Return to Transcripts main page


What is Happening Inside North Korea?

Aired February 22, 2010 - 15:00:00   ET



CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN ANCHOR: Tonight, beset by food shortages, North Korea still plays hardball. What is happening inside the hermit kingdom? We'll ask a top U.N. official who has just been there.

Good evening, everyone. I'm Christiane Amanpour, and welcome to the program.

It's been two years since journalists have been able to peak properly inside North Korea. That's when the regime invited CNN and a few others to the philharmonic's appearance there, but also to view North Korea dismantling its main nuclear plant at Yongbyon in an unprecedented display of transparency.


AMANPOUR (voice-over): Behind this window, the heart of the reactor. Thousands of nuclear fuel rods, they contain plutonium which can be extracted to make nuclear bombs.

U.S. observers prepared us to enter the room where the removed nuclear fuel rods are stored and neutralized.

(on-screen): How many fuel rods are in the pond now?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): About 1,600.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): What troubles the U.S. is that there are still more than 6,000 active fuel rods and North Korea has slowed down the dismantling process.


AMANPOUR: And a lot has changed since then. North Korea has now abandoned the six-party talks on its nuclear program, the country's economic woes have worsened to the point of threatening starvation again, and the leader, Kim Jong-il, has all but disappeared from public view after reportedly suffering a stroke right after our visit.

This picture of him inspecting a fish plant was released earlier this month, but it's unclear when it was taken and who is actually running the country. So what is going on inside North Korea? Joining me for an exclusive interview is Lynn Pascoe, the U.N. under secretary general for political affairs, and you have just returned from Pyongyang.


AMANPOUR: Thanks for being with us. And tell us, what did you find there? Who did you speak to, Kim Jong-il?

PASCOE: No, we spoke to other ranking officials, including the president of the country. Mostly I think that we talked about the nuclear issue, regional issues that are out there, as well as U.N. and North Korean cooperation.

AMANPOUR: When you say the president of the country...

PASCOE: That's Kim Yong-nam.

AMANPOUR: Now, he's the successor.

PASCOE: No. No, no.


PASCOE: No, he is the titular head of the country.

AMANPOUR: And so what impression did you get? We asked a question, who is running the country? What impression do you get about, is Kim Jong- il in charge? What are their -- is their motivation right now?

PASCOE: Well, certainly the impression that they give you is that he is running things. They refer to him regularly, as you well know, from your time there, and by the pauses from our discussions one day to the next, it was clear that the discussions were going up the channel for instructions to come back down.

AMANPOUR: You said you gave an oral message, in other words, you read a message, correct? Describe how that went and who -- who you did that to.

PASCOE: Well, that was with the president, Kim Yong-nam. And in the room, I read through a message from the secretary general to Chairman Kim Jong-il.


PASCOE: Well, basically, talking about the kinds of issues that we are interested in, where we want to go. Obviously, I'm not going to go into the details of what was the discussion...

AMANPOUR: But specifically, was it nuclear? Was it humanitarian?

PASCOE: The whole range. You talked about the -- talked about the nuclear issues. You talked about the -- the six-party talks, which as you know, are talks between -- well, let's enumerate them. There's China, North-South Korea, Japan, United States...


PASCOE: ... and Russia. And so those talks clearly -- in our view, they should get started immediately. They should start without preconditions. And we've made that very clear to the...


AMANPOUR: And what did they say about it?

PASCOE: Well, I think throughout they talked about certain conditions, certain things that they wanted to happen...

AMANPOUR: What conditions, though?

PASCOE: Well, I think in general, they have talked a lot about wanting some kind of a peace agreement.


PASCOE: Now, whether that's a hard and fast one, it didn't sound like it to me particularly. They're also, of course, quite concerned about sanctions, which the Security Council has put on them. Mainly those -- the sanctions are on the North Korean military.

AMANPOUR: But do they get the fact that they were on a -- on a pretty fast track to getting sanctions lifted? They were off the terrorist list by the United States. And then, things seemed to sort of collapse two years ago sort of around the time when Kim Jong-il fell ill. They -- they launched missile tests last year. They did an underground nuclear test. I mean, what's going on there?


