Asia Time Online - Daily News
Asia Times Chinese
AT Chinese

     Jan 8, 2011

Misunderstandings may prove fatal
By Yong Kwon

What do we actually know about North Korea? From the policies and statements originating in Washington, one can see that policymakers are merely reacting to North Korean coercion without a definitive long-term objective towards the Korean Peninsula.

The bewildered diplomatic and military overtures to Pyongyang and Beijing are signs that Washington has barely begun to take a serious interest in the country that it has been confronting for over 50 years. In the face of increasingly bolder attacks against the Republic of Korea by the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), the disturbing level of uncertainty regarding Pyongyang's


objectives and psyche leaves considerable room for lethal errors in judgment.

However, one can gather information on what North Korea is not and eliminate doomed policies before they are thrust into the mayhem. Currently, too many policies towards the DPRK are made using presumptions and analogies that are fundamentally inconsistent with what little we do know about the regime's objectives and perceptions. In short, Washington can be certain that North Korea is neither a Chinese puppet, the Japanese Empire, nor al-Qaeda.

Based on China's central role during the Korean War and reaffirmed by Beijing's unique proximity to the North Korean leadership, Washington has placed a profound amount of faith in China's leverage on Pyongyang. This is clearly evident in President Barack Obama's posture since the sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan earlier this year. However, this is a deeply misguided faith that can only provoke a negative backlash from a country that holds its sovereignty very dearly.

This is a point that the North Korea International Documentation Project (NKIDP) has reiterated time and time again. On September 8, 2010, in a speaking event at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC, NKIDP program coordinator James Person supported this assertion by citing the DPRK's political evolution and its interpretation of Korean history.

The political atmosphere in Pyongyang had changed drastically since the end of the Korean War. Beginning with the purge of pro-Chinese/Soviet factions in the 1950s, Kim Il-sung consolidated his cult of personality and reduced all foreign influences over Pyongyang. The strictly ultra-nationalist line that is maintained by the current regime offers no space for even Beijing to have any political bearing. The ineffectiveness of Chinese influence over the regime was made more evident by the mere twenty minutes of warning that Pyongyang gave to Beijing when it tested its first nuclear weapon. This is no way to treat a brother "bonded by bloodshed".

Recent embassy cables released by WikiLeaks hinted at the insignificance of Chinese influence on Pyongyang; however, this point should have been understood long ago by policymakers. In an article for the History News Network on December 6, 2010, Professor Mitch Lerner claimed that North Korea had historically used foreign policy to "manipulate the people and perpetuate the regime" with little care or concern for Beijing's foreign policy objectives. This extreme detachment between the so-called "lips and teeth" allies had been noted time and time again by the DPRK's erstwhile communist allies throughout the Cold War. [1]

The self-imposed isolation stems from how Kim Il-sung interpreted events during the turn of the 19th century. He saw the tributary relationship between the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) and Ming/Qing China as the key cause of Korea's frailty and eventual annexation by Japan. The subsequent North Korean foreign policy of maintaining some distance from even its closest allies such as China and the Soviet Union remains consistent with this worldview.

In the same vein, the degree of military and diplomatic assistance to South Korea from the US delegitimizes South Korea's sovereignty in the eyes of Pyongyang. This is precisely why the DPRK views its southern counterpart as a puppet of the United States and prefers bilateral negotiations with Washington over inter-Korean dialogue. Likewise, North Korea does not want China to "represent" its regime as the US represents South Korea, and ignoring such desires produces more complicated impasses.

Therefore, Washington's strategy of negotiating through China to achieve political resolutions with the DPRK is precisely what Pyongyang detests and will react negatively against. Ultimately, the current policy of treating the DPRK as a Chinese client or puppet state is inherently flawed because it does not take into consideration the nationalist sentiments in Pyongyang.

Another lens through which Washington interprets Pyongyang is via the strategic reasoning of the Japanese Empire during the Pacific War. Ideologically, the DPRK is a progeny of the Japanese Empire. B R Myers advanced this claim and pointed to the two autocratic states' shared self-image of the child-like innocence of their "race" and the desire to defend their "purity" from foreign forces. [2]

More pertinently, Victor Cha used the analogy of the Japanese Empire on the eve of the attack on Pearl Harbor to articulate the imminent threat that North Korea poses with its nuclear weapons. [3]

According to Cha, just as the Japanese chose to strike at the US Pacific fleet when it believed delaying the war would be disadvantageous, the falling standards of North Korean military hardware, its population and its economy are all reasons why North Korea will choose to strike now if ever.

