Yongusil 29: In Pyongyang with Erik Cornell

By | March 18, 2014 | No Comments

Following Dennis Rodman’s latest visit to Pyongyang in December 2013, the tense and taut debates surrounding what is conventionally known as “engagement” between the external world and North Korea has erupted into fractious and sometimes virulent debate. The seeming incongruity of Rodman’s presence there, at the behest of Kim Jong-un, raised a number of taxing questions for those who wish to visit the DPRK or are invited by its authorities — especially those who journey with neither critical/constructive message, nor official imprimatur.

BR Myers’ challenging piece for Global Post seemed to frame external relations and “engagers” of North Korea within the same vein as Nazi Germany and Apartheid-era South Africa, and his robust defense of his position from academic detractors only served to increase the temperature. In the weeks that followed, even august actors such as James Hoare, Britain’s first Charge d’Affairs in Pyongyang in the 21st century, have felt the need to reiterate or justify their positions.

As scholars and academics, we here at Sino-NK like not only to hear and analyze all sides and colors in an argument, but to examine the evidential basis and sources for them. At such a hot (and even fetid moment) in North Korea-related debate, however, the deeper evidential streams can be forgotten, the less histrionic voices ignored, reason, and consideration neglected.

How extraordinary, therefore, that this should be the time for a new project deeply focused and embedded in the hinterland of matters of North Korean engagement and its participants to raise its head above the parapet, essentially declaring that background and context is still vital.

“In Pyongyang” aims to aurally fill in some of the void of the evidential hinterland, doing so through the medium of long-form interview and sound recording. In this way, the project captures and crystallizes the intriguing, little documented and vital back stories of North Korean engagement.

This first interview podcast series focused solely on North Korea is the brain-child of a Scandinavian entrepreneur with a decade’s worth of manufacturing and ground-level experience inside North Korea. “In Pyongyang” therefore promises a series of revealing and well-researched interviews with diplomatic, economic and technical actors surrounding their considered experiences of interaction with North Korea, its politics, institutions and people. Its progenitor has also been exploring issues of engagement with that nation for several years, and his project features our own Editor-in-Chief as an academic advisor.

The first “In Pyongyang” episode features an extensive interview with the senior Swedish diplomat and Ambassador Erik Cornell. Cornell was responsible for opening Sweden’s embassy in North Korea in 1975 and served as Charge d’Affairs in Pyongyang until 1977, he later served as Swedish Ambassador to Turkey and wrote a fascinating account of his time in North Korea in the Routledge publication North Korea under Communism: Report of an Envoy to Paradise.

Within the interview, Cornell recounts much of the political background in Sweden which generated the atmosphere for its early engagement activities with North Korea. (Who knew, for instance, that Sweden’s diplomatic partnership with the DPRK would be derived from joint relations with Ethiopia, an early nation to experiment with the implications of the Nordic Model?)  Cornell also delves into his experiences of relating to a North Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs still very new to norms outside of the socialist bloc.

Most interestingly, Cornell recounts the economic interaction and learning process undertaken by a North Korean system ill-versed in the structures and theories of what we might call conventional economics. Within this section, the former Swedish envoy makes some vital points focusing on the disconnection between logic and reality, particularly in relation to the importation and usage of industrial machinery during his time in Pyongyang. Equally, Cornell contributes to the discussions and debates surrounding the source of North Korean economic difficulty and inertia, citing the locus of this as its own economic mismanagement and incomprehension rather than long standing US economic sanctions and pressure or post-Cold War famine.

Following this first posting, “In Pyongyang” is aiming to publish a new interview once a month, in which longer interview’s such as Erik Cornell’s will be split it into accessibly sized portions and released every week in that month. It is also hoping to connect with all sorts of interested parties: collaborators, researchers, interns, sponsors, and distribution partners and welcomes requests for future interview subjects (Sino-NK will pass on any requests sent in response to this post).

We at Sino-NK cannot really recommend or highlight this interview or the project behind it highly enough. Having already listened to the more technically focused second piece in the series, we feel assured of its standards and ambitions. “In Pyongyang” promises to provide extensive and vital background to more heated debates in our current time and could generate a useful body of aural and documentary evidence or academics and other interested parties to analyse and consider. Most of all, the project will serve to evidence the fact that connection and engagement with the Korea north of the DMZ is not some recent, ill-conceived invention or concoction by the deluded or the ignorant, but an abiding element in East Asian focused diplomacy and international interaction with deep, if a little frustrating or confusing for those involved, roots.

Access In Pyongyang via:

Twitter: @InPyongyang

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