PASCOE: Well, I think there's their own logic of some of those things. And maybe some of that happened just on the pace of the technology developments. I'm not sure myself. None of us really knows what goes on.

But it does seem to me that they had done a first nuclear test, as you know, in '06 and got some sanctions that were (ph) put on them very hard at that time. I think that they probably wanted to show that they could do a full-fledged test, because the first one was questionable about how successful it was, and perhaps -- this is pure speculation on my part -- that when it was ready, they did it. I don't know.

AMANPOUR: Did -- did you get the impression that they would allow the U.N. watchdog inspectors, the IAEA inspectors, back into Yongbyon?

PASCOE: Well, of course, that would take another agreement in the six-party talks. And we'll have to wait and see how those talks go. As you know, the U.N. is not a negotiator in those talks.


PASCOE: We talked about them. We talked with the other five party. It seems to me there's a very strong view that they need to get back to those talks right away and start -- and start working their way through the issues.

AMANPOUR: China is perceived to be the one with the most leverage with North Korea. Did they have anything to tell you about whether they thought the six-party talks would resume with North Korea at the table?

PASCOE: Well, as you know, before we went in, we had talks with many of the other members of the talks, the parties, the other five, and we talked to the Chinese just before we went in and after we came back out. It's clear they're trying very hard to get the talks going again.

AMANPOUR: What did you find in terms of humanitarian situation? Again, there's so little information that comes out. Tell us about the state of the people, the state of the food crisis there.

PASCOE: Well, most of what I learned really is from our own people that are on the ground that are working with this every day. We are feeding supplements and nutritional supplements to about 1 million -- 1.3 million people there. There clearly is malnutrition at younger ages, so we're trying to help them with fortified food and up through the schools so that they eat.

There also was a very large program last year on immunizations for the children across the (inaudible) and that worked very well. The immunizations happened well. Our problem is, we don't have enough money coming in now to sustain some of those programs.

AMANPOUR: What do you mean?

PASCOE: Well, for example, one of the areas that we saw was the -- on this -- setting the special biscuits (ph) or the sort of a gruel that's made from rice and milk and fortified -- other fortified ingredients, that program may -- is now being maintained through emergency funds from the U.N. We don't have enough regular funds to keep them...


AMANPOUR: So donors are -- are slacking off, is what you're saying?

PASCOE: Well, I think the donors are basically -- to some degree, it's fatigue. To some degree, they worry about accountability. But the truth of the matter is, we need to do more, because these are people. These are human beings that need the food. It's not the political system. This shouldn't be argued in a political way.

AMANPOUR: Well, you know, let me -- let me ask you that, then. You know, for two years, South Korea refused to deliver large amounts of free food and fertilizer. It was sort of a tit-for-tat over the whole nuclear program. You say these are people, they need food. I mean, the international community to an extent seems to be using food as a weapon of mass destruction when it comes to -- to North Koreans.

PASCOE: Well, I think you can get into a very complicated discussion of where is the humanitarian, where is the development in these issues. So some of the arguments on the fertilizer was, this is for development over the long term.

At the U.N., we have to really concentrate on the people. We tried to avoid the politics. Obviously, I'm interested in politics. I'm the political chief. But we worry about those kinds of issues. We worry about mediation, et cetera.

But when it comes to feeding people in a humanitarian situation, there we argue very strongly for that -- as I have of where I went and I came out and as we did in various countries.

AMANPOUR: Well, the U.N. also cooperated, I think, or in collaboration with the North Korean government just released a census for the first time, I think, since the '60s, where it's saying that North Korea is getting bigger, higher population, older, and less healthy.

PASCOE: This was the first census since the early '90s. And let me put things in a little bit of perspective of what happened.

Now, for many years, the North Koreans were a client state of the Soviet Union and of China. They were very effective at playing one side off against the other to get a maximum amount of support. But the system proved to be very brittle.

So when the Soviet Union fell and all of these subsidized food, subsidized other items that were coming in, both trade with the Soviet Union and with China were put on a hard currency basis. Suddenly, everything plummeted, and the -- the conditions plummeted. Then they had the terrible famine, in part because -- because the agricultural inputs were going way down.