Historians like Adam Tooze and Niall Ferguson popularized the methodology of assessing the threat of war through an economic cost-benefit analysis. Tooze, Ferguson, and Cha agree that no state actively seeks to commit suicide by irrationally taking on a superior enemy, but is driven to do so by economic rationality.

This is a logical and reasonable analysis of how militant states will act if they are bent on striking at the enemy (certainly more rational than believing in Chinese influence over the DPRK).

Nonetheless, there are several elements that make this analogy a dubious one when it comes to North Korea. The economic and military prowess of the DPRK in relation to South Korea has diminished to such an extent that it makes any large-scale military action implausible.

Radio Free Asia reported that the shelling of the Yeonpyeong Island caused widespread panic throughout North Korea because of the belief that the United States would retaliate militarily. According to the same report, the panic caused a rush on foreign currency and forced the price of food to rise, initiating a crisis similar to the one created by the currency revaluation in December 2009. [4]

Had the North Koreans feared the loss of their relative advantage, a large-scale invasion would have commenced in the 1960s or 1970s, before the South Korean economy lifted off under the Park Chung-hee administration. With the mounting cost of coercive bargaining, the North Koreans are not playing a zero-sum strategy game like the Japanese Empire in 1941, but a post-famine negative-sum survival game.

North Korea currently has two major military assets: its capacity to obliterate Seoul with its forward artillery, and its nuclear arsenal. A Pearl Harbor-like attack by North Korea will involve one and or both of these assets. However, there are questions as to whether North Korea has either the technological know-how or the desire to actually utilize these military advantages.

There have been doubts on whether or not the two sensational nuclear tests have actually been successful. Several observers of the North Korean nuclear crisis from both the United States and Russia have commented on the possibility that both tests may have merely "fizzled". Furthermore, Pyongyang is a long ways from actually producing an inter-continental ballistic missile that can reliably carry the necessary nuclear payload.

This leaves the direct artillery strike on Seoul as the only strategically advantageous military asset for North Korea. However, this would be an inappropriate use of force for Pyongyang's foreign policy objectives. North Korea more or less gave up on their initial objective of unifying the peninsula in the 1970s, when the DPRK leadership recognized their country's relative economic backwardness compared to South Korea. [5]

Since then, Pyongyang's policies have been geared towards coercive bargaining that will bring either legitimacy or much-needed economic assistance to the regime. Any attack on Seoul would jeopardize the fine line between much-needed subsidies and all-out war.

In terms of recent clashes, the scuttling of the Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island revealed fatal weaknesses in the South Korean defenses; however, it did not reduce the deterrence against all-out war because North Korea cannot afford to take any physical blows in its fragile state.

Top North Korea expert Wada Haruki described the DPRK as a guerilla state, describing not only the regime's origins but also the whole country's state of being. The guerilla mindset transpires through the regime's attitudes towards the outside and its own self-image. This attribute of the regime seems to bolster the popular image of North Korea as a rogue state with little regard for international norms.

In addition, North Korea does have a history of utilizing terrorism to achieve its foreign policy objectives. Most notable incidents include the 1983 plot to assassinate South Korean president Chun Doo-hwan and his cabinet in Myanmar, and the 1987 bombing of the Korean Airlines Flight 858.

Now with Pyongyang's situation as desperate as ever, is it not plausible that the DPRK will utilize wild terrorist attacks to force concessions on South Korea or the United States? Or even to ally itself with terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda and proliferate nuclear technology? [6] Is the sinking of the Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island an indicator of renewed North Korean terrorism?

It is not. Indeed, several states during the Cold War utilized both state-sponsored terrorism and terrorist organizations to achieve their foreign policy objectives. For example, Romania's Nicolae Ceausescu hired Carlos the Jackal to bomb Radio Free Europe and the East German Stasi used the Red Army Faction to its advantage.

However, those actions were only possible in the Cold War setting, when the Soviet-American nuclear standoff ensured nuclear conflagration if any client state of either superpower was militarily reprimanded. The post-Soviet environment is no longer conducive for states to unabashedly engage in terrorism.

The truly advantageous aspect about a terrorist organization is its mobility. Case in point, the Taliban government has been eviscerated in Afghanistan but its militants along with al-Qaeda still elude total defeat. Kim Jong-il's regime cannot transform into al-Qaeda because its centralized state operates on the basis of total control over its territory and will not risk provoking an incident that could invite military retaliation.

