Reform without reform, or how to add another stone to the bridge of understanding – still under construction – between East and


If there is one country in the world that resists understanding despite globalization, world wide webs and information overload, it must be North Korea. Confined in self-imposed seclusion added by internationally imposed isolation, the Northern half of the Korean peninsula proceeds in the footsteps of ancient regimes known to the West as Hermit Kingdoms.

This notwithstanding, North Korea is a part of this world, when test-firing missiles or nuclear devices very much so, when their hermit leader fails to appear where he is expected to, as recently to the 60th  anniversary of his country, his disappearance catches headlines in main media outlets all over the world. Media coverage, however, does not often elevate the level of knowledge for the readers or viewers. Mostly what is conveyed is hearsay, fabricated information by institutions with vested interests, or ill communicated and worse understood statements from official North Korean channels.

North Korea is in a difficult process of change. It is difficult because the country’s economy is in ruins, because it has lost most of its former friends but kept most of its enemies, and it is difficult because the system has intensely prepared the population to expect no change. Change came nevertheless from outside: natural disasters anticipating consequences of climate change, the collapse of state communism, and from inside: the death of the founder of the state and its eternal great leader. A virtual collapse in a hostile world, that turned less hostile, was the beginning of change. Not that change was welcomed, but it became a matter of necessity.

Solid information about this country is in short supply why research is needed, albeit difficult to conduct. At NIAS there are at present three ongoing projects related to North Korea under the theme culture and institutions in transition:

  • We participate in a teaching program on how to understand North Korean politics and political culture, specially designed for government officials in a major country with vested interests in Korean affairs.
  • We are developing a research project focusing on ways of opening a dialogue with North Korea on the humanitarian situation in the country. For years concerns about human rights have been misused as a tool to promote regime change in North Korea. This is why it is important to find another path leading towards the possibility of a much needed dialogue.
  • Beside teaching and research, but closely connected to both, NIAS are also engaged in a more practical project presenting Nordic state-of-the-art within the field of renewable energy to North Korea. Late autumn this year a delegation from North Korea will come to Copenhagen to learn about power generated from wind, water and the sun. A workshop focusing on sustainable energy will present relevant solutions to the North Koreans and the delegation will also visit Nordic facilities and institutions while being in this part of the world.

Geir Helgesen

Reform without reform, or how to add another stone to the bridge of understanding – still under construction – between East and
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