Obama’s Pragmatism toward North Korea


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Yesterday, I participated on a panel at the South Korean Institute for National Security Strategy. The conference was entitled “Prospects for the Situation of the Korean Peninsula and the North Korean Nuclear Issue in 2010.” I think I have been to this conference already about 10 times already in the last 18 months, but if you lived next to the last and weirdest stalinist slave state, with nukes now to boot, you’d probably go over and over the topic endlessly too. My session was entitled “The US and China’s Policy toward the Korean Peninsula and North Korean Issues.” I was a discussant for Brian Myers’ paper “On the New Pragmatism of America’s North Korea Policy.” Brian teaches at Dongseo University here in Busan, and I find his work on NK increasingly persuasive. Here is his most recent intelligent op-ed in the New York Times. Here is the Korean news story on the conference; I looked like I just got punch or something…

Here are my comments on his paper:

“My read of this paper is that is broadly correct. I agree with Brian that NK is highly unlikely to ever surrender its nuclear weapons, because they are central to regime legitimacy. They are more than simply a tool of security or extortion; they are central to the regime’s raison d’etre after the collapse of communism and the decisive NK defeat in the intra-Korean competition in the last 20 years. With the global effort for communism over and defeated, and with South Korea’s obvious success, a self-evident question is why NK even exists anymore. If the East Germans gave up in the wake of communism’s failure and West Germany’s success, why does not NK also? Brian correctly notes that regime ideology has changed more openly toward militaristic nationalism, perhaps even semi-fascism, to compensate, and nuclear weapons are central to the overt nationalist/racialist mission of defending Korea against Yankee imperialism.

I have a few further comments.

1. Brian makes the intelligent observation that although President Obama has moved beyond ideology, various opponents of the United States have not. While this seems fairly obvious to the rest of the world, it comes as a surprise in Washington. The assumption of unipolarity and American dominance is so accepted by the US that the only change needed to bring change to the world is change in Washington. That is astonishing American arrogance, and speaks especially to the ridiculous expectations raised by Obama’s character – expectations which the president did a lot to build as a candidate by constantly referring to his election as the ‘start of a new era’ in history. Only Americans talk that way about the US, and Brian is right to point out that expert opinion about NK is usually in fact expert opinion about the US.

2. Brian makes the argument that Pyongyang means what it says. Northern ideology is a serious exposition of regime beliefs, not a cynical ploy. This is a controversial position, because most NK watchers, as Brian notes, believe the opposite. NK ideology is perceived as so bizarre and so obviously fraudulent – NK has never been self-reliant, e.g., despites decades of juche – that it cannot be taken seriously. As Brian notes, diplomats like Madeline Albright and journalists like Selig Harrison all act on this implicit belief.

Brian is right however to point out that dictatorships – especially right-wing ones – usually mean what they say. Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, Osama bin Laden, the mullah theocrats in Iran, various clerical fascists in Latin America, and the Taliban have all told the whole how they see it and what they wanted to change. Brian’s claim is that NK is doing the same, and that we should listen actively. In IR theory, we refer to this position as ‘second-image.’ In other words, regime beliefs overwhelm international structural pressures to determine a state’s foreign policy. That sounds correct to me and better fits the empirical record of the Kim regime than the cynical approach. Particularly the move toward song-gun, recent crackdown on marketization, and the extraordinary efforts to build and hold nuclear weapons suggest that Brian’s read is more accurate.

3. Brian’s most serious criticism is of the Western and South Korean expert or ‘epistemic community’ on NK itself. He unpacks a series of the reigning assumptions of NK kremlinology and argues that they are wrong, in some cases very badly. He also asserts that the NK has used access to it as a manner of bribery of would-be experts in the West. This is the most explosive argument of the paper, as it implies that well-known NK watchers such as Bruce Cumings or Selig Harrison have been coopted, deceived by pleasantries from Kim Jong Il, or othwerwise pull their punches in order to insure their visa. This is a pretty serious charge, but it seems like a fair concern. It is certainly a good idea from Pyongyang’s point of view. If visas and access can be used a marketing tools, why not? The USSR and Kmer Rouge did the same thing, and certainly Bruce Cumings book – North Korea: Another Country – feels awfully generous to a regime we know has killed hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of its own people in its history. By inviting experts from the West and telling them what they want to hear – that regime ideology is bunk, that the North really just wants a deal, etc – NK sows enormous uncertainty in the West between its public and private statements. But this is hardly surprising, as keeping its various opponents uncertain and confused a long-standing tactic of the regime. If Brian is correct that the regime has no concern to negotiate in bad faith, then hoodwinking experts with access and pseudo-off the record commentary makes perfect sense.

If that is the most controversial argument, I think the most rich is Brian’s argument that NK is a racist-nationalist-militarist regime. Deciphering the true ideology of NK is something of a cottage industry in the social sciences. Bruce Cumings has famously argued that NK is a neo-Confucian dictatorship. IR theorists tend to see it as the last bastion of Cold War stalinism. Neo-conservatives generally see it as a gangster/terrorist/rogue state. And Brian argues that NK is something approaching native Korean fascism. Elsewhere Brian has written that NK is extraordinarily ethnocentric, that even during the Cold War its socialist-internationalist allies perceived little internationalism at all. This ‘ontology’ of NK is a crucial debate. It would help the scholarly and policy community enormously if the expert community on NK could resolve this internal ideology question.”

3 thoughts on “Obama’s Pragmatism toward North Korea

  1. I think I have been to this conference already about 10 times already in the last 18 months, but if you lived next to the last and weirdest stalinist slave state, with nukes now to boot, you’d probably go over and over the topic endlessly too.

    Hilarious and true.

  2. Very interesting read. I like the idea that statements about US expert opinion about NK is really US expert opinion about the US (as it usually is I suppose).

    One question: How do you square the idea that NK says what it means and means what it says with the idea that it hoodwinks and deceives usefully game westerners who seek access?

  3. Pingback: 2010 Predictions for Korea on the Radio « Asian Security & US Politics Blog

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