Therefore, despite its capacity to carry out atrocious terrorist attacks on South Korea, Pyongyang has refrained from such actions since the collapse of the communist bloc.

Even North Korea's coercive behavior is calculated and legitimized within the sphere of state norms and rhetoric of state sovereignty. For example, the regime denies the sinking of the Cheonan and claims that the Yeonpyeong shelling was a response to South Korean provocations.

In addition, Pyongyang no longer approaches the tense situation on the peninsula with the purely ideological rhetoric of unification under a socialist banner, but rather with talk about the legitimacy of the Northern Limit Line (NLL) and South Korean military activities in the Yellow Sea. The regime clearly understands what is and is not acceptable in the eyes of the international community.

The chance of the DPRK sharing nuclear materials with al-Qaeda is also slim because the latter has very little to offer the impoverished bastion of neo-Stalinism. Despite the rhetoric of "thousandfold retaliatory strikes" against the United States, Pyongyang needs the developed West (including the US and North Korea's First World neighbors) to replace the Soviet Union as the source of financial and material aid.

A pariah non-state actor like al-Qaeda does not have the means to financially back the North Korean economy. In addition, killing four million American civilians as al-Qaeda desires to do would be devastating to North Korea's overall strategy of coercive bargaining and acquiring the necessary subsidies, especially if Pyongyang is found abetting nuclear terrorism.

On the other hand, the proliferation of nuclear material and technology to states like Iran and Syria poses real dangers, but in no small part these threats were created by the previous US administration's strategy of singling out and grouping these vastly different states under arbitrary categories.

It is important to remember that arms exports are a matter of life and death to the DPRK. They provide one of the only sources of hard currency for the regime. If the US can incentivize the DPRK to find other sources of income, it may provide a more effective deterrent to Pyongyang contemplating the further proliferation of nuclear arms.

So what can we gather from these problematic analogies? It is first and foremost that the DPRK is sui generis (unique in its characteristics). While all these analogies illuminate some of the important aspects about the regime, they remain largely incomplete and inappropriate for effective risk assessment.

As recommended by Niall Ferguson, policies should be historically informed and rationally reflect the risks a country runs with its national security. The assumptions that drive American foreign policy towards the DPRK are too often historically uninformed, and over-exaggerate or misinterpret the threats posed by Pyongyang. The Obama administration should recognize this and treat North Korea as it should be treated, a uniquely North Korean problem.

1. Person, James. ed. NKIDP Document Reader "Limits of the 'Lips and Teeth' Alliance: New Evidence on Sino-DPRK Relations, 1955-1984." March 2009.
2. Myers, B.R. The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters. Hoboken, NJ: Melville House Publishing, 2010.
3. Cha, Victor D and Kang, David C Nuclear North Korea: A Debate on Engagement Strategies. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.
4. Kwon, Seungjun. "University Students in Pyongyang Evacuate to Subway during Live Fire Practice near Yeonpyeong Island." Choson Ilbo. 24 Dec 2010. Web.
5. Schaefer, Bernd. "Overconfidence Shattered: North Korean Reunification Policy, 1971-1975." NKIDP Working Paper #2 (2010).
6. This concern was explicitly outlined in the documentary "Countdown to Zero" directed by Lucy Walker in 2010.

Yong Kwon is a Washington-based analyst of international affairs.

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

China to dump North Korea, really? (Dec 2, '10)

North Korea's desperate measures
(Jul 17, '10)

Raging against Japan's media machine

2. Death to those who disagree

3. Kim Jong-eun has Obama blinking

4. Rituals of renewal in Vietnam

5. Central banks and gold

6. China on domestic patents overdrive

7. Too many cooks spoil foreign-policy stew

8. Western skepticism at Iran's nuclear invite

9. The urge to surge: The US's 30-year high

10. Feeding China in 2030

(24 hours to 11:59pm ET, Jan 6, 2011)


All material on this website is copyright and may not be republished in any form without written permission.
© Copyright 1999 - 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings), Ltd.
Head Office: Unit B, 16/F, Li Dong Building, No. 9 Li Yuen Street East, Central, Hong Kong
Thailand Bureau: 11/13 Petchkasem Road, Hua Hin, Prachuab Kirikhan, Thailand 77110