The North Korean Conundrum | The Nation


The North Korean Conundrum

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North Korea: Another Country indicts not only the Bush policy toward North Korea but also the entire US role in Korea dating back to the US-Soviet division of the peninsula in 1945. Significantly, however, Cumings questions one of the key arguments made by some other critics of US policy: that Kim Jong Il would move toward sustained economic reforms as the result of an accommodation with Washington. "North Korea is neither muddling through toward some sort of postcommunism, the way other socialist states did after 1989," he argues, "nor is it seriously reforming like China and Vietnam.... Any kind of coordinated reform seems difficult for the regime to accomplish." In addition to the "paralysis and immobilism" resulting from warfare between bureaucratic and provincial fiefdoms, the drag of a vast party apparatus, the privileged position of the armed forces and intense generational conflict, he finds the leadership "deeply frightened by the consequences of opening up the economy."

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Selig S. Harrison
Selig S. Harrison is the author, with Diego Cordovez, of Out of Afghanistan and author of In Afghanistan's Shadow. He...

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This assessment, made with little elaboration, is challenged effectively in a detailed analysis by Professor David Kang of the Dartmouth Business School, who presents the case for accommodation in Nuclear North Korea: A Debate on Engagement Strategies, written with Victor Cha. North Korea has already come "very far" from its command economy of 1989, Kang says, citing the upsurge of private markets since the 1996 famine, a package of economic reforms enacted in July 2002, including a new pricing system, and an overall growth of the private sector in the past five years from less than 4 percent to perhaps 25 percent of the economy. Continuing signs of reform are accompanied by "growing evidence that North Korea is serious about opening to the West," notably its efforts to provide a legal framework for foreign investment. Significant reforms cannot succeed without such an opening, Kang emphasizes, and "a hardline policy of pressure and threats from the United States will not start a war but will jeopardize" the gains that have been made.

In contrast to Kang's empirically based argument, Cha is didactic, relying on doctrinaire assumptions and fancy political science jargon. An advocate of what he calls "hawk engagement," he spells out in revealing detail why the Bush Administration refuses to deal directly with North Korea and what it hopes to gain through multilateral negotiations like those recently conducted in Beijing. Rejecting Kang's contention that Kim Jong Il no longer poses a military threat and wants to open up to the West, Cha maintains that Pyongyang, desperate for a way out of a systemic crisis, is likely to use "other forms of violence short of all-out war," such as a "limited but forceful frontal assault into the South" designed to strengthen its bargaining position with Seoul. A cold war-style policy of "containment and isolation" in response to this danger, he says, might lead to an undesired war. "Conditional engagement" would be less provocative. It would "make clear to...regional powers that the U.S. [has] exhausted all efforts at cooperation" and would "rally the coalition to coerce the regime through force and economic sanctions into nonproliferation compliance and/or regime collapse." Such a policy can only succeed, he concedes, with the cooperation of China, Russia, Japan and South Korea.

"Hawk engagement," he tells us frankly, is not designed to achieve a diplomatic settlement but is rather "an exit strategy that builds a coalition for punishment," "an instrument to reveal the DPRK's true, unchanged intentions" and a way to exacerbate tensions within the North Korean elite, "contributing to possible...clashes or coup attempts that might precipitate the regime's crumbling from the top." If North Korea continues to develop its nuclear weapons program, the United States and those allies willing to help would "intercept any vessels suspected of carrying nuclear- or missile-related materials in and out of the North."

Far from building a coalition to isolate North Korea, however, "hawk engagement" is increasingly damaging US relations with China, Russia, South Korea and Japan, all of whom, to varying degrees, put much of the blame for the impasse with Pyongyang on US rigidity, as they have made clear in recent weeks. All of them are opposed to the interdiction of North Korean vessels and other coercive measures proposed by Cha, because they recognize that such muscle-flexing could trigger a chain reaction of escalation, leading to another Korean war.

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