Realism and U.S. Foreign Policy toward North Korea: The Clinton and Bush Administrations in Comparative Perspective

By Hwang, Jihwan | World Affairs, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

Realism and U.S. Foreign Policy toward North Korea: The Clinton and Bush Administrations in Comparative Perspective


Hwang, Jihwan, World Affairs


Many people believe that there is a fundamental difference between the Clinton and Bush administrations in terms of the perceptions of the North Korean regime. This perception gap, in turn, explains the divergent foreign policies of the two administrations. Indeed, the Bush administration appears to consider North Korea as a reckless and aggressive expansionist state with which the United States will be unable to negotiate and achieve a satisfactory result. As a result, the Bush administration believes that the United States should adopt a hawkish policy and should punish North Korea's rogue behavior. In contrast, the Clinton administration did not seem to view North Korea as an irrational revisionist state, despite its rogue behavior, but felt that North Korea could be understood through the security dilemma. Thus, engagement with negotiation often was the best policy for the North Korean threat.

President George W. Bush's view of North Korea clearly demonstrates a hawkish view. In his 2002 State of the Union address, Bush announced that North Korea forms an "axis of evil" with Iraq and Iran. He said:

   [S]ome of these regimes have been pretty quiet
   since September the 11th. But we know their
   true nature. North Korea is a regime arming
   with missiles and weapons of mass destruction,
   while starving its citizens....  States like these,
   and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of
   evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world. (1)

President Bush harbors a deep animus especially toward Kim Jong-il. (2) Bush also does not trust North Korea's self-described peaceful intentions. He stated this to South Korean president Kim Dae-jung in March 2001 and emphasized the need for a realistic view of North Korea and its leader. He said, "I do have some skepticism about the leader of North Korea.... I am concerned about the fact that the North Koreans are shipping weapons around the world.... There's no question in my mind that the President of the Republic of Korea is a realist." In fact, Bush has been somewhat skeptical of South Korea's "sunshine" policy, President Kim's engagement policy toward North Korea, and has strongly emphasized a pragmatic and realistic approach in dealing with North Korea. At the summit, Bush wanted the South Korean president to be under no illusions, to take a realistic view of Kim Jong-il, and to be certain that North Korea acts according to the terms of all agreements, because Bush is skeptical about "whether or not we can verify an agreement in a country that doesn't enjoy the freedoms that our two countries understand and doesn't have the free press like we have here in America." (3) Bush has stressed that he will deal with North Korea in the context of a comprehensive approach, which will test North Korea's true intentions and the seriousness of its desire for improved relations, that is, whether North Korea responds affirmatively and takes the appropriate action. (4)

Most officials in the Bush administration also are skeptical about whether North Korea can be induced to cooperate. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld remarked that North Korean leaders are "idiotic" and discussed the possibility of war and regime change. (5) National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice also said that the North Korean regime is malign and has little to gain and everything to lose from engagement in the international economy. (6) Many administration officials acknowledge that diplomacy may help, but they believe that the real value of the engagement policy is to test North Korea's true and malevolent intentions, which include not only the desire to develop weapons of mass destruction but also the ultimate intention to overthrow South Korea and reunify the Korean peninsula under communist rule. (7) Administration officials believe that the engagement policy would only expose North Korea's true nature and provide legitimacy for punitive action. Because North Korea is still "evil. …

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