Known for their remarkable opacity and unwillingness to solicit outsider help, few have had the opportunity to gain entrance into North Korea and to learn more about its culture, economy, and political infrastructure. In 2007, National Geographic released a documentary entitled “Inside North Korea,” which provided a semblance of what life is like within the reclusive state. Posing as a medical coordinator, journalist Lisa Ling captured footage of the cutthroat dictatorship that governs the lives of North Koreans and the atavism that has plagued their health and individualistic sensibilities. Ling accompanied an eye surgeon who conducted over one thousand operations in ten days, and witnessed the god-like chatter that was part and parcel of her discourse with the North Koreans. At the culmination of the health mission, Ling and other foreigners proceeded to remove bandages from the eyes of the blind to restore their eyesight following surgery. Each patient would relentlessly bow before a picture of the “Great General,” and would offer their heartfelt gratitude for his assistance without recognition of their general plight. While the eye surgeon had toiled strenuously to conduct all the necessary operations, his patients did not offer the slightest thanks in response. Though the documentary is now five years old, it is one of the few episodes that highlight the true nature of life in North Korea.
Typically, any news released from North Korean agencies is predicated on politics. In a country where citizens are deprived of cell phones and privately owned television stations, media refinement is of paramount importance. In fact, in the recent funeral on December 28 held to commemorate the passing of the late Kim Jong-Il, analytical experts noticed that there lied a discrepancy between a photo released by Associated Press via Kyodo News and the Korean Central News Agency. While the former featured several soldiers lingering on the side of the road in which the procession was moving, the apparently manipulated image released by North Korea removed them. This is one incidence that is instructive of the overall political agenda that is central to North Korea, where honor and obeisance towards the Supreme Commander is a core theme.
Dr. David Pollack of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy spoke with the Jewish Voice about how Israeli-North Korean relations might evolve in light of these recent developments. “It’s really too soon to tell,” explained Dr. Pollock. “The main thing is that there is no direct relationship between Israel and North Korea, to my understanding. There is however an indirect relationship, as North Korea has developed negotiations with Arab nations including Iran, Libya, and Syria in the past.”
Israelis acquired concrete evidence of North Korean’s rapport with Arab states in 2007, when Israel conducted an airstrike in the Deir ez-Zor region of Syria and learned that 10 North Korean scientists were killed in the aftermath. Other than that isolated event, little information is available to offer grounded conjectures on the how these relationships might be altered in the wake of Kim-Jong-Il’s death. “There really is very little basis for guessing,” said Dr. Pollock. “I don’t think we’re likely to see big changes, considering that even when North Korea agrees to certain international arrangements, they typically defy them.”
When asked if he knew of any previous attempts at negotiation between Israel and North Korea, Dr. Pollock said that unsuccessful attempts at establishing a rapprochement between the two nations were made following the death of Kim Il-Sung in 1994. “As far as I know, it failed, as the U.S. voiced their objection to it.”
According to an article entitled “North Korea’s International Position” published by Stephan Haggard in the Asian Survey several decades ago, North Korea denounces Israel as an “imperialist satellite,” and does not recognize its independent existence. “[The North Korean position] is really a spin-off of [its] Western hatred,” Pollock explains. “A troubled history has prompted them to isolate themselves, and their relationship with pariah states exists solely to procure oil and other commodities that North Korea does not have access to.”
The North Korean government has demonstrated their unequivocal support of their new leader, seamlessly transferring the personality cult from father to son. “We once again keep deep in our minds that the victory of building a powerful and prosperous nation is certain, as long as there is the … wise leadership of respected Comrade Kim Jong Un,” senior government official Mun Gyong Dok recently told a crowd in Pyongyang’s Kim Il Sung Square.
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