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The North Korean Conundrum | The Nation

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The North Korean Conundrum

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In the prevailing American stereotype, North Korea is a failing Stalinist dictatorship held together only by the ruthless repression of a mad ruler who dreams of firing nuclear weapons at Los Angeles. Sooner or later, in this imagery, the Kim Jong Il regime, strangled in its Communist straitjacket, will crumble economically, and the only issue is whether its collapse will come in the form of an implosion or an explosion.

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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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For George W. Bush, who says he "loathes" Kim Jong Il and wants to "topple" his regime, the assumption that Kim's power rests solely on repression has shaped the current US policy response to the much-discussed North Korean nuclear weapons program. Given patience and enough pressure on Pyongyang, Bush and his advisers appear to believe, the Kim regime will fall. Thus, it is neither necessary nor desirable to reward Kim for denuclearization with economic quid pro quos and security assurances that would merely help to keep him afloat.

What accounts for the emotional intensity of the Bush Administration's desire for "regime change" in Pyongyang? More broadly, does the conventional wisdom in the United States about the nature of the North Korean system, reflected in US policy, rest on an informed assessment of what enables Kim to survive?

The President's own explanation is that Kim is loathsome because he presides over an Orwellian totalitarian system. But one can agree that the North Korean system is indeed Orwellian while disputing the wisdom of a policy of confrontation. Moreover, there are other reasons why Pyongyang is demonized in Administration policy. North Korea challenges two American articles of faith: that the United States is entitled to be treated with deference as the "only superpower," and that Western-style democracy, together with economic globalization based on market principles, is now the natural, universal order of things.

Pyongyang refuses to defer to the United States and seeks to deal with Washington on a basis of sovereign equality despite its inferior power position. Although eager to obtain foreign capital and technology, it is seeking to do so selectively, on its own terms, resisting pressure for wholesale political and economic reforms, all at once, that might weaken the control of the Korean Workers Party regime. Above all, what exasperates many Americans about North Korea, no doubt including the President, is the very fact that it continues to exist at all and has not gone the way of the Soviet Union and the Eastern European Communist states, thus finally confirming the ideological victory of the West in the cold war.

Media coverage of the nuclear negotiations with North Korea generally places Pyongyang in the position of the defendant at the bar in a judicial proceeding, with the United States in the role of judge, jury and executioner. Rarely does a journalist go beyond what is spoon-fed at State Department or White House briefings to examine the assumptions underlying US policy or make a serious effort to present the North Korean side of the story. This is partly because North Korea often smothers its position in a flood of crude anti-imperialist rhetoric that is painful to wade through and difficult to evaluate even for the journalist seeking to be objective. But it is also because most journalists facing a deadline are not given the time necessary to seek out elusive North Korean diplomats, or to read books about North Korea.

In any case, even if they did do their homework, much of the literature on North Korea has until recently reinforced simplistic, negative stereotypes. Most of the authors writing about North Korea have never been there and have had to base their assessments on interviews with defectors who were generally beholden, during the cold war, to South Korean intelligence agencies, or by working within the parameters defined by North Korea's propaganda output, much as Kremlinologists did in earlier decades. One of the more carefully researched books of this genre--North Korea Through the Looking Glass, by Kongdan Oh and Ralph Hassig--advertised its limitations with its title.

The media hype generated by the nuclear negotiations has now led to a spate of new books about North Korea and how to deal with it. Two of these, North Korea: Another Country, by Bruce Cumings, and The North Korean Revolution: 1945-1950, by Charles K. Armstrong, make powerfully clear why the Kim regime is not on the verge of collapse.

Cumings, the doyen of US historians of contemporary Korea, is best known for his definitive two-volume study of the origins of the Korean War. To understand the nationalistic ethos that gives North Korea its political cohesion and staying power, he writes, it is necessary to recognize the traumatic impact of the US role in the war. In September 1950, Harry Truman made his fateful decision to enlarge the conflict, even though North Korean forces had been successfully pushed out of South Korea. The proper response to North Korean aggression, Cumings argues, would have been to "reestablish the 38th Parallel and claim a victory for the containment doctrine." Instead, Truman and Dean Acheson "decided to transform their undeclared war into a campaign to liberate North Korea."

American soldiers marched northward toward the Yalu River border with China, provoking Chinese intervention, and the US Air Force rained destruction on North Korea until the armistice was concluded, in 1953. To escape from American planes, any one of which, in North Korean eyes, might have dropped an atomic bomb, most of the population lived and worked in hastily excavated underground caverns complete with their own schools, hospitals and small factories. The South suffered brutal but relatively brief anguish from air attacks during the latter part of 1950, with Pyongyang using little close air support in its operations there. The North, by contrast, endured three years of heavy US bombing in addition to the Yalu offensive. This unremitting assault from the air, plus a bloody US-South Korean occupation, left a deeply rooted siege mentality in the North that persists today.

