Povolny Lecture Series concludes

April West

The Povolny Lecture series concluded Tuesday with “Reading North Korea” by John Merrill, chief of the U.S. State Department’s Northeast Asia Division of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research.
The lecture was a response to rising tensions between the United States and North Korea over the Korean’s nuclear weapons program.
Merrill believes that the United States knows much about North Korea and its political system, though some believe otherwise. This is not to say that there aren’t gaps in the information the U.S. has about the country.
For one, the U.S. has the capability to monitor North Korean media. North Korea uses the media to track diplomatic changes, and all the messages released into the media are carefully crafted.
Within the totalitarian system, the media is a way for the North Korean people to find out how they are supposed to be acting, giving us insight into their lives.
According to Merrill, we also understand North Korea’s leadership. North Korean ruler Kim Jong Il has been analyzed by a number of agencies, including a detailed unclassified profile declaring him to be self-absorbed, artistic, and manipulative. There are at least a dozen academic works stating that he is in fact not crazy, but a rational thinker.
According to Merrill, “[Kim] sees politics as a political drama. When he is at government meetings it is obvious that he is bored out of his mind, but he is much more engaged in the likes of an artistic cinematic event.”
The United States has had diplomatic relations with North Korea since the early 1990s. These include conferences, such as the six-party talks between Russia, the U.S., North Korea, South Korea, China and Japan.
“Bureaucratic politics are alive and well in North Korea today,” said Merrill. There is relatively open talk about divisions of opinion. The situation is “nowhere near as simple as Hawks and Doves,” he stated.
Politically, North Korea is witnessing the erosion of totalitarianism. It is still totalitarian, Merrill asserted, but things are loosening up.
Another important question for Merrill is the meaning of “security” for North Korea. Security is North Korea’s ultimate goal, although it has been defined in several ways over the years. In the 1960s it meant a large military force, which they still have today.
Because this was an ideal for the 1960s, the current army is a bit outdated. People in North Korea today are thinking much more comprehensively in terms of needing a stable economy and diplomacy to be fully secure.
This may mean that they could give up the dream of a huge military arsenal.
In terms of nuclear weapons, Korea is thought to currently have 60 kilograms (132 pounds) of plutonium. At 6-8 kg per weapon, that’s enough for 7-10 nuclear weapons.
Merrill agreed that this was a problem, but a manageable one. At the rate that they are making plutonium, they can only make one nuclear weapon a year.
Merrill has written often about foreign policy issues, including several books specifically about Korea. He has also held research positions and taught at such schools as George Washington University, Georgetown University, and Korea University.
Merrill has won the Fulbright Fellowship, the Director of Central Intelligence Exceptional Analyst Award, and the Council of Graduate Schools in the U.S. Award.

Top