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Enigma of the North Korean Regime: Back to the Future?
Published May 25, 2011
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Five years after the historic North-South summit of 2000, North Korea is still widely viewed as an enigma—a secretive, isolated, and enfeebled state whose belligerence and anachronistic worship of its leader provoke unease among all its neighbors. Yet the isolation of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has begun to break down since the famine of the late 1990s, with increasing numbers of foreigners granted unprecedented access to the country and to its growing ranks of refugees. However, while recent reports have significantly expanded our knowledge of the current situation within North Korea, they have penetrated only slightly the wall of opacity that surrounds the thinking of the DPRK leadership. As a consequence, the present debate in the United States over whether Kim Jong-il is genuinely embarking on a reform path, and which carrots and sticks will be most effective in moving his regime in that direction, is not underlain by any shared under- standing of how the North Korean leadership perceives its relations with the rest of the world.

This paper draws from a source of information on the DPRK—the archival record of its former allies in the Communist world—that provides some of the most extensive and reliable evidence yet to emerge on the thinking of the North Korean leadership. Three years ago, the Cold War International History Project (CWIHP) at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., began systematically examining the newly declassified records on North Korea in the archives of Russia, China (People’s Republic of China, or PRC), the former German Democratic Republic (GDR), Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland, Bulgaria, Albania, and Mongolia. These documents, which date from the Korean War years through the end of Communist rule in Eastern Europe in 1989, include transcripts of wide-ranging and often remarkably frank conversations between Kim Il-sung and fellow heads of state within the Soviet bloc, memoranda of conversations with senior North Korean officials, reports on DPRK affairs written by Communist diplomats stationed in Pyongyang, and analyses of the North Korea situation written by the foreign ministries of Soviet bloc countries.

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