So they have never quite recovered that -- that -- from that lack of the inputs from their friends.

AMANPOUR: If they're so desperate, why do you think last year they canceled unilaterally this agreement with the U.S. for 500,000 tons of food?


PASCOE: Well, it seems like, to some degree, they calculate each year what they need. They negotiate to that need. They try not to get into a long-term dependent relationship with anyone. You can argue whether that's a good thing or a bad thing, whether it makes sense or it doesn't make sense, but that's -- we deal with the government as it is.

AMANPOUR: Now, part of that census seems to revise at least the common acceptance of the number of the military. Many people talk about the 1 million man North Korean army. Now they're saying it's in the 700,000s. I mean, why are they saying that? Why now?

PASCOE: Well, I think the interesting thing about this census, the U.N.'s role was to make it a very legitimate sort of world-class-style census. We tried to make sure that it was up to the quality that it should be.

The population fund actually did an excellent job in bringing world standards to this. Now, my assumption is that the leadership was happy to have this, too, because they want to know what really is going on in the country and where it stands.

AMANPOUR: And what do you see going forward? Now, what's going to happen in North Korea, given the food shortage, the economic problems there right now?

PASCOE: Well, the truth of the matter is that, as you well know when you're traveling in a country, you don't see very much outside the capital city. We did some traveling in the countryside. You're not likely to see anyone who is not fairly well fed or getting along in fairly good shape.

So it's hard to make a generalized statement of what goes on. But I would guess that, you know, the regime can continue on in this kind of status as it has now since the early '90s, bringing in extra food, bringing in extra aid when they need it to, and when they don't have it and when they don't need it, they get along without it.

AMANPOUR: And do you think there could be another 1990s-style famine?

PASCOE: I think maybe they -- they would work very hard to avoid that, and certainly the international community would work hard to avoid that. I'd like to go back on one of your points about using food as a weapon. I don't think that most of the countries see themselves as doing that.

I think their -- their concerns are, have they shown exactly how this food is being used? Are they carrying it out? Why are they asking for a stronger -- for less restrictions or fewer restrictions than other countries do? So it tends to be in that kind of an area, not so much using that as a political weapon.

AMANPOUR: And are now the NGOs, World Food Programme, are they getting the right access to determine who needs what?

PASCOE: They're actually doing fairly well on it. We do regular surveys, and some of them were done last year, some of them weren't done last year, and that were done the year before. So it's not perfect. I wouldn't say it is up to the -- to every standard that we want.

But the fact of the matter is, our people believe they have a very clear idea of who's using the food, where it's going, and it's going really for the good of the people who need it most.

AMANPOUR: It is, your people think?

PASCOE: It is. They're quite certain of that.

AMANPOUR: All right. On that note, Lynn Pascoe, thank you so much for joining us.

PASCOE: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.

AMANPOUR: Thank you.

PASCOE: Thank you.

AMANPOUR: And next, should world powers impose tough new sanctions against North Korea or sign a peace treaty? We'll get some perspective from our next guest when we return.




AMANPOUR: To understand North Korea's state of mind, you have to understand that it is still technically at war with the United States. It only ever signed an armistice, not a peace treaty, after the end of the Korean War. And, indeed, the policy of the current leader, Kim Jong-il, is called Songun, "The army first."


AMANPOUR: And that army-first policy continues, but North Korea says that it could return to the six-party talks in return for a peace treaty with the U.S. and an end to sanctions. But you heard our previous guest, the U.N.'s Lynn Pascoe say, that he's not sure how serious they are about that.

Joining me now, an expert on North Korea, Sung-Yoon Lee of Tufts University in Massachusetts. Mr. Lee, thank you for joining us.

SUNG-YOON LEE, ADJ. ASST. PROF., TUFTS UNIVERSITY: Thanks very much for having me.

AMANPOUR: So what is it? When you look at North Korea, do you think that they really do want a certain reason for coming back or are they happy now to be a nuclear power, they're in no hurry to get back to the -- to the talks?

LEE: Well, North Korea has been insisting on a peace treaty with the United States. Ever since North Korea joined the World Health Organization in the early '70s and opened an office at the U.N. mission, they have been persistently, really consistently suing for a peace treaty.