Appealing for support in the name of a continuing US threat, North Korean leaders point to the many reminders that the Korean War is not yet over: the maintenance of most of the economic sanctions imposed during the war; the presence of US forces in the South, still operating under the same UN command structure used during the war; and above all, the legal reality that the armistice has not been transformed into a peace treaty.

It was John Foster Dulles's threat of using nuclear weapons that broke the impasse in the armistice negotiations, Cumings reminds us, and in the decades thereafter the United States "has consistently based its deterrence on threats to use them...in Korea," threats backed up by the presence of US tactical nuclear weapons in the South until 1991. The invasion of Iraq and the explicit US assertion of the right to take pre-emptive military action elaborated in the Bush Administration's National Security Strategy of September 17, 2002, is progressively hardening support within North Korea for nuclear weapons--not to strike Los Angeles, which would invite US retaliation, but to deter a US attack.

Many Western historians writing about North Korea during the cold war depicted Kim Jong Il's father, the late Kim Il Sung, as a supine puppet installed by Soviet forces, likened the new North Korean state to Eastern European Communist satellites and belittled North Korean accounts of Kim Il Sung's role as a guerrilla hero who fought Japanese forces in Manchuria during the Korean anticolonial struggle.

Cumings shows that Kim did in fact earn legitimacy as "a classic Robin Hood figure" who helped poor Korean farmers in the Kapsan area bordering Manchuria during the Japanese colonial period and as a fervent nationalist who led guerrilla attacks against Japanese forces in southern and southeastern Manchuria from 1933 to 1940. His extensive citations from the latest scholarly research include recently unearthed Japanese intelligence reports describing Kim as the "most famous" and a "particularly popular" leader of Korean émigrés in Manchuria, with "a great reputation and a high position," a "Korean hero" in the struggle against Japan.

As for Kim's installation by Soviet forces, Cumings establishes that the Russians had "no clear-cut plan or predetermined course of action" during the early months of the occupation and had someone else in mind to head the new Pyongyang regime. However, precisely because Kim had such a tight-knit following among the guerrilla cohort who had fought with him in Manchuria, "after the guerrillas returned, they pushed [him] forward as first among equals." Kim was no mere stooge of the Russians, in short, and he began playing off Moscow and Beijing against each other to suit Korean nationalist purposes as soon as Soviet forces departed.

Charles K. Armstrong demolishes the analogy between North Korea and the erstwhile Communist regimes of Eastern Europe with incontestable evidence drawn from 1.6 million pages of declassified North Korean documents captured during the Korean War.

Instead of "working through a small, elite vanguard party in the typical Leninist fashion" exemplified in Eastern Europe, Armstrong shows, Kim Il Sung built a "powerful support base...among the poor and marginal elements of [Korean] society," especially the poor peasant majority, workers and women, as he had done in mobilizing popular resistance in Manchuria. During Japanese colonial rule, the number of landless farm laborers had multiplied. Rapacious landlords oppressed their tenant farmers, who were forced to pay crushing rents that often exceeded 60 percent of their total crop and lived on a bare subsistence diet. In March 1946, just a month after emerging as the leader of the Provisional People's Committee, which later evolved into the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), Kim Il Sung pushed through sweeping land reforms that gave the Workers Party its strong rural foundations.

Although the new state initially called itself Communist, Communism in Korea was soon "absorbed and transformed" by the hierarchical structure and Confucian social values that had characterized Korea over the centuries. "Communism took root in North Korea," Armstrong concludes, precisely because Korean society was so conservative. On the one hand, "the possibility of breaking down old hierarchies was deeply attractive to many at the bottom of the social ladder," while at the same time, Korea's Confucian heritage enabled Kim Il Sung to create "new hierarchical structures even more rigid than the old, and just as resistant to change." Or, as a South Korean scholar cited by Cumings puts it, North Korea became "a new Confucian society or family-state that is well integrated as an extension of filial piety, expressed through strong loyalty to its leader."

