This is a re-post of an essay I just wrote for the Lowy Institute, available here. And yes, that Godfather pic is meant to imply that I accept the last of the interpretative frameworks suggested: North Korea as a gangster racket.
The more time I spend in this field, the more I see analysts get into really sharp debates over just what North Korea ‘really’ is. The best way to de-legitimize your opponent in this area is to say you don’t understand the ‘real’ North Korea, or know what they ‘truly’ want. This can get pretty intense. And it does not help that we know so little about how North Korea is governed.
As I have listened to these fights over the years, it strikes me that there are roughly 5 major interpretations or schools. And these approaches are politicized too, not just intellectual frameworks, because they have direct implications for how South Korea and the US should respond to North Korea. For example, if you think North Korea is a rogue state gremlin ripping at the fabric of US hegemony, you are more likely to endorse tough action than if you accept leftist interpretations that US-led isolation of North Korea is what makes North Korea so dangerous.
The 5 basic interpretations are:
1. Traditionalist Conservative: North Korea as a cold war stalinist state
2. Neoconservative: NK as dangerous, unpredictable rouge state
3. Fascist: NK as a racist, national security barracks state
4. Leftist: NK as ‘Korean’ (rather than socialist or fascist), neo-Confucian,or post-colonial
5. Gangster: NK as a massive shake-down racket; mafia have overthrown the government
The full essay follows the jump.