WE ARE NOW entering the third era of miscomprehending North Korea. For 50 years, until Kim Il Sung’s death in 1994, we were stymied by his “self-reliance” (juche) republic. Then, until Kim Jong Il’s death in 2011, we were flummoxed by his son’s “military-first” (songun) Korea. Now, we are confounded by his grandson Kim Jong Un’s “dual-progress” (byungjin — standing for progress ineconomic development and nuclear capability) Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
After Kim Jong Il died, many of the West’s best analysts thought the North Korean regime, long declared a “failed state,” would soon perish. Yet there it still stands today, inscrutable and intractable as ever. Other experts expected that, even if the state muddled through, its “young and inexperienced” ruler would be overshadowed or overthrown by his powerful regents. Instead, the world’s youngest head of state has retired, demoted, or, as in the case of his uncle Jang Song-thaek, executed many of those regents, and looks to be firmly at the helm. Yet we still know frightfully little about him — tellingly, the one American who has spent much face time with Kim is an erratic former basketball star with a substance abuse problem. When Time magazine looked for an expert to profile Kim for their 100 Most Influential People in the World issue, they chose a novelist.
As former South Korean ambassador Donald Gregg says, North Korea is America’s longest running intelligence failure. And he should know, having begun his long career in the CIA during the Korean War. As former CIA director and defense secretary Bob Gates puts it, North Korea is “the toughest intelligence target in the world.” Intelligence, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and so in place of objective analysis of North Korea, we demonize it (Bush’s “axis of evil” speech), infantilize it (Obama’s likening Kim Jong Un to a child banging his “spoon on the table”), or simply wish it away (countless op-eds on “the coming collapse of North Korea”). Meanwhile we get further and further from the mark of understanding North Korea.
This chronic intelligence failure to see North Korea objectively mirrors a long-running civil war among US officials and experts over which policies should be used to deal with it. After the Cold War, North Korea policy oscillated, often dizzyingly, between antithetical methods — an engagement approach that dangled out carrots versus a sanctions approach that waved sticks in the air. Diametrically opposed means were directed at one and the same end — North Korean denuclearization. But neither approach won full consensus, and the various agencies with a knife in the fight often ended up lodging them in one another’s backs. The Pentagon, its Defense Intelligence Agency, and US Forces Korea would often see the peninsula on the brink of war, where the State Department and its Bureau of Intelligence and Research would see the situation as ripe for diplomacy. The White House, National Security Council, and CIA would shift in the winds blowing between the two poles.
Progress in negotiations would be undercut by a new round of threats or sanctions — or so advocates of engagement would say. Pressure tactics would be undermined by another deal — or so the opponents of “appeasement” would insist. Inheriting this unpleasant legacy, the Obama administration decided on a bastardization of the two strategies, which it called a “dual track” approach. “Two ruts in muddy road” might be a more apt description. Meanwhile, Washington moved further and further from the policy target of denuclearizing North Korea.
In light of this intelligence quagmire and policy paralysis, the new edition of The Two Koreas: A Contemporary History should be required reading for anyone looking for a way to climb out of the rut. Originally written by journalist Don Oberdorfer and updated by former intelligence analyst Robert Carlin (full disclosure: a friend of mine), this book’s title is a bit misleading, since it’s a contemporary history not just of North and South Korea, but also a third Korea that has existed in the minds of Americans. Starting with the division of the peninsula in 1945, along an arbitrary line (the infamous 38th parallel) chosen by a 36-year-old lieutenant colonel in the US Army, Two Koreas traces patterns of interaction between Pyongyang, Seoul, and Washington, with important cameos by the Chinese, Russians, and Japanese.
It is a tragic story, in the ancient Greek sense that few of the actors realize where events are leading, despite the warning signs. The outcomes are mostly disastrous for everyone involved. The United States is unable to stop this state, with deeply hostile international relations, from acquiring mankind’s most deadly weapon. South Korea is unable to realize the dream of a peaceful, prosperous united Korea. North Korea is unable to achieve anything more than mere survival, hobbling along as an isolated, impoverished nation perennially falling behind its dynamic neighbors. Even China loses, embarrassed and frustrated by a small ally on its border whose behavior it cannot control.
