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Seven Questions: Bittersweet Symphony in Pyongyang

Can the New York Philharmonic melt the heart of Kim Jong Il? Nam Sung-wook, one of the world's top experts on the North Korean regime, weighs in on the power of orchestral diplomacy.

MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty ImagesPyongyang pas de deux: Can the on-stage ballet cut through the diplomatic dance?

Foreign Policy: Your title at Korea University is North Koreanologist. What does that mean exactly?

Nam Sung-wook: Our department studies all things North Korean. As you know, when political scientists and other experts analyzed Soviet politics in the 1950s, 1960s, we called it Sovietology. North Koreanology is similar to Sovietology.

FP: Not a lot of information comes out of North Korea, though. What are some things you look for when trying to predict what Kim Jong Il is thinking?

NSW: We use many original sources, of course the North Korean newspaper, and there are thousands of North Koreans who have resettled in South Korea, so we interview many sources. We also focus on the Chinese. The relations between China and North Korea are special, so we are constantly looking at China to analyze the intentions of Pyongyang. As you know, 300,000 Chinese soldiers died during the Korean War and therefore the Chinese think they have some rights in North Korea. Whenever North Korea rejects dialogue with Washington, Washington asks China to put pressure on the Pyongyang regime. But China has no intention to do so. So maybe [this type of pressure] will be fruitless.

FP: There has been some discussion in the United States that North Koreas economy could collapse again in a repeat of the famine of the 1990s. Press reports of the New York Philharmonics trip noted that each time the orchestra went to a different part of Pyongyang, the electricity was turned out behind them. Is this a sign of impending economic collapse?

NSW: Its true that the Pyongyang regime economy is almost collapsed, but we have to think about it closely and carefully. If the North Korean economy collapses, does the regime also collapse? The answer is no. Economic collapse and regime collapse operate along different dimensions. Its true that the North Korean economy has not improved and has no probability of improving in the near future. The problem is that no matter how much worse the economic problems in North Korea get, the regime will not collapse.

FP: What do you think about the Philharmonics trip to Pyongyang? Do you think it will improve relations between the United States and North Korea? Some people have said that the North Koreans are just going to turn around and use it as propaganda.

NSW: The U.S. orchestra visit is an unprecedented event in the history between the two countries, and while I think the U.S. orchestra playing in the North will improve relations at the uppermost tier and promote cultural exchange, Im not sure the concert will contribute to the solution of the nuclear crisis. Christopher Hill will be very busy in the near future. He wants to capitalize on the good atmosphere surrounding the concert in the six-party talks, but Im not sure the New York Philharmonics trip will be a repeat of the 1970s ping-pong diplomacy with China and so many other such trips.

FP: There have been different explanations from the North Korean side and the U.S. side as to why the dismantling of Yongbyon has been so slow. The North Koreans say its because they havent gotten the shipments of fuel oil theyve been promised, while the Americans say that the North Koreans are seeking to renegotiate the deal, that theyre being stubborn, and that they havent disclosed all the information about their programs. What do you think explains why the dismantling of Yongbyon has been slower than hoped?

NSW: There has been serious distrust between the two countries since the Korean War. Kim Jong Il and Bush simply do not believe one another. Kim wants Bush take North Korea off the list of terrorist-supporting countries before he will fully dismantle, shut down and disable the Yongbyon nuclear reactor. President Bush does not believe Kimhe wants action for action. Bush wants denuclearization and only then will he reexamine the terrorism issue. Its a serious problem. But President Bush doesnt have a lot of time to negotiate with Kim Jong Il, because his term is up in less than a year.

FP: With that in mind, some people have said, Well, maybe Kim is waiting to renegotiate with a new U.S. president.

NSW: Whenever I have the opportunity to talk with my counterparts in Pyongyang, I find that they have misunderstood the fact that, regardless of whether the new president is a Democrat or Republican, it doesnt make a difference. The North Koreans think they have a better chance with the Democratic Party because they remember the Clinton administration fondly. But Ive told my North Korean counterparts: Imagine the election of John McCainhes a powerful guy! So, Pyongyang must keep negotiations going with President Bush right now and stop wasting time. But Im not sure if there will be any great breakthrough this year.

FP: South Korea just swore in its new president, Lee Myung-bak. What does Lees election say about South Korean politics today? Some say he won the presidency due to South Korean voters rejection of the sunshine policy. How do you think Kim Jong Il will react to Lees new approach?

NSW: I think Kim Jong Il has a lot of thinking and analyzing to do about the policy of the new government. Lee won a great victoryby 3.1 million votesa historical victory for South Korean presidential elections. Kim Jong Il understands South Koreas new political situation, but I think he will require a lot of time to consider his options. For the first couple of months, Kim Jong Il will have no response at all.

Nam Sung-wook is a North Koreanologist at Korea University in Seoul.

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