AMANPOUR: And yet I've asked members, for instance, of the Bush administration, their North Korea point person, who said that, you know, we bent over backwards to assure them of our peaceful intentions, to offer them peace treaty, to -- we obviously took them off the terrorist list, and nothing was good enough.

LEE: Well, what is a peace treaty? It is, after all, an agreement on paper. And I think historically we've seen many cases of so-called non- aggression pacts, peace treaties not being entirely effective. In the late '20s, there was the Kellogg-Briand Pact signed by some 15 nations that all went to war within the next 12 years or so. And then in the late '30s, of course, the pact between Hitler and Stalin.

So North Korea has in mind, in asking for a peace treaty, the goal of driving the U.S. troops stationed in South Korea out of the Korean peninsula, which would tilt the balance of power for the short term in North Korea's favor.

AMANPOUR: Well, it doesn't seem likely that they're going to be able to achieve it, does it?

LEE: I should hope not. We often hear that the war did not end with a formal peace treaty, the Korean War of 1950 to '53. I would also remind our viewers that the North Korean revolution is still going on.

They say this quite explicitly, that is, to build a communist state in the entire Korean peninsula, and unless there should be any ambiguity, they do spell it out. They say that means roll back U.S. imperialist forces from South Korea and end the U.S. colonial occupation of South Korea.

AMANPOUR: OK, so that's their sloganeering, and it has been for decades. But what about a post-Kim Jong-il era? Has the United States or South Korea, for that matter, got any real contingency plan in place?

LEE: There is a contingency plan in place, and that addresses sudden changes in North Korea, for instance, an insurrection or a humanitarian disaster or hostage situation for U.S. troops and South Korean troops to enter North Korean territory.

But beyond that, I think we really should be seriously thinking about long-term prospects, planning for a post-Kim Jong-il future. If I were to suggest to you that we should be planning for the collapse of Japan or the United States in the wake of the end of the current administration, you might be formulating in your mind an exit strategy away from me, perhaps, but North Korea is an inherently unstable country. It's on the precipice of economic collapse.

AMANPOUR: You called it a palace economy (ph).

LEE: Yes.

AMANPOUR: What does that mean?

LEE: Well, there is a separate economy that feeds the ruling elite apart from the general economy. And it is very vulnerable, because it's so heavily reliant on illicit activities...

AMANPOUR: Such as?

LEE: The sales of, well, missiles. And North Korea is very good at making those.

AMANPOUR: And making money, right?

LEE: And fake U.S. $100 bills and fake pharmaceuticals and drugs and so forth. Otherwise, they really have nothing that's marketable. They don't make any -- any goods -- electronic goods. There's no tourism industry to speak of.

So the existence of South Korea presents enormous problems for the North Korean regime. The fact that you have just across the border South Korea immeasurably richer, freer, to which most North Koreans would flee if given the opportunity. Already 20,000 or so have at great risk.

AMANPOUR: Now, you talk about a contingency plan in terms of an emergency. They'd obviously try to restrict, as you say, the millions of refugees who would try to get into South Korea. But beyond that, what do you think it would take? You mentioned what General MacArthur told his aide in 1945 ahead of the U.S. occupation of Japan. What would it take in North Korea?


LEE: Yes. Well, all those which were basically dismantled, the military build-up, representative government, free political prisoners, allow freedom of the press, and so forth, but it would take beyond that, a lot of balance -- balance of power politics. It would be impolite to perhaps go into it in detail.

AMANPOUR: It would be very polite.

LEE: Well, you know, Harold Macmillan, the former British prime minister, when asked the question, you know, what drives national policy, he famously said, "Events, my boy. Events."

There will have to be some give-and-take with China...


AMANPOUR: So you're talking about a massive reinvention of a country?

LEE: That's right, because...

AMANPOUR: Because it has none of the infrastructure that even Japan did.

LEE: Well, North Korea has idle factories. North Korea is so unique in many ways, it is an industrialized country, or it was, that took a massive great leap backward in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union nearly 20 years ago.

