It is extremely rare for North Korea’s senior figures to give interviews, and almost unheard of that they would speak to the international media, but somehow the team managed to land an interview with Park Yong Chol. Park works for a well-placed think tank in the secretive nation, according to Will Ripley and Tim Schwarz of CNN.
Evident mistrust of foreign media
Park was frank in his views on the international press: “I do not like talking to foreign media,” he told them. He claimed that reports on North Korea are rumor and fabrication. The information vacuum surrounding North Korea has been written about at length, and it is to be expected that wild speculation rushes in to fill the void in the absence of reliable information on the secretive nation.
Perhaps this interview marked the first time that North Korea attempted to set the record straight, allowing a senior figure to speak out on perceptions of the country. Park is deputy director of the DPRK Institute for Research into National Reunification, a think tank which has access to senior leaders, and he gave a two hour interview addressing some of the most important topics surrounding North Korea.
Human rights abuses denied
Park addressed reports from South Korea’s National Intelligence Agency that so far this year 15 officials had been executed on the personal orders of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un. He called the reports “malicious slander” and took particular offense to the fact that “they try to link the allegations against to the august name of our Supreme Leader Marshall Kim Jong Un.”
Despite his strong reaction, Park did not deny that the government executes dissidents. “It is very normal for any country to go after hostile elements and punish them and execute them,” he said.
Park also went on to deny that there exists a network of prison camps for political prisoners, which a recent United Nations report said were the site of human rights abuses, including the murder, starvation and torture of inmates. “Our society is a society without political strife or factions or political divisions — as a result we don’t have the term ‘political prisoner,'” he added.
Enemies responsible for encouraging defectors
The source of these false allegations are defectors induced by the U.S. and South Korea, Park claims. “Some of the so-called defectors are criminals who ran away from their homes. They committed crimes against the state here. Because of that they ran away. And now they are in South Korea denouncing our government because they have no other choice,” he said.
Although the CNN team were allowed unusual access, it seems that Park was very much sticking to the official line. The journalists presumably did not expect anything less, but it is still interesting to hear it from an important character in the regime.
Next Park addressed the fact that human rights are not universally applied, and claimed that North Korea would not be lectured by the United States on the subject. “If you talk about human rights in my country, I will talk about human rights in the United States,” he said. “You have racial riots taking place in the wake of the killing of so many black people by the police. You have prisons full of inmates and new techniques of torture being used.”
Nuclear program impacts economy
Next on the agenda were nuclear weapons, which North Korea sees as an absolute necessity given the current climate in international relations. Most importantly, Park claimed that the country possessed a missile capable of striking the U.S. mainland, and would not be afraid to use it if the U.S. “forced their hand.”
The impact of the nuclear program on the North Korean economy is not lost on Park, who admitted that it has come at a high price. “We invested a lot of money in our nuclear defense to counter the U.S. threat — huge sums that could have been spent in other sectors to improve our national economy. But this strategic decision was the right one,” he said.
In fact the economy is of major strategic importance. “We’re a major power politically, ideologically and militarily,” Park said. “The last remaining objective is to make the DPRK a strong economic power.”
There is no doubt that the economy is in dire straits, due in part to international sanctions put in place due to North Korea’s continued development of its nuclear program. In order to improve the economic situation, it seems likely that Pyongyang will have to reach some sort of agreement on giving up its nuclear arsenal, which does not seem likely.