The western world is turning towards the Far East with a gaze full of apprehension. In a crescendo of diplomatic tensions on the axis North Korea-US, we are witnessing now from weeks the provocations of war by Pyongyang.
After the sixth nuclear test conducted last Sunday, the leader Kim Jong-un does not seem to be wanting to follow the calls to desist of the international community. The sources of the South Korean Ministry of Defence state: “We expect that North Korea could launch an intercontinental ballistic missile“. As a response, in the last few hours the armed forces of Seoul have conducted an exercise simulating an attack against a nuclear site of North Korea.
Are we on the brink of a nuclear war? There are many people fearing it. Less pessimistic is instead Pio D’Emilia, Sky correspondent living in Asia for more than thirty years, one of the few foreign journalists who periodically goes to North Korea. According to him, Kim Jong-un is “much wiser than his father” and the launch of missiles has only the function of “deterrence”, to the point that, paradoxically, D’Emilia considers the provocative attitude of Pyongyang a deterrent to a catastrophic conflict. In Terris interviewed him.
How do you explain what is happening in North Korea?
At the base of this crisis, there is the legitimate aspiration of Pyongyang to reach, after seventy-three years, a treaty of peace with a country with which they are in fact in war: the United States. If we think about it well, from the post-war period to today, the only front remained still open from a military, political and economic point of view, is the one with North Korea.
And is it by launching missiles and making nuclear experiments that peace is reached?
I know that it may seem a paradox, but it is so. This strategy is ancient and effective. The nuclear deterrence for sixty years has saved the world from the Apocalypse. The awareness of the Soviet Union and the United States that they could annihilate each other, has ensured peace. I do not see why the strategy of deterrence could not work again. And on nuclear testing let me make a clarification.
Unlike what has been done by countries in the past, Pyongyang is not in breach of the Treaty on the non-proliferation. Remember that North Korea has started the nuclear tests after 2003, the year in which they formally abandoned the treaty. From the point of view of international law then nobody can deny to North Korea to perform nuclear experiments in their territory. Obviously not to launch missiles: those are international military operations that must be condemned.
I understand that according to you the provocation of Pyongyang would not be so serious.
It is important to contextualise. The tension raised for both sides, not only due to Pyongyang. I would like you to consider also the North Korean point of view. Korea is a nation that has existed for five thousand years and that has been artificially separated by the superpowers: first by Jalta and then by the balances of the cold war. The division of the peninsula is still convenient to China, Russia, Japan and especially to the United States which has always prevented a distension of the relations between the two Koreas because in this way these superpowers can continue to share their spheres of influence. But as it was for Vietnam first and then for Germany, Korea too has the right to reunification. And still before, North Korea has the right to an armistice with the United States, and this is the aim that they are pursuing.
Therefore, do you exclude that we are on the brink of a nuclear war?
The attitude of North Korea will not lead to anything of apocalyptic, it is more a way to assume greater bargaining power in potential negotiations: they are gaining recognition in the eyes of the world as a nuclear power. Indeed, I dare to say that in this moment I am more concerned about Trump than Kim. Those who know him well, have assured me that the latter is far wiser than the father and than how he appears abroad.
Yet the same Trump a few months ago said that it would be honoured to meet Kim Jong-un. It was an encouraging sign …
It was absolutely, and it is still a likely possibility. I hope that nobody in Washington thinks of pressing the button to start a conflict with North Korea. I rather hope that the line of common sense prevails. I do not rule out the possibility that this meeting could take place.
The meeting of a US president with a North Korean leader would be the fulfilment of an old intention, that hovered in the corridors of the White House already in 1994, at the time of President Clinton.
Exactly. During those times Madeleine Albright, US Secretary of State, went to Pyongyang in order to organize a summit between Clinton and Kim Jong-il, father of the current North Korean leader. The President of the USA was however at the end of his mandate and he preferred to focus on the Middle East in order to organise the meeting in Camp David. It was a lost opportunity.
Concretely, how do we come out from this crisis?
With a table of negotiation between the two players in question: the United States and North Korea, with the mediation of China, which is inevitably involved for economic and political reasons. The negotiations that must be based on some preconditions: relieve tension, no provocation by both parties, the absence of preconditions and common target to make peace and also – why not – to cooperate.
Do you really believe a cooperation between the United States and North Korea possible?
For sure. There is a historical precedent: in 1982, the United States and China signed a treaty of cooperation after more than twenty years of mutual isolation.
You go often in North Korea. How are the visits carried on?
Foreign visitors are constantly accompanied by two guides, who recite the part of the good and the bad: one is more obliging with the requests of the visitor and more open, the other is more rigid. Anyway, there is anything but a climate of terror. I have always tried to avoid a clash, maintaining a relationship of mutual respect.
The regime is fiercely authoritarian. How does the population live this reality?
I must say that at least the people living in the large cities, that I got to know better, live happily. The isolation has led to a genuine support on the part of the people: they are so ignorant about what happens abroad, that they are convinced that theirs is the best world possible. And then there is an extremely effective propaganda of the regime: every little progress is being advertised so gigantically. And it must be said that there are several progress: despite the sanctions, from twenty years North Korea has an economy that grows well. By way of example, in Pyongyang two million cubic meters of residential apartments have just been inaugurated.
We still have in mind the images of collective hysteria of 2011 for the death of Kim Jong-il…
I was present at the funeral and I can assure you that the emotional transport was not fake. The reverence towards the Kim is sincere, because they are seen as the liberators of the homeland, from the Japanese yoke first and from the American bombs released in the fifties after.
But there are also many dissidents, ending and often dying in the lagers. Did you ever meet opponents who have fled abroad?
No, I did not.
In particular Christians are opposed…
I do not know that the internment in the lagers have religious matrices, rather social and political. In Pyongyang, there is a Christian church, I also entered it.
But this are churches controlled by the regime. Christians are seen, precisely as a social danger, because the only religion allowed is obedience towards the leader…
The regime makes no discounts in this sense. Just consider that if one is found in possession of an American film or if he does not bellows his support for the leader, both he and his family become liable to punishment, also very severe. Unfortunately, there is also this aspect.