The Failure of Norwegian “Take on Me” Diplomacy in North Korea

by Eirik Torsvoll

The Norwegian artists Morten Traavik and Henrik Placht recently announced that they intend to establish an art academy in North Korea. The project, still in its early stages, is the newest addition to Traavik’s ongoing citizen diplomacy campaign with North Korea. This includes photo exhibitionsvarious cultural shows, and a celebration of Norway’s national holiday in Pyongyang, though the 2011 recording of A-ha’s “Take on Me” might have garnered the most international attention.

However, these types of people-to-people campaigns are bound to fail in any attempt to influence the policies of Pyongyang, as they are conducted almost purely on the terms of the North Korean regime. Change is much more likely to come from putting actual pressure on the DPRK leadership, and the most effective way of doing this is through financial means.

Traavik’s engagement flounders for several reasons. First, his projects basically only include citizens from Pyongyang, where residency is a privilege, and thus are all from the upper echelons of North Korea’s class system. Furthermore, the participants are all handpicked by the regime. These individuals are therefore the least likely to question, let alone rebel against, the existing policies of the regime.

Second, even if Traavik’s initiatives do produce a desire for change in some DPRK citizens, they will have very little influence. As North Korea expert Andrei Lankov states, the rulers of North Korea consist of a small clique “held together by an unusually close network of blood relations.” Additionally, the regime keenly monitors and brutally punishes any kind of action that goes against the government. This creates further disincentive to spread messages of dissent.

Thirdly, Traavik’s projects help legitimize the regime, and thereby actually work against it changing its current policies. By setting up cultural shows Traavik is allowing himself and his colleagues to be used for domestic propaganda purposes, where the regime can claim the friendship of Western artists, and, by extension, their governments. Obtaining displays of support from foreigners is particularly coveted by the regime, because it gives their propaganda a greater sense of legitimacy if “unbiased” outsiders also praise the DPRK. Traavik’s actions consequently reinforce the Kim Dynasty’s hold on power and established policies, instead of mellowing them.

A better approach to improve the lives of North Koreans and change the behavior of the DPRK leadership, would be to promote tougher policies against the regime. As Professor Sung-Yoon Lee and Joshua Stanton point out, The regime will stop approaching diplomatic talks with an intention of deliberate duplicity, only when the leadership feels that its survival in jeopardy.

The best non-military way to do this is to go after North Korea’s finances by threatening its international illicit revenue stream. A substantial part of North Korea’s income comes from selling drugs, smuggling weapons, money laundering, and counterfeiting. Norway should join other European nations, along with the United States, in a cooperative effort to sanction banks, companies, and other actors involved in these activities with North Korea.

In a tightly interconnected financial system it is essential to remain connected to the American and European markets. These actions would therefore have a knock-on effect, and would severely limit the illicit revenue stream of North Korean elites. The potency of such financial sanctions against North Korea’s palace economy was demonstrated in the 2005 Banco Delta Asia case when one inebriated North Korea official famously stated to his U.S. counterpart: “You Americans have finally found a way to hurt us.”

Such an approach certainly is not without risks. North Korea’s leaders could respond aggressively, for example, by instigating an event similar to the 2010 Cheonen-sinking or by sponsoring other terrorist organizations. Furthermore, China could react negatively to sanctions involving Chinese banks and decide to prop up the DPRK regime further.

However, the military strength of its opponents deters Pyongyang from any overt, escalatory action. In the past, the regime has been highly calculative in how far it takes provocative actions. Moreover, Chinese banks are likely to choose access to the international financial system over supporting North Korea, as they did in the Banco Delta Asia affair.

Promoting change in North Korea is exceedingly difficult. Traavik’s current initiatives are a refreshing take on engagement with the DPRK. Nevertheless, as long as the regime remains unresponsive to its citizens, these types of campaigns will be in vain, and could potentially be counterproductive.

Barring a revolution, a political change in North Korea can only come from the top-down, not from the bottom-up. Therefore, the most promising way of instituting real change in the country is to apply financial pressure on the regime itself.

About the Author

Eirik Torsvoll is a graduate of the Fletcher School, where he specialized in U.S. foreign policy, security studies, and the Asia-Pacific

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