Indeed, it is not just Americans who would profit by studying the history lessons embedded in Oberdorfer and Carlin’s gripping narrative. Should the six-party talks ever reconvene, choosing pages at random from this book and reading them as a group might not be a bad way to spend the first day together, as it would make all members of the group conscious of the deeply ingrained patterns that need to be overcome for real diplomatic progress to be achieved and the tragic outcomes of the past avoided.
What cautionary lessons might future six-party delegates learn? As with all tragedies, the truths that elude the actors in the drama are almost painfully obvious to the audience, or in this case, readers of the book. Consider just two.
First simple truth: the Korean War is not over. It was only put on pause. A temporary truce — the armistice agreement — was signed by American, North Korean, and Chinese commanders in 1953. But their armistice was built to last months, not years, let alone six decades. Indeed, the armistice explicitly called for a “political conference” to be held within three months that would forge a lasting peace treaty. That conference (in Geneva) got nowhere, no treaty was ever written, no peace concluded. Although full-scale conflict has not erupted, we have come close more than once, and the terms of the armistice have been violated by both sides hundreds if not thousands of times. The amount of firepower and force arrayed along either side of the DMZ is a heartbreaking feat of staggering defense spending; if ever unleashed it could quickly kill tens or hundreds of thousands and cost billions of dollars. Each side constantly adjusts its “deterrence posture,” looking for signs of weakness in the opponent, projecting an image of total strength, and dancing right up to the red line beyond which warfare would ensue. We describe this state of affairs as “North Korean provocation.” They call it “the US hostile policy against the DPRK.” Taken together, they are mutually fulfilling prophecies of a costly cold war that continues in perpetuity.
The fact that the Korean War is not over tends to slip from view even here in Seoul, let alone in the United States. Such was not always the case. Over the decades the ROK and United States have undertaken intermittent efforts to address the root causes of conflict and division through some kind of peace process.There were even a few fleeting moments when Seoul and Washington were aligned in developing a comprehensive peace approach, and when Pyongyang was open to initiatives aimed at a “peace insuring system.” Presidents George H. W. Bush and Roh Tae-woo, for example, decided in 1991 to cancel joint US-ROK military exercises and remove all US nuclear warheads from the South, paving the way for the landmark inter-Korean nonaggression accord and denuclearization agreement. In the late 1990s, Presidents Bill Clinton and Kim Dae-jung again pushed a peace agenda forward, ushering a new era in inter-Korean economic cooperation and convening four-party talks, including the Chinese, aimed at a peace treaty.
But these windows never stayed open for long, and fingers were broken every time they shut. Oberdorfer and Carlin capture an image of the breakdown of four-party peace talks with the kind of wry humor that artfully runs throughout the book:
Procedurally awkward, and held at a time when inter-Korean relations were at their nadir, when the North Koreans could barely focus on long-term issues because of the pressing problem of the famine, and when the Chinese were still very tentative in their participating in a multiparty setting that included the two Koreas, the talks accomplished nothing. The Swiss were gracious hosts throughout, but in the end one participant observed that the croissants seemed to get smaller as the meetings bogged down.
Today, no American official uses the phrases “peace process” and “North Korea” in the same sentence. According to Obama administration policy, North Korea needs a denuclearization process, not a peace process. Alas, for Pyongyang, nuclear weapons are the insurance policy against the prospect of sudden resumption of full-scale hostility. Their nuclear deterrent, “a treasured sword,” protects the border in the absence of a peace treaty or a peace regime that truly demilitarizes the peninsula. American officials routinely express bewilderment at the North Korean insistence that it is the victim of a “hostile policy” by the world’s only superpower. They greet the notion of the United States and South Korea bombing, let alone invading, the North with utter disdain — dismissed as a product of Pyongyang’s xenophobic paranoia, or tool for domestic propaganda. But North Koreans are equally mystified that Americans would deny that they pine for peaceful collapse of the North and absorption by the South, and that Kim Jong Un’s Korea is just one contingency away from suffering the same fate of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq or Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya. Thus, as Oberdorfer and Carlin explain, Pyongyang has come to learn that the “nuclear program […] was its most valuable asset in transactions with the outside world, especially after the loss of its Soviet ally and the devaluing of its relationship with China […]. The nuclear threat proved, up to a point, to be Pyongyang’s great equalizer.”
