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
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
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. 
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
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. 
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
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. 
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. 
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?  Is the sinking of the Cheonan
and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island an indicator of renewed North Korean
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
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
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
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.