[Leonid Bershidsky] Negotiate with North Korea? A Russian tried

By Bloomberg
  • Published : Sept 11, 2017 - 17:48
  • Updated : Sept 11, 2017 - 17:48
Negotiating with North Korea about the future of its nuclear program is often mentioned as an alternative to a military intervention. Neither is a viable option, says Vitaly Mansky, one of the few people who know first-hand what it’s like to negotiate with North Koreans and achieve a measure of success.

In May 2013, Mansky’s documentary production company signed a deal with the Korea Film Export & Import Corporation, a North Korean government agency, to jointly make a movie called “Under the Sun.” The Koreans probably didn’t catch on to the fact that Mansky’s company was named after Dziga Vertov, the early 20th-century filmmaker who pioneered the use of the hidden camera.

The North Koreans wrote the script for the movie, about a young girl who prepares to join the Korean Children’s Union, part of the ruling Workers’ Party. Mansky’s job was to film a carefully stage-managed version of the girl’s life with her family. True to Vertov’s methods, Mansky filmed the handlers’ instructions, kept the takes they discarded because the characters weren’t sufficiently enthusiastic and captured on camera what he could see of actual North Korean life. The official censors got a memory card with the approved footage. Mansky kept the rest of the material hidden. It is now part of the film, which has garnered attention worldwide. It’s worth watching; the film provides more insight into North Korean life than thousands of pages of news reports, memoirs and academic literature.

Arranging this, and getting the access that “Under the Sun” demonstrates, was a serious negotiating feat. According to Mansky, a Russian now living in Latvia, Russian embassy officials who had spent years in Pyongyang asked to come along on his shoots to see things they’d never been allowed to witness. But Mansky doesn’t believe in negotiating with North Korea, he told me via Skype from Riga:

“I was naive. I consider myself a good negotiator, I can find the right arguments and reach compromises -- but this is pointless. For hours -- dozens of hours --you discuss, you persuade, perhaps you even educate the other person, you create a different picture of the world in which harmony begins to emerge, and something even begins to flash in the guy’s eyes, but it’s useless to try to persuade a lamppost. All the absurd situations there arise because at some point, someone established a rule and now it can’t be changed, not just because initiative is punishable but because North Koreans don’t have such a brain function as initiative.”

Instead of bending the rules, the Koreans would find surprising solutions within them. At one point, Mansky tried to film his protagonists on a subway train in Pyongyang. Foreigners, however, were only allowed to go to three stops, and Mansky needed a longer sequence. When the handlers told him to get off and take the train in the other direction if he needed to film more, the director protested that he needed the same people in the subway car. OK, the handler said -- and directed everyone in the car to disembark and go back three stops with the filmmakers. They complied without objection.

Mansky’s negotiations were with rather senior officials in the North Korean propaganda machine but perhaps things can go better if the supreme leader himself is involved in talks? Mansky doesn’t think so.

“Paradoxically,” he says, “the man at the top doesn’t make decisions, either, because he’s dependent on the dictatorship he has created.”

As Mansky tells it, the Kim dictatorship must maintain the cult that was created to sustain it, absurd rules and all; it’s a two-way street of mutual reinforcement. The Communist regime under which Mansky and I both grew up sort of worked like that, too -- but North Korea has created a “perfect, flawless” version of the game, Mansky says:

“The key mistake is to read them as a version of us. We walked in the same columns, carrying the same portraits of leaders, but we’d go home and tell jokes about these leaders. This is not about North Korea. In Orwell’s ‘1984,’ the characters are always trying to escape Big Brother’s gaze to get some privacy. In North Korea, it’s the other way round. People are born with the dream of finding themselves in Big Brother’s line of sight, of being noticed.”

Mansky looked for signs of the trademark late Soviet irony, the doublethink that allowed our parents, and for some time also us, to survive in an absurd system. He didn’t find any. That left him convinced that the indoctrination of North Koreans was absolute. While they realized the regime’s propaganda was fake, their belief in the necessity of that fakery was absolute.

That’s why Mansky believes war with North Korea is as pointless as negotiations.

It’s just horrible to imagine what they would do in a war. Every North Korean will be a suicide bomber with a bomb belt. There is not a person there who wouldn’t be ready to die for the system that has enslaved them. They have nothing apart from this, it’s the only meaning of their existence.

That may sound overly dramatic unless you’re familiar with Mansky’s casually deadpan work style -- and unless you read other inside accounts of life in North Korea. In a recent interview, Suki Kim, a former English teacher in an elite Pyongyang school and author of the book “Without You, There Is No Us,” makes the same point, describing the country as a cult that has completely erased millions of people’s pre-cult existence. Like Mansky, she found no exceptions to the inhuman, absurd rules on which the system is based.

Sanctions against North Korea -- the easy response -- are ineffective for the same reasons. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who recently said North Koreans would “eat grass” rather than give up their nuclear program, has been listening to the right people. Putin, however, calls for negotiating with North Korea to guarantee its security.

Mansky’s proposal is to leave North Korea alone in its self-imposed isolation -- that is, if the civilized world can stand the thought of Kim’s regime committing its endless crime against the North Korean people and bear with the constant taunting of missile launches and threats. He doesn’t believe the regime is inherently aggressive. He describes a propaganda video he saw in North Korea, portraying South Korea as a prodigal son throwing himself on the barbed wire that separates him from his mother, the embodiment of North Korea.

“They could easily change that image to a father with wire cutters slashing through that fence,” Mansky says.

Kim, Mansky believes, is doing his best to drill hatred of the US into North Koreans’ heads -- but also to hold back from any escalation, because it would present an existential threat to the regime.

Mansky doesn’t believe trying to somehow educate North Koreans is possible with the Kim regime in place. He brings up a Russian folktale of an evil king who achieved immortality by putting his death on the point of a needle which he hid in an egg locked inside a chest.

“Intelligence services must get to that needle,” Mansky says.

I ask him if he means the dictator’s physical elimination; he demurs -- suggesting that, he says, would be going too far. And in any case, even with the regime gone, it will probably take more than a generation for North Koreans to become more like the rest of us: Mansky points out the high suicide rate among North Korean defectors to the south.

Mansky is a filmmaker and Suki Kim a writer; policymakers don’t have to listen to them as they search noisily for a conventional solution to a unique problem: There is no other country even remotely like North Korea. But it’s a shame they aren’t listening. If a solution exists at all, it lies in the quiet realm of intelligence operations and palace intrigue at this point -- and even so, it will require decades of subtle work to reclaim North Korea to the broader world.

By Leonid Bershidsky

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg columnist. -- Ed.