A second simple truth gleaned from this tragic tale is that the United States is the key player in any solution to the Korea conflict. Two Koreas charts the fascinatingly sad story of America’s effort not to play the decisive role, to disengage as much as possible from Korea. Sometimes this was a noble-minded effort to give their ally in Seoul the lead role and let the Koreans work things out themselves. But more commonly the American yearning to “disassociate” was born of a deep sense that Korea consumes far more energy and attention than it is worth, given the global scope and greater urgency of other demands on US foreign policy. Compounding this strategic and pragmatic indifference is an underlying moral repulsion Americans feel in being forced to deal with a regime that seems to combine everything they despise — communism, fascism, and Confucianism rolled into one. Last but not least, there is the matter of US domestic politics — politicians know that little reward and plenty of criticism awaits anyone wading into the mire of negotiating with Pyongyang.
This brings us to one of the great tragic ironies developed in The Two Koreas. Oberdorfer and Carlin argue persuasively that what Kim Jong Il wanted more than anything in the post-Cold War period was improved relations with the United States. But the Clinton, Bush, and Obama White Houses have been blithely unaware that this was their one significant piece of leverage. As late as 2009, Kim Jong Il held out hopes for a breakthrough with Washington, until a fruitless meeting with former President Clinton, who flew to Pyongyang under strict orders from the White House to keep his interactions with Kim to the bare essentials and hurry home with two detained American journalists. This finally convinced Kim Jong Il a breakthrough was “unattainable.” By then, China was casting a larger and larger shadow over North Korea’s economy and international standing. Kim had wanted America all the more, to balance against this dependence. Yet Obama looked to Beijing to play the proactive role in place of Washington, and do the heavy lifting of pushing North Korea toward denuclearization. This was not entirely new: George W. Bush told his North Korea point man Chris Hill in 2005, “you tell the Chinese I can’t solve this — they need to solve this.” Under President Obama, this outsourcing of North Korea policy to Beijing hardened into stone, the newest form of disengagement.
Illuminating these and other tragic patterns, The Two Koreas is a masterful analysis of one of the enduring Achilles’ heels of US foreign policy. It also helps make sense of the tack taken by the Obama administration. The paradox of Obama’s North Korea policy is that it has been relatively successful in everything except the stated goal of changing North Korean behavior in the direction of denuclearization. As policy, it has been a failure, but as politics, it works. Obama’s disengagement approach, called “strategic patience,” has tamed the riotous interagency battles, public opinion polemics, and tensions between the White House and Congress over Korea, all of which plagued Clinton and Bush. Washington is more or less united — albeit around a failed policy. Because of the pervasive fatalism surrounding North Korea, it matters little that the policy doesn’t work — in a sense, the policy is to not have a policy, to not need a policy. It is a North Korea politics rather than a North Korea policy.
The Obama approach is an international political success as well, to the extent that Seoul has been happy to have Washington defer to its lead. President Obama formed a close bond with the ROK’s previous president, Lee Myung-bak, and supported Lee’s hardline posture toward the North. Lee’s successor, Park Geun-hye, takes a less hawkish stance and at least talks about resuming cooperation with the North; Washington supports that too. This is one of the pleasures of disengagement: making an ally happy. Another is that when tensions rise the United States can chide Beijing for not doing enough to restrain their client state, and imply that blame for North Korean provocation ultimately lies at Chinese feet.
The ultimate benefit of the politics of disengagement is that North Koreans themselves fade from the picture. As Obama officials repeat ad nauseam, their two rules when it comes to North Korea are “no talks for talks’ sake” and “no reward for bad behavior.” Since dialogue with the DPRK is itself defined as a “reward,” the United States will only talk to them when they are already doing what the United States wants them to do. This dispenses with the old-fashioned diplomatic notion of using dialogue as a means to get the other party to do some of the things you want them to do, in return for doing some of the things they want you to do. It doesn’t matter that the North Koreans refuse to do what the Americans want them to do, since Washington at least gets its wish of not having to sit down, talk to, listen to, and negotiate with Pyongyang. Instead of talking to North Koreans, Obama officials talk to everyone else about North Korea. Most likely this approach will persist for the remainder of the Obama presidency. But after he and the current South Korean president leave office, Kim Jong Un will probably still be there, waiting to see what their successors have to offer. Let’s hope that, by then, the lessons of The Two Koreas have managed at last to sink in.
John Delury has taught at Columbia, Brown, and Peking University.