Rogue Concepts

By Sigal, Leon V. | Harvard International Review, Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

Rogue Concepts


Sigal, Leon V., Harvard International Review


Misperceptions of North Korea

The term "rogue state" is a euphemism, another name for enemy. Rogue states with an aggressive intent in nuclear arming are alleged to be the main proliferation menace in the world. But name-calling blinds the United States to the motives of states for acquiring weapons of mass destruction (WMD). It impedes diplomatic give-and-take, the best way to probe the intentions of such states and induce them to change course. It predisposes the United States to adopt a coercive approach instead of a cooperative one in preventing the spread of nuclear arms. Rogues are criminals, after all, and the way to treat criminals is to punish them.

Yet threatening economic sanctions and military force has never succeeded in dissuading states from obtaining nuclear arms. By contrast, cooperative threat reduction has a long record of success. US reassurances and inducements have helped convince South Korea, Taiwan, Sweden, Brazil, Argentina, South Africa, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan to abandon their nuclear ambitions. Only in Iraq, Israel and Pakistan have cooperative efforts failed, although the United States chose not to dwell on evidence that Israel or Pakistan, neither of which are considered rogue states, were nuclear-arming. Branding proliferators as rogue states impedes their disarmament, and the Clinton administration decided to abandon the use of the phrase in 1995.

Administration opponents, who seem unable to decide whether they want to project hostility abroad or to flay their foe in the White House, have tried to keep the rogue state notion alive. Their rhetoric may help account for its prevalence in news media coverage of international affairs. Why scholars continue to bandy the catch phrase about, never mind make it a subject for serious discourse, is nonsensical.

Unnecessary Force

The self-defeating consequences of the rogue state notion have been evident in US dealings with North Korea since 1988. When it came to getting to know one another, it was not clear whether North Korea or the United States was more of a hermit kingdom. A pragmatic and prudent response to this uncertainty would have been to treat estimates of North Korean intentions and nuclear capabilities and intentions as crude guesses rather than as facts and to test North Korean intentions through a process of diplomatic give-and-take, such as promising specific inducements in return for steps by Pyongyang to give up nuclear arming. The US response, instead, was a series of worst-case assessments and rash policies--threats of economic coercion, even armed force--that ran an excessively high risk of war.

Why were policymakers and the experts who tried to influence them so unwilling to countenance negotiating with North Korea before reaching for their guns? For much of the US foreign-policy establishment, North Korea was a blank screen on which to project their own predispositions and prejudices. Those predispositions and prejudices were informed by the widely shared image of North Korea as a rogue state, an implacable and inimical outlaw with a master plan to deceive the world and acquire nuclear arms. Such assumptions made it an easy target for demonization.

In addition, North Korea was already an enemy. Its aggression against South Korea in June 1950 touched off a brutal civil war that led to the deaths of thousands of Americans and millions of Koreans. The peninsula is technically still at war with the DPRK; a formal peace treaty has yet to be signed.

To many, North Korea is the archetypal rogue state, and an old-fashioned communist one at that, motivated to nuclear arm by paranoid hostility to the outside world. Its one-man rule, internal regimentation, and dogmatism would alienate any freedom-loving American. North Korea's brinkmanship, nasty habit of floating concessions on a sea of threats, and harsh diatribes against the United States antagonized even the most impartial observers. …

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