"The problem is about change"James Hoare

After North Korea shocked the world earlier this month with its detonation of an H-bomb, Dr James Hoare – in Cambridge to appear at The Marshall Society – asserts that this was not the game-changer it was initially feared to be.

Whilst allaying concerns that this could have been a turning point in North Korea’s nuclear programme, he believes that it “does show that they intend to carry on with their nuclear programme; that they are working to develop a viable nuclear weapon of some sort and that presumably means not just that it will go bang, but that it will go bang where they want it to.”

Hoare believes that the unanimous condemnation from the U.N. Security Council is not enough, as this third test during Obama’s Presidency is evidence that world leaders have not been able to subdue the regime.

Because of this, Hoare remains sceptical over the use of sanctions, pointing to the fact that these have not previously been compelling: “the pressure of sanctions is not nearly as great as it might be as long as there is this channel through China; if you look at what’s happened in North Korea during the period since it started its nuclear programme, the reality is that it has not been stopped from importing even luxury goods… the sanction system is not really working”. The fact that North Korea has been living with sanctions since the Korean War without too much discomfort suggests to him that a different approach should be used.

“So what do you do in the end? Personally, I think you engage and negotiate – I don’t think the North Koreans are going to give up on their nuclear programme… so what you could do is get them to freeze the programme”. He seems relatively optimistic at the prospect that the Kim regime may accept this proposition as it did once before, in 1994.

I was keen to ask him about the view that U.S. inaction was a reflection of Washington not seeing North Korea as its biggest East Asian threat – that instead their condemnation of the latest test was more directed towards Chinese expansionism and efforts to support North Korean stability.

“I could go along with that as an explanation, I think that the real U.S. concern is China – what China might do, and how China might threaten the United States’ interests. I thought this 20 years ago as it was quite clear [then] that China and the US had drifted apart after the collapse of the Soviet Union – but, rather than spell that out [the US chose to] pick on… North Korea.”

Hoare stresses that China’s influence in North Korea is pivotal and that its leniency in the last decade towards their nuclear programme is fuelling the U.S. worries that China is purposely upsetting the global balance of power. With its support from China, he argues, the country is actually in a relatively secure position.

“It doesn’t actually have an atmosphere of fear – there are clearly detention camps and people do disappear… but for the majority of people that isn’t what they experience... Pyongyang is a special case; what you see in Pyongyang is not what you see in the rest of the country… it is a privileged city, its where there are facilities which don’t seem to operate in other places. But I’m hesitant to say this is the most terrible place on earth”.

In recognising the existence of detention camps and surveillance of its citizens, Hoare asserts that a significant threat to the maintenance of the regime is information crossing the border in and out of the country. He tells me: “the problem is about change as change is dangerous for the leadership.”

Despite the harsh reality of the regime, he is optimistic about the growing number of mobile phones, DVDs and bicycles that are crossing the border from the south and providing increased mobility and communication to ordinary citizens. However, he warns that “if it [information and technology coming and going across the border] is going to change society, it needs a wider distribution” and because of this he envisages small progressions in civil liberties occurring in the near future.

So, he says, now is an opportune moment for the international community to engage diplomatically with North Korea – as the seeds of change begin to take root within this Orwellian state.