"An odd aspect of the DPRK's belief in the family as the core unit of society," Cumings observes, is that prisoners are generally sent to labor camps together with their families, and mutual family support enables many to survive the ordeal. Cumings does not minimize the ugly horror of North Korea's gulag. Indeed, he accepts the higher estimates of the number of prisoners, citing a South Korean intelligence figure of 150,000, half criminals and half political cases. The gulag symbolizes the dark side of a repressive system that stifles unrest resulting primarily from continuing economic failures, especially in agriculture. Although only 14 percent of North Korea's mountainous terrain is arable, the government has made matters worse with collective farming; the floods of 1995 and 1996 led to near-famine conditions in many provinces. As the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has observed, "The best metaphor for North Korea is the medieval church. Much of the population consists of genuine believers, and no one pays enormous attention to the minority of heretics who are tortured and killed, the way witches or Christians of a dissident sect were killed during the Middle Ages."

Like most advocates of accommodation with Pyongyang, Cumings suggests that external pressure on the Kim regime will only reinforce internal repression and delay the liberalizing trends now being stimulated by growing contacts with the outside world.

Both Armstrong and Cumings present evidence relevant to the current policy debate about how to deal with North Korea. But Armstrong's book is specialized academic fare, too rigorous and detailed for the general reader. Cumings, by contrast, resting on his long-established scholarly laurels, writes in a lively, readable, argumentative, often delightfully irreverent style. His book should be read by anyone seriously interested in an authoritative antidote to the bias and superficiality in most of what is written about North Korea.

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."

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.

If John Kerry is elected and reshapes Korea policy next January, he should carefully consider some of the ideas in Crisis on the Korean Peninsula: How to Deal With a Nuclear North Korea. Michael O'Hanlon and Mike Mochizuki propose a "grand bargain" in which North Korea would get $2 billion in aid per year for a decade, mostly from Japan but including some $300 million from the United States. In return, it would agree to complete and verifiable denuclearization over "a course of years"; an end to the testing, production, deployment and export of medium- and long-range missiles; and sweeping cuts of at least 50 percent in all major types of its heavy weaponry, as part of a broad arms control agreement in which the United States and South Korea would also cut their conventional forces in Korea.

O'Hanlon and Mochizuki's arms control proposal is their most valuable contribution, though the terms suggested would have to be modified to make the deal equitable and acceptable to North Korea. For example, it is the qualitative superiority of US air power based in Korea that makes North Korea vulnerable to a US pre-emptive attack, and explains its massive forward deployment of tanks and artillery as a deterrent. Yet the proposed cuts in aircraft are frankly designed to retain this superiority. "For allied forces," they suggest, "the net loss in capability as a result of the arms control proposal would be less in percentage terms" than that of the North. This is calculated to make their proposal more palatable to the Pentagon, but it makes it a nonstarter in Pyongyang.

As described by O'Hanlon and Mochizuki, their "grand bargain" goes beyond "carrots and sticks" to what they call "steaks and sledgehammers." But this approach is simply a new and more sophisticated variant of US efforts for the past decade to use the normalization of relations with Pyongyang as a reward for the cessation of its nuclear program. After repeated failures, it is clearly time to reassess this approach, which is what John Feffer does in his lucid, hard-hitting overview, North Korea, South Korea: U.S. Policy at a Time of Crisis. Feffer visited both North Korea and South Korea frequently and represented the American Friends Service Committee in Northeast Asia. He has produced a perceptive, gracefully written book placing the nuclear crisis in a broader policy perspective that embraces the peninsula as a whole, all in 173 easily digestible pages.

The United States should uncouple normalization and denuclearization, Feffer concludes, and "immediately begin the process of establishing diplomatic relations with North Korea. Rather than a bargaining chip, normalized relations thus become a framework for addressing all outstanding U.S.-North Korean issues." My own visits to North Korea, eight since 1972, support his view that "North Korea will not likely feel secure enough to relinquish its nuclear deterrent if it forever remains an outlier, and normalization is an important step toward a future in which North Korea is unlikely to use whatever weapons of destruction it possesses." The idea of uncoupling the nuclear issue from normalization has also been suggested by an influential Japanese security expert, Masashi Nishihara, director of the National Defense Academy in Tokyo.

With six other Americans, including two former US ambassadors to South Korea, I recently participated in a three-day dialogue with a high-level North Korean delegation headed by Jo Sung Ju, American Affairs director in the Foreign Ministry. Repeatedly, the North Koreans emphasized that "coexistence" is the key to resolving the nuclear crisis. What North Korea wants above all, they said, is a formal security guarantee that would not only revoke the threat of a pre-emptive US attack but would also pledge to "respect the sovereignty" of North Korea by abandoning the often-stated goal of regime change.

"Why would we need nuclear weapons if we no longer feel threatened?" asked one. "Why would we give up our right to have them if you keep talking about regime change? It's as simple as that."

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