So North Korea is literate. Its population is highly educated and very disciplines, so those are some advantages. Yet North Korea lacks natural resources. There are certain disadvantages to the North Korean economy that we must take into consideration.

AMANPOUR: Let me ask you about right now. And you're talking about the economy. There are reports seeping out that you've written about of -- of some protests, people challenging the authorities, angry that they don't have enough food.

Kim Jong-il, the leader, took the unprecedented step of apologizing for not being to provide his people a decent -- a decent standard of living. What is going on there? And is there really any significant challenge to the regime?

LEE: We'll have to wait and see. North Korea is unique in this aspect, as well. We have not had any open demonstrations in North Korea throughout the entire sweep of its political existence, since the 1940s. There are no dissidents within the country. There are no famous activists. There are no opposition political parties or groups.

So what we are hearing that people have been actually sporadically protesting. They have been challenging the local authorities. This is quite a significant development, I would say. Whether that leads to an imminent collapse or instability remains to be seen.

AMANPOUR: Let me -- in terms of the political reality right now, I want to play you something that both President Obama and the South Korean president said when they were standing together last year.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Our message is clear. If North Korea is prepared to take concrete and irreversible steps to fulfill its obligations and eliminate its nuclear weapons program, the United States will support economic assistance and help promote its full integration into the community of nations.

LEE MYUNG-BAK, SOUTH KOREAN PRESIDENT: We agree to work closely together with the other countries in the six-party process to bring North Korea back to the six-party talks at an early date and make sure that North Korea takes substantive measures towards its denuclearization.


AMANPOUR: Do you think it's going to take measures towards its denuclearization?

LEE: It's a tremendously difficult task. There is the startlingly simple historical precedent that no nuclear weapons possessing state has ever for any economic or political rewards bargaining away nuclear weapons without a regime change.


LEE: Have not gone nuclear quite yet. South Africa and the former Soviet republics, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, did, but in the wake of a regime collapse and new political will and opportunities to reorient themselves toward international committee.

AMANPOUR: Well, you have said that you believe North Korea to be ripe for regime collapse.

LEE: Indeed. And if that were to take place, I think there would be certainly a window of opportunity.

AMANPOUR: But why is it ripe, in your view? Some people think it can just go on for a long time like this.

LEE: Indeed. You know, in academia, this is very bizarre to me. The fact that North Korea went through hard times -- a massive famine in the mid-'90s and so forth, and the death of the founding dictator in '94 -- despite such problems, the fact that North Korea has survived leads some people to believe, to assume that it will go on forever.

But, you know, as hard as North Korea has tried in the past to tackle the two certainties in life, inevitabilities, taxes and death -- for instance, North Korea calls its founding dictator eternal president, North Korea got rid of the income tax in '74 -- Kim Jong-il is mortal. His time will come to an end.

AMANPOUR: On that note, Mr. Sung-Yoon Lee, thank you so much, indeed, for joining us...

LEE: Thank you very much for having me.

AMANPOUR: ... from Tufts University. Thank you very much.

And earlier, you saw some clips from my documentary, "Notes from North Korea." To see the whole film, go to our Web site, You can watch the New York Philharmonic Orchestra's historic visit to Pyongyang and what many had hoped would be the North Korean version of ping-pong diplomacy.

But up next, what could be North Korea's football diplomacy? That's when we come back.



AMANPOUR: And now our "Post-Script." North Korea has sent two athletes to the Winter Olympics in Vancouver. They're both skaters, but neither has one any medals so far. But North Korea is hoping to do better in the football World Cup finals in South Africa this summer.


AMANPOUR (voice-over): Its football players returned home to a hero's welcome last year after qualifying for the first time since 1966 when the games were held in England. Back then, North Korea stunned the world by reaching the quarterfinals.

Little is known about the current team, but their opponents could include South Korea, which raises some interesting diplomatic possibilities, if officials from both countries attend the finals.

And we'd like to know what you think about North Korea, so go to and tell us whether or not you think that more sanctions slow Pyongyang's nuclear build-up.

That's it for now. We'll be back tomorrow with a fascinating interview with top NATO adviser, a woman who has firsthand knowledge of life in the Taliban heartland. Meantime, catch our daily podcasts on

For now, goodbye from New York.