Regarding views that the North Korean regime might collapse once the young and seemingly underprepared Kim Jong-un takes over from his father, Ahn said the North Korean political culture puts little emphasis on who the leader is.
“North Koreans do not care whether their ruler is Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-un or Chang Song-thaek; they will support whoever feeds them well and meets their demands,” Ahn said.
“The next leadership will eventually have to reopen markets for its people because otherwise, he will not be able to build a power base. The military-first policy will no longer work.”
Ahn is well-known for being the first defector from North Korea to receive a doctorate in the South. He defected to the South in 1979 at age 25, studied political science at Seoul’s Korea University and earned his Ph.D from Konkuk University in 1997.
Ironically, one of the reasons he fled the North was because he didn’t want to go to college.
Ahn, then a military officer in the North (equivalent to first sergeant in the South), near Panmunjeom, crossed the inter-Korean border to the South after realizing that there was no hope in the North Korean regime.
“I visited Pyongyang as part of a group inspection tour in July 1979 and saw that the economic conditions have seriously deteriorated; the line for rations had become much longer and people were no longer shopping in department stores,” Ahn said.
“I crossed the DMZ a week later.”
Military officers who became members of the North Korean Workers’ Party at a young age like Ahn were usually sent to colleges. Ahn wanted to go to a military academy, but was assigned to go to Kim Il Sung University.
“I didn’t know what the South was like, but I left the North because I did not like what was happening there,” Ahn said.
“When I first came to the South, people used to ask me what kind of work I wanted to do. I told them I’d like to drive a truck because a truck driver was not a common job back in the North, and people laughed.”
It was a time when only one or two North Koreans, mostly soldiers near the border, defected to the South each year.
Adjusting to life in the South, which was gripped by tension after the assassination of then President Park Chung-hee in October 1979, Ahn thought he had to study more.
In 1981, the Seoul government helped Ahn get a job at Hyundai Engineering and Construction, where he met with President Lee Myung-bak, then CEO of the company.
“I had imagined presidents of companies to be fat, but President Lee was slim and very different from what I had imagined,” Ahn recalled.
Lee asked him what he would like to do in the future, and Ahn said he planned to study political science at SungKyunKwan University. Lee recommended Ahn to go to his alma mater Korea University, and he was admitted to the school in 1984.
While doing his doctorate studies at Konkuk, Ahn also worked with the National Intelligence Service for several years from 1991, observing the North undergo a power transfer from Kim Il-sung to Kim Jong-il, an extreme poverty and nuclear crisis in the 1990s.
Ahn, now chief of the World Institute for North Korea Studies which he opened last year, is waiting for the government’s announcement of the new chief of the state-funded KINU. Cho Myung-chul, a former Kim Il Sung University professor who defected in 1994 and worked in a South Korean state-funded think tank, was named last month the head of the Education Center for Unification, the highest government post to be taken by a North Korean defector.
“Scholars in the KINU have produced great theses, but I think it is now time to nurture more experts who can develop substantial methodologies to prepare for reunification. There is not a single KINU researcher who is from North Korea,” Ahn said.
Ahn believes there are two chances for an inter-Korean summit in the near future.
“The first will be around September and October this year, and the second will be some time after the general elections in April next year,” he said.
“It would be easier for North Korea to get rice and fertilizer from the South through resumption of dialogue than to keep depending solely on China.”
Ahn believes reunification would be the final stage of peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula, but he is worried that there is a lack of understanding in the South about the need for reunification.
“If Korea remains a divided country, the South will be like Taiwan, an island which achieved economic growth but has limited status in the global arena, not to mention the burdensome costs to maintain a divided country with constant security threats,” he said.
“Kim Jong-il’s days are numbered, and the possible shifts a young leader might take in the coming five to 10 years would be a major variable for reunification. The South must take the upper hand and seize the chance for reunification.”
By Kim So-hyun (firstname.lastname@example.org