’s ruling elite.
He worked there for seven years, leaving with a unique insight into the inner workings of the North Korean government.
He spoke to SBS World News from Beijing where he now works as a senior editor at China’s state broadcaster CGTN.
What kind of global image do you think North Korea wants to project to the world?
“North Korea sees itself as the champion of anti-Americanism, a small country standing up to ‘US bullying’. I think it wants to project an image of a small, peace-loving country that has been obliged to resort to extreme measures in standing up for its rights – back against the wall and belt tightened in the face of overwhelming and unreasonable demands and pressure. David and Goliath – although that’s hardly a comparison they would use.”
During your time in North Korea, did you ever get a sense of the country’s international ambition?
“North Korea’s overriding international ambition – although they see it as a domestic one – was, and still is, reunification with South Korea. Korea’s division – and its perpetuation – is seen as a massive injustice. When I was there, reunification dominated the propaganda. Internationally, the country aspired to a leading role in the non-aligned movement and championed ‘south-south cooperation’ – essentially an economic arrangement among third-world countries.”
Was there ever any mention of developing nuclear weapons during your time there?
“In those days the nuclear boot was very much on the other foot. The US deployed nuclear weapons in South Korea for many years, and apparently didn’t remove the last of them until 1991. It was North Korea that was calling for denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula and North-east Asia. I’m not sure when North Korea began developing a nuclear capability, but the programme gained considerable momentum under Kim Jong-il. In 1994, North Korea and the US signed an agreement on freezing the north’s development of nuclear power plants and replacing them with light water reactors, which could less easily produce weapons-grade materials. This agreement broke down in the early 2000s; North Korea, it is alleged, was already developing nuclear weapons by this point. Whether this is true or not, the weapons programme was certainly underway soon after.”
What do you think North Korea hopes to achieve by building up its arsenal?
“This programme has a dual purpose. First, it is an effective and relatively cheap military deterrent – a reliable means of defence for a country that sees itself under imminent threat of attack by the US. Second, it gets the world’s attention and puts North Korea in a strong position in possible talks with the rest of the world, principally the US, on diplomatic and economic issues. Personally, I believe that North Korea wants to be a full and respected member of the international community, trading and interacting freely with other countries. However, it also wants to maintain its unique political system. But meeting both desires is very hard to achieve. Becoming a nuclear power has now also become a source of national pride and national unity.”
Do you think North Korea is serious about its threat to attack Guam?
“Guam is an interesting target. It would be a direct attack on the US, particularly focused on its military interests, and would probably be more acceptable domestically than an attack on the nearest US military presence to North Korea, which is in South Korea. That would cause casualties to ‘fellow countrymen’ and lead to intra-Korean conflict. The choice of Guam makes an attack plausible enough to make the rest of the world sit up and take notice. However, I don’t think it will happen. The North Korean leadership would be aware that the consequences would be too severe.”
If you could give Donald Trump any advice on North Korea, what would it be?
“It is time to talk. And for the US to be realistic. There can be no preconditions to talks. North Korea is not going to give up a nuclear capability it has spent so much time and money on developing, just for the chance of holding discussions that will probably lead to nothing, anyway. Moreover, North Korea’s leaders are fully aware of what has happened to other regimes that the US found unpalatable and were thought to be developing weapons of mass destruction – Iraq and Libya etc – and will therefore be extremely wary in their dealings with Washington. Trump has done little, through what he says, to reassure North Korea. Promises and threats no longer hold any water. Direct US-North Korea talks must be held at a high level, addressing the concerns of both sides – North Korea’s nuclear programme, the removal of UN sanctions, the normalisation of bilateral relations, the replacement of the Korean War armistice with a peace treaty, and so on.”
What do you think of Trump’s argument that China isn’t doing enough?
“I think it’s nonsense for Trump to expect China to solve the problem. I imagine China, much as it would like to see the Korea issue solved and would probably be pleased to help achieve that, sees the ‘North Korea problem’ as something created and perpetuated by the US. China had nothing to do with the original division of Korea and is probably annoyed by Trump’s suggestion that it clear up the mess. Also, North Korea’s long-standing demand is for talks with the US, which it sees as the cause of all its problems and so the only realistic agent of solving them. Therefore, it is unlikely to accept anyone – China included – as a proxy or intermediary.”
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