Turbulent Relations: Redirecting US Foreign Policy towards North Korea

By Park, Christopher Lim | Harvard International Review, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

Turbulent Relations: Redirecting US Foreign Policy towards North Korea


Park, Christopher Lim, Harvard International Review


CHRISTOPHER LIM PARK, Staff Writer, Harvard International Review

Kim Jong-Il's election as General Secretary of the Korean Worker's Party on October 8, 1997, was marked by festive pageantry which included swimmers performing "Cheers All Over the World." Despite the "Dear Leader's" absence, the festivities continued and appeared bizarre against the backdrop of a nation which has suffered over two million deaths from starvation in the past year. This form of contrast has heavily influenced US foreign policy toward the peninsula. Although penetrating the starving country's borders has proven to be difficult, North Korea remains a vital part of any future peace prospects for the region, and thus the role of US diplomacy in the region must be carefully considered.

To date, the Clinton administration has been lethargic in its relations with North Korea. The United States has hesitated on this issue in part due to its divergent goals, which include neutralization of the nuclear threat, the establishment of a democratic government, and respect for human rights. Such varied goals need to be incorporated into a more cohesive policy. The North Korean nuclear threat, its historic hostility and tension with South Korea, and the Chinese presence looming over the region pose a daunting challenge to US policy. A more cohesive foreign policy that deals with these complexities while at the same time engaging North Korea instead of excluding it would be more beneficial to both countries. Most importantly, the United States should help North Korea reenter the international community. North Korea's pariah status is unmerited and fails to serve US interests.

Internal Turmoil

As a pariah state on the fringe of the international community, North Korea is struggling to reconcile its goal of increased international interaction with its fear and wariness of the very wealthy nations whose cooperation it sorely needs. Consequently, the country is in turmoil, ravaged by a persistent famine that threatens roughly 5 million of the country's 24 million people with starvation. North Korea is facing a shortfall of 1.5-2 million tons of cereal for 1998 alone. North Korea's insistence on suffocating individual liberties compounds the situation. The South Korean National Unification Ministry claims that North Korea is holding over 200,000 political prisoners in 12 prison camps. Moreover, the North's government is posing more than an insular threat, as shown by its stubborn insistence on maintaining nuclear weapons capability and its expressed desire to absorb the South. Despite the 1994 Geneva Framework Agreement which froze North Korea's nuclear weapons project, the nuclear threat remains a thorn in the side of the United States in its relations with the peninsula.

Thus, North Korea appears to be a feeble, paranoid country whose actions repulse international inclusion as much as its weaknesses desperately require it. The misinterpretation of North Korea's actions as irrational policy, however, is largely responsible for the hostility between North Korea and the rest of the world community. A Western diplomat, for example, recently asserted, "You can compare [North Korea's diplomacy] to a man who goes into a bank with dynamite strapped to his body and says, `Give me your money or I'll blow myself up."' While not always this extreme, the United States has historically presumed that North Korea acts irrationally. Indeed, it is true that the nation's record of repeated terrorist attacks against the South and its excessive protection of its "sovereignty" render the country seemingly irrational to outside observers. However, these characterizations ignore the intent of North Korean diplomacy.

Intended Diplomacy

The fear that pervades North Korean policy is borne out of recognition of its own weaknesses and inability to provide for itself. The Kim Jong-Il regime is likely looking for what one scholar calls a "soft-authoritarian" model of reconciliation with the South, in which economic reform is embraced more quickly than social change. …

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