N. Korea, Without the Rancor

Times Staff Writer

He arrived at the entrance to a North Korean government-owned restaurant and karaoke club here in the Chinese capital with a handshake and a request. “Call me Mr. Anonymous,” he said in English.

This North Korean, an affable man in his late 50s who spent much of his career as a diplomat in Europe, has been assigned to help his communist country attract foreign investment. With the U.S. and other countries complaining about North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and its human rights record, it’s a difficult task, he admitted.

“There’s never been a positive article about North Korea, not one,” he said. “We’re portrayed as monsters, inhuman, Dracula ... with horns on our heads.”


So, in an effort to clear up misunderstandings, he expounded on the North Korean view of the world in an informal conversation that began one night this week over beer as North Korean waitresses sang Celine Dion in the karaoke restaurant, and resumed the next day over coffee.

The North Korean, dressed in a cranberry-colored flannel shirt and corduroy trousers, described himself as a businessman with close ties to the government. He said he did not want to be quoted by name because his perspective was personal, not official. Because North Koreans seldom talk to U.S. media organizations, his comments offered rare insight into the view from the other side of the geopolitical divide.

He said better relations with the United States were key to turning around his nation’s economy, which has nearly ground to a halt over the last decade amid famine, the collapse of industry and severe electricity shortages. “For basic life, we can live without America, but we can live better with” it, he said.

Yet he voiced strong enthusiasm for his country’s recent announcement that it had developed nuclear weapons. The declaration, which jarred U.S. officials, was not intended as a threat, he said, but merely a way to advance negotiations.

“Now that we are members of the nuclear club, we can start talking on an equal footing. In the past, the U.S. tried to whip us, as though they were saying, ‘Little boy, don’t play with dangerous things.’ ”

A colleague, a 55-year-old man also visiting from North Korea, nodded.

“This was the right thing to do, to declare ourselves a nuclear power. The U.S. had been talking not only about economic sanctions, but regime change,” the businessman said. “We can’t just sit there waiting for them to do something. We have the right to protect ourselves.”

The North Koreans said they were keenly attentive to the language used by Bush administration officials in regard to their country. They were relieved that in this year’s State of the Union address the president didn’t again characterize North Korea as part of an “axis of evil,” as he did in 2002. But they were greatly offended that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called North Korea an “outpost of tyranny” during her confirmation hearings.

“We were hoping for change from the U.S. administration. We expected some clear-cut positive change,” the North Korean said. “Instead, Condoleezza Rice immediately committed the mistake of calling us an outpost of tyranny. North Koreans are most sensitive when they hear that kind of remark.”

He believes that Americans have the wrongheaded notion that North Koreas are unhappy with the system of government under Kim Jong Il. “We Asians are traditional people,” he said. “We prefer to have a benevolent father leader.”

He also said that U.S. criticism of North Korea’s record on human rights was unfair and hypocritical. In its annual human rights report on Monday, the State Department characterized North Korea’s behavior as “extremely poor.” It said 150,000 to 200,000 people were being held in detention camps for political reasons and that there continued to be reports of extrajudicial killings.

“Is there any country where there is a 100% guarantee of human rights? Certainly not the United States,” the businessman said. “There is a question of what is a political prisoner. Maybe these people are not political prisoners but social agitators.”

While Westerners tend to stress the rights of the individual, he said, “we have chosen collective human rights as a nation.... We should have food, shelter, security rather than chaos and vandalism. The question of our survival as a nation is dangling.”

The North Korean admitted that “it is no secret that we have economic problems,” and he said North Koreans were themselves largely to blame because they let their industry become too dependent on the socialist bloc countries. After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, trade fell sharply.

But he faulted the United States for the collapse of a 1994 pact under which North Korea was supposed to get energy assistance in return for freezing its nuclear program. The agreement fell apart after Washington accused North Korea in 2002 of cheating on the deal, and the U.S. and its allies suspended deliveries of fuel oil.

“Electricity is a real problem. We have only six hours a day,” said the North Korean, who lives in an apartment in a choice neighborhood of Pyongyang, the capital. “When you are watching a movie on TV, there might be a nice love scene and then suddenly the power is out. People blame the Americans. They blame Bush.”

He said as North Korea worked to change its state-run economy, it would look to China as an example and seek to change gradually. He didn’t use the word “reform” -- anathema to some trained under the socialist system.

“In the past, we were revolutionaries. But now we prefer evolution to revolution,” he said. “We will try to learn from China’s successes and failures.”

As for international negotiations aimed at getting North Korea to give up its nuclear arms program, he said he thought Pyongyang would probably show up at the next round of talks. But his country would prefer to negotiate directly with the United States, he said, rather than in six-party discussions that also include China, South Korea, Japan and Russia.

He said the Americans’ insistence on including six countries had caused undue complications.

“If we sort out the problems with America, everything else will fall into place. The problems with Japan can easily be sorted out,” he said.

The North Korean criticized some Japanese politicians’ efforts to link the nuclear talks to the question of Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s.

“This was something done by a few overly enthusiastic people long ago,” he said. “We tried to make amends.

“Now people like Shinzo Abe [deputy secretary-general of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party] are using it for political purposes and destroying the interests of millions of people.”

The most important point the North Korean said he wanted to convey in the conversation was that his nation was a place just like any other.

“There is love. There is hate. There is fighting. There is charity.... People marry. They divorce. They make children,” he said.

“People are just trying to live a normal life.”