Asia Pacific

Can cultural engagement soften North Korea's hard-line stance?

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

After years of provocations, talks, promises and broken vows — a pattern that Pyongyang has mastered — the atmosphere on the Korean Peninsula remains highly charged and little changed.

But the same question remains: What can be done about North Korea?

With its fourth nuclear test and rocket launches that critics say mask a drive to create a long-range missile capable of striking the United States, North Korea’s recent repeated acts of belligerence are a familiar refrain.

Against this background, could sports and cultural engagement, areas of rapprochement that are often dismissed out of hand, help lay the foundations for a more approachable North Korea?

While the debate over whether this kind of engagement can play a constructive role is not a new one, some say it is time to put all options on the table.

For Gareth Johnson, the British founder of Young Pioneer Tours, a budget travel company that specializes in tours to the North, cultural engagement and tourism offer one potential route to softening the country’s hard line.

Johnson, who founded his company in 2008, believes tours like the ones he offers give average North Koreans a rare chance to interact with foreign nationals and reshape long-held views and perceptions that have formed on both sides.

“The role that we can play is a role we already do play — we show North Koreans that foreigners are not some kind of weird aliens, we’re not the enemy, we’re just normal people,” Johnson said in an interview with The Japan Times. “Meeting my guests … opens doors, lowers boundaries.”

Michael Spavor, head of the nonprofit Paektu Cultural Exchange and the man behind visits to North Korea by basketball NBA Hall of Famer Dennis Rodman, echoes this view.

Sport and cultural exchanges between countries and individuals “who are not on the best of terms” could help ease tensions, Spavor said in an interview. “At the very least, the involved individuals … can break down or dismiss preconceived negative ideas about each other.”

Experts, however, say that contrary to Johnson’s and Spavor’s claims, organizations like theirs tend to have little effect on allaying ingrained suspicions.

Rather, they say, the groups tend to bring a steady flow of hard currency into the country that helps keep the ruling elite in power.

According to a paper released in November by Yoon In-ju, of the Korea Maritime Institute think tank, the North’s income from foreign tourists was estimated at $30.6 million to $43.6 million in 2014, with about 95,000 Chinese tourists and an additional 5,000 or so Westerners having visited the country.

Although most experts agree that a significant chunk of the money spent by tourists flows into North Korean government coffers, some tour operators say it also helps to keep alive a tiny but vibrant tourism sector.

While generally not an issue, visitors could also be used as unwitting pawns in a political game of chess, as evidenced by the arrest of U.S. student Otto Warmbier in late January.

Warmbier, who was taking part in a tour organized by Johnson’s company, was detained by authorities in Pyongyang for allegedly attempting to spirit away a propaganda poster he was said to have removed from a staff-only section of his hotel.

For this, Warmbier was slapped with a sentence of 15 years of hard labor in a North Korean prison last week.

If past precedent holds, the 21-year-old will likely escape the brunt of his sentence — but not before a delicate political dance plays out: U.S. officials or dignitaries visit the country to secure the release of detainees and, in turn, their mere presence lends a kind of legitimacy to the regime of leader Kim Jong Un.

James Schoff, a senior associate with the Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, has advocated increased cultural and educational interaction with North Koreans, so long as it can be done in a way that does not enrich the regime.

“More interaction and engagement with the outside world will help weaken the regime’s control,” Schoff said.

But “I would not advocate travel or tourism to North Korea,” he added, noting that it could be a possible source of hostages and money.

Johnson, of Young Pioneer Tours, says his group receives a constant barrage of criticism for bringing tourists to the North, but denies helping keep the Kim regime afloat.

“Tourism is a speck on the national economy,” he said. “We don’t prop up regimes. The money we spend pays waitresses, bartenders, chefs, tour guides, receptionists at hotels.”

Johnson says claims that the people in the North’s tourism sector have closer ties to the regime than the average citizen are untrue.

“They’re equivalent of the middle class … the money trickles down,” he said. “Waitresses get tips from us and go to markets and spend money and people at markets send that money to relatives.

“I’m not … directly helping people, but the money that goes into the economy does trickle down. That’s a fact.”

But economic factors aside, making cultural engagement truly effective means surmounting a number of daunting obstacles in a country where the regime brooks no opposition to its iron-fisted rule.

“One of the challenges of engagement in North Korea is that the regime is resistant to truly open engagement and the negative effects that it fears would come if it moved in that direction,” said Kent Boydston, an analyst and expert on Korean affairs at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

When it comes to sports and cultural engagement events, these are often manufactured and tightly controlled, said Boydston.

“This is not the normal kind of civil society engagement that would be possible in most parts of the world.”

Likewise, Boydston added, “Tourism is tightly controlled and there is not much room for interactions with North Koreans outside of the tour guides, minders, or others directly related to the tours.

“In this context it’s very hard to see how tourism would be a catalyst for softening of the country or denuclearization.”

But the repertoire of talks and sanctions pushed by the U.N. and U.S.-led groupings has also done little to change the status quo. Pyongyang has continued to refine its nuclear weapons program, with four atomic tests since its first in 2006, including the latest in January when it proclaimed to have successfully detonated what it called an “H-bomb of justice.”

While experts continue to debate whether it was indeed a hydrogen bomb that was tested, the North has also been boosting the capabilities of its rockets and missiles, many ostensibly said to be part of the country’s fledgling space program, but which employ the same technology as ballistic missiles.

Pyongyang’s latest provocative test came Friday when, much to the consternation of the international community, Kim lobbed two missiles — capable of hitting virtually anywhere within Japan — into the waters separating the two nations.

With this continued recalcitrance, more leeway in how the world interacts with the North may be necessary.

“There aren’t that many options, really,” said Andray Abrahamian, associate director of research at Choson Exchange, a Singaporean nonprofit that trains North Koreans in entrepreneurship, economic policy and law.

“Pyongyang has calculated what its allies and enemies are willing to tolerate and able to punish and they’ve been proven right in recent years — ever since the sanction of Banco Delta Asia in 2005, which by all accounts caught them off guard, they’ve been ahead of everyone else’s game,” Abrahamian said, referring to the Macau-based bank that Washington blacklisted over its ties to North Korean illicit activities such as money-laundering.

And while Abrahamian acknowledges that sports and cultural exchanges “can’t really drag the politicians behind them,” he believes that such links “can be used as means for building bridges.” Examples of this, he said, can be seen in the “pingpong diplomacy” that helped open up China, as well as the “cricket diplomacy” between South Asian rivals India and Pakistan.

“Right now at the political level, things are very discouraging, but the more links ordinary, working-level North Koreans have with the outside world — the more positive relationships they have — the better,” Abrahamian said.

“North Korea is very good at operating an isolated society — we don’t need to encourage that,” he added.